A circus kind of life

Emma Dejong

Heather Cone chose a life of adventure when she decided to make a change and leave SDSU to join the circus.

Heather Cone stood in the middle of a field of tall grass in San Francisco, Calif. — she, and dozens of horses and elephants.  It was 1 a.m.

“It was beautiful, and it smelled great because the horses were stomping on the fennel leaves. And the stars were out because it was dark,” she said. “But there was something nearby that was spooking everything.”

A truck in the back turned its lights on, scaring all the animals. Ali, one of the horses, got loose and ran through the tall grass, lit up by the truck’s lights.

“He was just silhouetted just rearing up,” Cone said. “I was like, ‘Ahh, that’s so beautiful.’ Then he comes down and bolts right toward me.”

She hastily grabbed his lead, but not before the elephants were spooked.

“I had never heard elephants sound this way before,” she said. “I mean it was like Godzilla in the middle of this grass field.”

Finally, though, she and one other person were able get each animal back into a line, and they “just kind of stood there for about 10 minutes to calm everything down,” she said.

This is the kind of work Cone does to make a living. But it’s more than a day job — it’s a lifestyle.

In August, she was hired as a horse trainer for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. So far, the former SDSU student has traveled to cities in California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, all on the circus train.

Life on the tracks

The view out her window never gets old. The train stays at one location for a couple weeks and then it’s off again.

“It’s definitely a gypsy lifestyle,” Cone said. “… The train starts rolling. You see all the different small towns along the way, and everyone’s stopping to wave.”

Anything and everything is packed away, with the exception of the performance auditorium. This includes Cone’s living quarters and her possessions. As far as space goes, she was quick to say her room is much smaller than the SDSU residence hall rooms.

“I was deceived,” she said. “I was told I would have half a car, which I thought would be pretty cool.”

But, she doesn’t complain.

“Trying to live in a small space makes you realize what you really need in life,” she said. “It’s not a whole lot of stuff.”

One train car has 10 people in it, with two toilets and two showers to share. Each room has a foldable bed to become a table with seats, as well as a small kitchen counter, refrigerator, sink and cupboards.

Cone and her neighbors have a nickname for the rooms.

“They call them coffins,” she said. “The little person next to me calls our rooms a coffin, and she’s frickin’ small.”

Cone said she doesn’t need much space in her room because she likes being outside. One of her favorite things to do is sit outside the car with a cup of coffee.

“Sometimes I get a book, but then I look out, and I’m just like, ‘But there’s so much stuff to look at,’” she said.

Sometimes it’s people’s pet birds flying around that she looks at, and sometimes it’s the circus kids playing games.

Many of the performers and workers have been with the circus many years, so some have families. Cone said there is a nursery for infants, and 15 or 20 kids attend “circus schools.”

“They do their studying and then go out in the hall and juggle,” she said.

It’s not just the people with spouses and children who have someone to depend on, though. Cone said in the circus, “it’s a big family.” She mentioned the cookouts they do together.

“So the grandmother of this friend of mine, she doesn’t speak a whole lot of English, but she makes pickled cactus,” she said.

As a worker, Cone said she is paid $350 per week, and rent on the train is $1 per day. Food is not free, but for Cone, it’s different.

“Usually women end up getting free meals anyway,” she said. “There’s always free meals because [men] always want to take you out to dinner.”

As far as money goes, Cone said she’s pretty well off.

“You have to think, you’re traveling the country for free,” she said. “It’s got its perks.”

Perks for a horse lover

Cone spends six to 10 hours each day working with the animals, except for Sundays when the hours are longer because of the multiple performances.

She has been around horses her whole life, and even at SDSU she worked at the horse unit.

“So when they said they wanted me to work with the circus, I was like, ‘Perfect. That’s what I want to do,’” she said.

Cone had two Arabian horses to train: Mustafa and Habib.

“That was an honor,” she said. “Not everyone gets horses to train.”

The training involves doing tricks, practicing lunging and running in a full circle.

“So basically it’s glorified round penning,” she said.

Cone is also in charge of guiding the tigers and elephants on and off the train.

“They’re cared for well,” she said. “They’re fed well. They’re walked. If it’s too long a train ride, we stop the train and get all the animals out to walk them … The zebras, they get really stressed out on the trains, and they need time to stop.”

Before she joined, Cone had reservations about animals performing in the circus because she is “a big animal rights person.”

“Captivity is something you have to question,” she said. “This is something I question everyday: Is it right for elephants to be trapped? Or should they be free?”

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has had issues with the Ringling Brothers circus for years. It even created a website: www.ringlingbeatsanimals.com.

“We deal with PETA a lot,” Cone said. “But they make a lot of false accusations. And unless you’re actually in with the animals and living with them, you don’t know what goes on. So, it’s just a different lifestyle for them.”

Working with circus animals does not come without bizarre stories. Cone mainly works with the horses, but on occasion she has interacted with the tigers.

“The second week I was there, I went into the tiger cages with this old guy named Roger,” she said. “He’s the main trainer of the tigers.”

Twenty-three tigers were sleeping in their cages, which Roger saw as an opportunity.

“He’s like, ‘Let’s go in,’” Cone said.

So they went in, but the tigers woke up.

“You know how a cat gives a hug – like puts its paw up on you?” Cone said. “Well it did that to me.”

“But its paws are so heavy; you can feel is claws. Then it got its face up in my face.”

Roger had no trace of fear.

“Roger was like, ‘Well you’re right there. Just kiss it,’” she said.

“So then I kissed the tiger.”

It’s an experience Cone likes to talk about, but she won’t do it again.

“[It was] probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, but it was an adrenaline rush for sure,” she said.

Own set of rules

Cone left at the beginning of October to take a break from the circus. She did not go into detail about her employers’ reactions.

“That was a weird situation, and so I had to go,” she said. “They didn’t throw my stuff off the train, basically.”

She said, it is not unheard of.

“They do do that, though,” she said. “If people don’t behave, they call it red lining.”

She spoke of a time when a man was accused of hurting a woman.

“The cardinal rule in the circus is you don’t lay a finger on a lady,” she said.

Cone heard he was booted off the train near Bakersfield, Calif.

“It was in the middle of the night, and the train didn’t slow down or anything,” she said. “… I was really concerned about the person.”

It is not a story that Cone described as charming.

“So then you get to see a side of the circus that you hear about,” she said. “… They have their own set of rules.”

For protection, Cone is part of the Teamsters Union, the labor union at the circus.

“If anything is difficult in the circus, we go to our union leader and he takes care of it, in probably more ways than one.”

Again, she subtly mentioned what the public does not see.

“The circus has their own rules,” she said. “It’s really interesting.”

Letting life flow

Cone said “it didn’t faze anybody when I told them I’m working for the circus.”

“I’ve always had weird jobs for sure,” she said. “Nothing normal except for the past couple years when I’ve done retail work, which I absolutely hated.”

She is open to staying with the circus for a while, but she also has other things on her mind, including studying alternative medicine and earning her pilots license.

She listed several other experiences, like visiting Europe and studying fine arts at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Wash.

“I just follow a path, and it seems to be the right one,” she said.

Her recent path led to a pet dog.

She recently visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where she helped build palette houses for Chief Red Cloud’s granddaughter, Cone said.

“This little creature came around the corner with the rest of them,” she said, gesturing at an all-white puppy — part-dog, part-wolf. “It liked me and just followed me everywhere. … All the other ones were spoken for, and this one was kind of spoken for, but the granddaughter gave her to me because she said she thought we had a spiritual connection.”

She said the circus may not allow her to return with a pet, but that doesn’t worry her, because she plans to just “let life flow.”

“So her name is River, and she will be my deciding factor in the circus.”

Cone is currently working on an autobiography, which fills “seven big journals,” all handwritten.

“My life is a series for sure,” she said. “This is just a part of it.”