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The town of Hugo, Okla. shrivels in the sun like a dead tumbleweed. The time-temperature clock over the Citizen's Bank registers 102� at 1:02 p.m. At the Chamber of Commerce, an out-of-date census report languishing in a wall rack gives Hugo's population as 6,900.
Add now to this inaccurate number two Indian elephants, only 16 months in captivity, who have run away from a circus to the Hugo Lake Reservoir, bringing the population to 6,902. The new residents of Hugo, who have been roaming the woods for the past three weeks, were formerly members of the Carson and Barnes Circus. With three other elephants, they were on their way to perform with a circus in Mexico City when they escaped, touching off an elephant hunt of highly comic proportions.
It should be difficult not to notice two elephants escaping, but only a handful of people saw them skedaddle. One was their handler, known only as Wade. Another was truck driver Dixie Loter, a hefty redhaired woman who does not bother to explain why she made a career out of driving a truckful of elephants. "I do what Mr. Miller tells me," is all she will say. Doris Richard Miller, who understandably prefers to be known as D. R. Miller, owns the circus and the elephants. The latter are valued at $10,000 each, and he would like to have them back.
Their names are Lilly and Isa, and they are five or six years old, still infants in elephant terms, for they will not reach maturity until age 25. They stand about 4� feet high and weigh only 1,500 pounds, elephantine featherweights. Lilly and Isa took leave of the circus on the grounds of its winter headquarters in Hugo, having stopped there en route from Minneapolis where the Carson and Barnes Circus was playing. After the elephants left the truck, a load of steel poles was dumped with such a clatter that three of the elephants stampeded. One was quickly recovered, but Lilly and Isa made it into the 26,000 acres of woodland.
Hugo Lake, with its 110 miles of shoreline, is surrounded by dense bottomland hardwood. It is, says a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, an old hickory type of forest, its trees of the broad-leaf variety. "You could miss someone, even an elephant, standing 25 feet away." Poison oak and bois d'arc—a bush with long, sharp thorns—discourage exploration, and the area is notorious for copperheads, water moccasins and rattlesnakes.
In spite of such detractions, when the Hugo Daily News announced two days after the disappearance that a reward of $150 was being offered by the circus to anyone spotting the runaways, the town was invaded by instant white hunters on horses and in dune buggies and airplanes. Cars crawled up and down dirt roads, their occupants peering into the brush. Motorcycles scrambled around treacherous trails, the riders looking for clues. The only official search party was Sheriff James Buchanan's 11-man posse, and for the first few days it turned up virtually nothing.
Nearly 2 tons of elephant had vanished without a trace. Trumpeted The Daily Oklahoman (the only thing around that was trumpeting): ELUSIVE ELEPHANTS SEND HUGO ON JUMBO SAFARI. Changing his tactics, the sheriff took his men to a trail that turned north off Highway 70, then west once in the woods. Crossing Dry Creek, they saw elephant droppings, a trampled barbed-wire fence, signs of wallowing and trees from which the bark had been rubbed off. The sheriff was greatly cheered, even though his phone was "ringing itself off the wall" with people calling in rumors of sightings, suggestions and insults.
How could anyone not find one elephant, much less two? Many calls came from out-of-towners who had never seen the density of the woods at Hugo, and the amiable, soft-spoken sheriff quietly and doggedly went on with his search, even ignoring a wooden sign that suddenly appeared on a shoulder off Highway 70, its message scrawled in red paint: CAUTION ELPHANT CROSSING. Two days later another prankster doodled floppy ears over a steer's horns on an official form used for reporting lost or stolen cattle, sketched in a trunk and sent it to the Cattlemen's Association in Oklahoma City. "It is definitely the first missing-elephant report we have ever received," said an association spokesman.
Walter White, president of Hugo's Chamber of Commerce, complained that the elephants were getting more attention than the upcoming election of a new Indian chief of the Choctaw Nation or the upcoming Bluegrass Festival, which was offering barbecued armadillo, fried possum, snake steaks, nature dancing, snake dancing, rain dancing and all-day fiddling and guitar playing. He further said he had heard that two cowboys on horseback actually saw the elephants, chased them and tried to "bulldog them down" by grabbing their ears.
The two cowboys turned out to be an Assembly of God preacher without a church, named Gerald Burton, and a cattleman, Glen Stanfield. They allowed they had tracked the animals for four days and "jumped them" in the bush.