An Oklahoma non-profit is home to America's second-largest herd of Asian elephants. This Christmas, the non-profit is letting families celebrate with the animals!
The Endangered Ark Foundation (EAF) in Hugo is home to more than a dozen Asian elephants. The gentle giants are unique in that they're retired circus animals.
EAF was started in 1993 by Kristin Parra's grandparents.
"They just love their elephants so much and wanted to provide them a home where they would have a place to retire," she said. Her family has been involved with different circuses for a few generations.
However, Kristin spends her time at EAF instead of traveling around the country and has done so for several years. She wanted to clarify that the EAF and circuses are not connected.
"[The elephants] have actually had a great life. They get to see different places and meet new people just like we do."
Even though the non-profit first started 28 years ago, this is the first year for what organizers are calling Holiday in the Ark.
"We wanted something exciting, something to do for the holidays, and what better place than to come down and see elephants and be in the Christmas spirit, you know?"
When visitors first pull up to the blue and yellow striped big top just south of downtown Hugo, they can see some of the elephants roaming around the non-profit's many acres.
"Yeah, it's one of the best-kept secrets of Oklahoma," said Armando Loyal with the Endangered Ark Foundation. Besides taking care of the animals, Armando is playing Santa at this year's event.
"You think [that] they're going to be excited to see Santa, but most of the kids are looking at the elephants like, 'Oh my goodness! It's elephants!"
16 elephants currently live at EAF, but the facility can house up to 25. The animals are used to being around children due to their history with the circus.
"All our elephants have been in the herd since kids and grew up around people and children," added Armando. "Everybody that's been here has been crazy ecstatic over it."
The town of Hugo is known as Circus City USA because of its history with the circus. For more than 50 years, different circuses would stay in the small town just nine miles north of the Texas border during the winter. If you visit, you can still see a few trailers and wagons parked around the town of about 5,000 people.
Besides meeting the elephants, which is the highlight of the visit, families can get a photo with the Grinch and Elsa, take a pony ride, visit the Polar Express, and take in a dazzling display of lights.
The big top is divided into different sections. Upon arrival, kids are given passports that they can take around to each station to get stamped.
"I love elephants, and I'm amazed because elephants are my favorite thing," said a young girl named Quinn who was visiting with her family from North Texas. Her dad said elephants are her favorite animals, and they wanted to visit Holiday in the Ark so Quinn could interact with them.
Holiday in the Ark runs until December 19. However, it's only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Money raised through ticket sales go back to the elephants to help pay for their care. Organizers recommend buying your tickets ahead of time online.
"We feel you get to truly fall in love with them. You've got to meet them to be able to get up close to them. We're privileged to be able to provide that," said Kristin.
For more information or to purchase tickets, CLICK HERE.