No joke -- Huntington partners actually ‘running off with circus’

Lori VanOver (left) nuzzles Cash the camel as Evan Wall holds the animal’s harness. A pie-in-the-sky conversation between VanOver and Wall quickly became reality, and the two now share ownership of five camels and seven ponies.
Lori VanOver (left) nuzzles Cash the camel as Evan Wall holds the animal’s harness. A pie-in-the-sky conversation between VanOver and Wall quickly became reality, and the two now share ownership of five camels and seven ponies. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Feb. 1, 2016.

Evan Wall is on his way from Huntington to Florida, pulling a gargantuan trailer filled with five camels and seven ponies.

He and his crew — including his dad, Tom Wall, and friends Michelle Amor and Rocky Mills — will meet up in Florida with business partner Lori VanOver, who’s bringing along her mom, Joan Keefer, and friend Mary Stein.

Then they’ll join the circus.

“It’s been Evan’s dream to run off with the circus,” VanOver jokes.

That wasn’t quite the dream, but that’s what the dream has morphed into.

It all started a couple of months ago, when Wall and VanOver happened to be lunching at the same downtown Huntington restaurant.

Wall, who bought a camel when he was just 12 and kept it as a pet until the animal died a couple of years ago, told VanOver, who worked as a zookeeper in Philadelphia until becoming Huntington County’s animal control officer in 2003, about his dream of owning a petting zoo with camels.

VanOver had been thinking along the same lines.

“We wanted to do something educational for kids,” Wall says.

“Teach them proper animal care,” VanOver adds.

“Just get them off the couch,” Wall says.

It didn’t take long for VanOver to locate five camels up for sale. They’d been bred and trained for circus work, and they came with seven ponies. The two agreed on a deal, and Wall and his dad set off for Sarasota, FL, to bring the camels and the ponies back to Huntington.

It wasn’t long before Wall got a call from Garden Brothers Circus. The camels and the ponies had been a part of the family-owned circus before Wall bought them, and the circus wanted to know if he’d bring them back.

The answer was yes.

Then came a flurry of activity to assemble equipment and meet all of the legal requirements.

In the meantime, the five camels — males Cash and Gus and females Jara, Rene and Sheba — settled in on Wall’s Huntington County farm. Each of the camels is 15 years old, with a life expectancy extending into their 30s.

They were born on a farm in Missouri, the 5-H Ranch, which has a reputation in animal circles of raising good camels. They were trained there for two years before being sold in Florida and becoming a part of the circus.

All five camels are dromedaries, with just one hump. Wall and VanOver say they’d like to eventually add a Bactrian camel, a two-humped animal, to their herd.

“They all have their own personality,” VanOver says of the five they have now.

Cash is an especially docile animal, says Wall, who lets his preschool nephews lead Cash around by themselves.

“Some of the others can be pushy,” he says.

The animals will travel in a 53-foot-long trailer, which has living quarters for Wall and his crew in the front and space behind for the ponies, the camels and all their gear.

The camels are all trained to lie down on the floor of the trailer while traveling, Wall says.

The circus will travel 20 weeks or longer, doing two or three shows a day. Over the first 19 days, Wall says, he’ll do 41 shows in 18 cities over six states.

The circus will leave Florida and follow the warmth up the East Coast, finishing the season with a performance in Madison Square Garden, in New York, sometime in August.

The circus announces its schedule a month at a time, so even Wall doesn’t know where he’ll be after the first month. The small family circuses are very competitive, he explains, and don’t want to tip off competing circuses as to their plans.

“We’ll get into Ohio for the show, but we won’t make it into Huntington,” Wall says. “I’m not sure where in Ohio.”

The schedule will be updated on the Garden Brothers Circus website, www.gardenbroscircus.com, and on the Hoosier Camel Encounter page on Facebook.

Wall will be traveling with the circus full time, but VanOver will make only periodic appearances.

“I’ll pop in about every four weeks,” she says, and make trips to take supplies to Wall as necessary.

The camels, trained to follow Wall’s voice commands, perform a waltz inside the circus ring. And they work only in the ring.

“They know when they’re in the ring,” Wall says. “They work in there, but not when they’re outside the ring.”

Wall will be in the ring with them. He’s had a lot of experience working with animals — he grew up in a horse family that’s had nearly every type of animal on its farm — but he’s not used to being the center of attention.

“As far as being a showman, that’s one obstacle I have to overcome,” he says.

He’s still working on his show ending “Ta-Daaaa!” and waffling about sequins on his suit.

While the camels will put on their five-minute act a maximum of three times a day  — working a total of about three hours and 20 minutes a day — Wall says his job will be non-stop.

“We’ll start by pulling in to a show and setting up,” he says.

His day will start about 6 a.m., and the last show will get over about 9 p.m. Then he’ll load up, drive to the next town — up to 100 miles away —and set up to let the animals out of the trailer before he gets a nap.

In addition to the camels’ dancing act, they, along with the ponies, will give rides to the kids at the circus.

“The ponies don’t do any tricks,” Wall says. “Just rides.”

Many of the circus dates are in inner city areas, he says.

“There’s a lot of kids that have never seen a camel or a horse or any animal up close,” Wall says.

“Evan is very good at talking to kids,” VanOver says. “Maybe somewhere down the road it will help some troubled kid, and that’s our goal.”

During breaks and after the circus season is over, the two may bring their animals to festivals around Indiana, including Huntington County, VanOver says.

The goal is for the animals to eventually move to new quarters on VanOver’s property, where they’ll become part of an animal encounter.
That’s something she’s looking forward to.

“When I had animals before, I wasn’t able to freely share them with people,” she says.