Zebras to butterflies: Katie French reflects on life with Ringling Bros.
By Susan Shinn
ROCKWELL ó The allure of the big top can be hard to shake. Katie French was a part of that seemingly glamorous world for three years.
Strolling the wooded walking paths surrounding her family’s house in Rockwell, French is now a world away from all the excitement.
That’s OK with her.
Sitting at a table in the shady yard, French spreads out a bit of memorabilia ó posters from Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, sparkly buttons that fell off costumes, even wiry elephant hair and a single tiger whisker.
I know what you’re thinking ó nope, she never got close enough to try to pluck one out. That would be bad news. But she did feed raw meat to the big cats.
French and parents, Tom and Colleen, have lived in Rockwell for 12 years. Her father was in the Marine Corps, and the couple retired here.
French was active in 4-H and competed as a horse rider. She was home-schooled, and graduated at 16. Although she had a scholarship to study equine law, she wasn’t sure where she wanted to go to school.
She came home after being a camp counselor and started looking for a job, planning to work and go to school. That’s when she saw an ad online for Ringling.
She got a job as an animal handler at a facility in Florida.
French, now 26, worked with a menagerie that included four camels and eight zebras, along with yaks, llamas, horses and miniature horses.
The very day she arrived, she says, there was a llama running loose, followed by three handlers in hot pursuit.
“Well, now,” she thought, “we’re just jumping right in here.”
Part of French’s duties turned included keeping the miniature horses out of the pond ó that’s where the alligators lurked.
When the circus came to Sarasota for its winter quarters, French was asked to stay on.
Why not? she decided.
French trained animals for the red unit. The circus also tours with a blue unit.
French acknowledges that camels can be uncooperative.
She worked with Sally the camel, who was known to bite trainers.
“She got me one time,” French says. “After that, we worked it out. Animals are just like kids. They need to know the boundaries.”
Zebras are a flight animal, she explains, which means that you have to keep them calm.
“All animals have their personalities,” she says.
French says that working with the greatest show on Earth meant long hours and hard work.
“There’s a good version and a version that would burn your ears,” she admits.
Performers called weekend shows a “six pack” ó three shows on Saturday and three on Sunday.
“It’ll wear a body down,” French admits.
Circus life is different on the other side of the three rings.
“You see the glamour and the sequins from afar and it’s very beautiful,” she says.
But it’s another story up close.
Still, she admits, “they say that sawdust gets in your veins. There’s something about it that’s very addicting.”
That’s probably why French lived the circus life for three years.
“I loved the train travel,” French says.
Ringling Bros. transports animals and people by train.
French loved walking into the arena when the music was playing, and enjoyed meeting people. During her tenure, the hour-long pre-show was just getting started.
She also acknowledges that PETA monitors circuses closely, and admits she saw animal abuse.
“It is a hard environment for people and animals,” she says. “You do your best with what you have.”
She tried to help the animals as best she could.
After all, the show must go on.
Finally, after disagreeing with the way the animals were treated and being passed over for a promotion, French left the circus behind and returned home.
She and son Christian, 5, now have animals they’re content to have as pets: three dogs, any number of cats and a 16-year-old paint horse named Miss Royal TNT ó Miss T, for short.
“She’s a real good girl,” French says, stroking her side.
She says she’ll definitely work with animals again someday.
For now, French is in the process of starting her own business, Flutterby Moments, which provides live butterflies for weddings and other events.
Christian starts kindergarten this fall at Rockwell Christian School.
French describes herself as a laid-back parent.
“This is all cake compared to chasing zebras down a highway,” she says, laughing.
If you’d like more information about Flutterby Moments, call Katie French at 704-279-4375.