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When Kelly and Viola burst through the red curtains at Circus World at the end of the summer, it will mark the end of an era. The two elephants, performers at the Big Top in Baraboo, Wis., are retiring.

And like the vast majority of circuses around the nation, Circus World isn't replacing the elephants, despite their super-sized popularity.

Fewer than a dozen U.S. circuses still feature elephants, according to Scott O'Donnell, director of Circus World. (An exception is some circuses operating under the Shrine Circus umbrella.) Their absence is largely due to the increasing concern and public pressure over circus elephants' treatment, and the emotional toll it takes on these family-oriented creatures to live in captivity and be used for entertainment.

This concern caused the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to retire its elephant herd several years ago, while states including California, Illinois and New York have banned their use in circuses and traveling animal acts.

To honor Baraboo's soon-to-be retirees, Kelly and Viola will serve as the grand marshals for the city's annual Big Top Parade & Circus Celebration on June 24. The celebration's main event is the parade, which begins at 11 a.m. and features colorful circus wagons, exotic animals, clowns, marching bands and community floats, in addition to the ponderous pachyderms. Tours of the historic and beautifully refurbished Al. Ringling Theatre will be offered at 1 and 3 p.m. And, of course, you can visit Circus World to see Kelly and Viola again, whether that's to watch them perform in a show or for a short ride atop their backs.

Elephants big in Baraboo

Elephants have long been an important part of Baraboo's history. The small city, just south of the popular Wisconsin Dells area, served as the winter headquarters for the famous Ringling Bros. Circus for more than three decades starting in 1884. Although they didn't have elephants right away, it only took them four years to acquire their first pair, Fanny and Babylon, aka Babe.

The Ringling Bros.' pachyderm herd quickly grew, prompting them to construct a dedicated elephant house in 1897. The wooden structure is one of seven original winter quarters buildings still on the property today. Visitors can wander around inside and see the metal tether rings once used to hold the elephants in place, plus examine a series of small manure doors. Located at floor level, these were opened to shovel out mounds of elephant poop or for ventilation.

The building's walls are covered with black-and-white photos depicting the elephants' lives during the circus' winter break in Baraboo. Every day, the pachyderms — which numbered 28 by 1911 — were led along the town's streets several times as part of their exercise regimen.

"There is lots of local family lore of elephants hooking Grandma's laundry hanging on the line as they walked by, or sampling Grandpa's prizewinning carrots or flowers as they passed," O'Donnell said.

Sometimes they practiced their routines outside, too, for anyone to observe.

In 1918, the troupe pulled up stakes and relocated its winter headquarters to Sarasota, Fla., after merging with the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Baraboo's beloved elephants were gone — but not for good. In 1959, a handful of people opened Circus World on the old Ringling Bros. wintering grounds as a means to preserve the memory of the traveling circus era. And with that, the elephants were back.

"The governor rode on the back of an elephant for Circus World's opening-day parade," O'Donnell said, noting that Circus World has never owned its elephants, instead contracting them seasonally.

The elephants performing at the Big Top at Circus World in Baraboo.
The elephants performing at the Big Top at Circus World in Baraboo.

Melanie Radzicki McManus

See the elephants at Circus World

After more than 60 years, Circus World will bid its elephants a fond, final farewell, which is prompting many to schedule a visit. Last week, Janet Kasprzycki and Louis Centorcelli made the drive down from Wausau, Wis., just to see the elephants one last time.

"I wanted to see them. I needed to see them," said Kasprzycki. "We'll be one of the last generations to see elephants in a circus."

If the elephants are calling to you, too, set aside a day to visit Circus World. The 64-acre site, tucked along the winding Baraboo River, is one of Wisconsin's 11 State Historic Sites and a National Historic Landmark. Explore its collection of more than 260 colorful, authentic circus wagons — the world's largest such grouping.

You can also enjoy calliope demonstrations, have the kids take part in an interactive circus, and check out the six other original winter quarters structures, several of which contain various circus displays. You'll also have the chance to watch artisans at work restoring old circus wagons.

And, of course, there's the circus, at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. daily through Aug. 27. Grab a bag of steaming popcorn or a wispy puff of cotton candy, then head inside the red-striped Big Top. During the hourlong performance you'll be treated to a variety of entertainment via acrobats, aerialists, animals and clowns. Near the end, you'll see Kelly and Viola a final time.

"The matriarchs of our circus family are retiring," O'Donnell said, "so we're encouraging everyone to come and spend some time with our beloved girls."

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a travel and adventure writer. She lives near Madison, Wis.