CARBONDALE -- Catherine Carden had the childhood so many bright-eyed children have only dreamed of.
A seventh-generation circus performer, Carden began her career as a ballerina on horseback in her parents’ circus at age 5. By the time she turned 7, she helped her parents care for the animals, including three young elephants.
At age 12, she was training elephants and liberty horses. At 18, she received six horses of her own as a graduation gift so she could perform her own act in the Hanneford Family Circus.
“It was the most awesome childhood ever,” Carden said.
Her days consisted of school in the morning, horseback riding in the afternoon, play time with animals and then homework and traditional kid activities in the evening.
“It was my life,” she said. “I didn’t know anything different. It wasn’t surreal at all; it was the only life I knew.”
While she thought about breaking away from the family business during a rebellious teen phase when she thought broadcast journalism could be her path to stardom, Carden never really strayed away from the circus. Instead, she tried to be more independent, starting her own magic acts and doing things her own way.
Now, as a mother of two and wife to a fellow performer, she’s able to view life from the other side of parenthood. She’s raising two boys on the road with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey’s national tour.
Her kids, though, don’t seem to be as enthralled with the idea of being circus children as Carden did in her youth. While they love watching the show, they don’t seem to think of their parents as the larger-than-life rock stars that Carden saw in their grandparents.
“I don’t think I can compete with my mom and dad,” she said. “My kids take it for granted a lot of the time. They’d rather sit inside with their iPads than be out with the animals.”
And serving as the company’s exotic animal trainer, Carden has more than just her two bipedal children to worry about. She’s also charged with caring for an array of horses, dogs and elephants.
At each tour stop, Carden and her crew have to set up tents for the animals to stay in, feed them and clean up after them and give them baths -- lots of baths. Elephants are bathed daily, while horses and dogs get scrubbed down once a week before each set of performances.
Carden’s heard all the stories and claims of animal abuse and neglect on the circus loop, but she encourages people to not turn a perpetuated lie into a truth. While she said it’s impossible to deny any wrongdoing has ever occurred -- as it does in all aspects of life -- she said it simply doesn’t make sense for circus professionals to mistreat their companions.
“These animals are our livelihood; they’re irreplaceable,” she said. “There’s so much time, so much effort and so much money invested in them. If you don’t care for your animals properly, they’re not going to be around very long.”
That, she said, doesn’t even factor in the emotional aspect and the connection between trainer and animal.
Fans in Southern Illinois will have the opportunity to get up close to Carden and her friends when Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey brings its “Super Circus Heroes” tour to SIU Arena for five shows.
Performances are scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, April 11; 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, April 12; and 1 p.m. Sunday, April 13. Tickets are $15 to $47 and can be purchased online at siusalukis.com or at the SIU Arena box office.
“This year’s show is really awesome,” Carden said. “The theme is so, so cute. The kids are going to love it, and the adults will, too.”