When the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus rolled into town last week, it gave local residents the unique opportunity to get a glimpse behind the scenes to see what goes on before the big top opened for public performances.

The staff of 30 performers and staff rolled into town to prepare for two Basehor performances, sponsored by the Basehor Chamber of Commerce. After getting settled on the site in the field between Casey’s General Store and Orscheln Farm & Home just north of State Avenue, the first order of business was to get the big top assembled. The tent, which has a seating capacity of 750, is stored in three large pieces. It takes a team of experienced workers about three hours to completely assemble the centerpiece of the circus.

The Culpepper and Merriweather Circus began in 1985 and performs in small towns around the United States for 32 weeks each year. From March through October of this year, it performed in 17 states. The caravan of support vehicles registered more than 15,000 miles.

Leo Acton, a clown with the circus, also has the role of tour guide. 

“We are a small group of diverse individuals who make the circus happen,” Acton said. “Performers are responsible for setting up their own props and taking care of the animals in addition to their big top performance.”

The big cats which performed during the circus were rescue animals from a small zoo in northeast Texas. Two golden tigers and a black mane lion are cared for by the circus and actually live longer in captivity than in the wild. Because they were born in captivity, the cats will never be released into the wild. Eating 10 to 15 pounds of raw meat six days per week mimics their natural diet in the wild.

“The cats sleep 16 to 20 hours per day and they are not fixed, defanged or tranquilized,” said Acton. “They see a veterinarian at our home base in Hugo, Oklahoma, before the beginning of the season for a checkup and they get regular checkups once we are on the road. We also have local vets on call in the towns we visit in case of any sort of emergency.”

Tigers Solomon and Delilah are brother and sister from the same litter. They are 14 years old. Frances, a lion, is 15 years old and weighs 500 pounds. 

The cats are kept in kennels, but the kennels are actually larger than required by law. State, local and federal inspections happen on a regular basis to ensure all of the animals are being properly cared for.

“We play mainly rural areas (where residents) understand what animal care is all about,” said Acton.

Culpepper and Merriweather has the traditional circus performers, including jugglers, contortionists, wire walkers and daredevils. 

The dog act is comprised of dogs rescued from shelters. Acton said not every animal has the propensity to perform. Some of the dogs turn into pets that travel with the circus.

With the Culpepper and Merriweather being a family-run circus, there are some school-aged children in the show. Those children are home-schooled during the touring time of year and attend regular school during the off-season each winter.

Beth Kornegay is a freelance writer covering news and events in the city of Basehor. If you have a story idea, email her at gabi_kansas@yahoo.com