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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Knoxville woman travels country caring for circus animals


By Allison Rupp

Knoxville News Sentinel

February 28, 2012
Special to the News Sentinel An Asian elephant takes a break from performing. This elephant is one of the many animals Jessica Clowers cares for as a vet tech for Ringing Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. At 5 feet, 2 inches tall, Jessica Clowers might seem small standing next to an Asian elephant or jumping from the huge truck that pulls her trailer home, but the Knoxvillian plays a large role behind the scenes of one of the greatest shows on Earth.
She travels from city to city all over the United States making sure exotic animals, like camels and Arabian horses, have proper vaccinations, are healthy enough to perform and look their best before entering the ring.
She's a veterinary tech for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
It's a full-time, 24-7 job, she said.
The animals are the first things she sees when she wakes up and usually, the last before she falls asleep.
"They always park me right next to the animals," said Clowers, 30, who graduated from Anderson County High School. "I step right out of my trailer, and they are right there. I walk the elephants all day long, and I play with the horses."
The animals, their trainers and her fellow human performers have become Clowers' substitute family as she spends more than 10 months a year on the road with the circus' Gold Tour.
She will get a chance to see her real family and spend time in the permanent home she keeps near downtown Knoxville this week since the circus is in town.
The circus will perform six shows in Knoxville starting Thursday evening.
Besides working behind the scenes, Clowers will be available during the pre-show to answer questions about the animals.
She started her career with the circus with a performance in her hometown just over a year ago.
Though she spent a lot of time on the family farm as a child and wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up, Clowers never imagined she would work for a circus.
Now, she can't imagine doing anything else.
"I travel, get to see the country and still get to work with exotic animals," Clowers said. "I get to be around talented people, all the performers. It doesn't seem like work at all."
After graduating from high school, Clowers began taking pre-veterinary medicine courses at local community colleges.
Then she lucked into a job as a zookeeper at the Knoxville Zoo where she worked with zebras, giraffes, bears, reptiles and other animals. She worked there for five years before becoming a vet tech at Asheville Highway Animal Hospital.
She worked mainly with household pets and she missed working with exotic animals.
That's when a friend mentioned Ringling Bros.
Clowers had already decided not to become a veterinarian and to stay a vet tech because she liked spending more time with animals.
As a vet tech for the circus, Clowers spends a lot of quality time with its three Asian elephants, four Arabian horses, two Shetland ponies, two camels, snakes and a miniature pony named Goodies.
Goodies is Clowers' favorite circus animal.
She coordinates with on-call local vets in each city to ensure there is a vet available for an emergency. Ringling Bros. also has its own team of vets, who can fly or drive to the circus.
She also helps animal trainers and watches each act closely.
"If there would be any kind of issue with an animal, we wouldn't want them to perform," Clowers said. "I make sure they act well, are healthy and everyone is in good shape."
She said the circus animals are well taken care of and the circus is like an "animal resort." They get plenty of exercise, love and nutritious food.

Special to the News Sentine

lRingling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus vet tech Jessica Clowers, 30, says her favorite animal is this miniature pony, Goodies. Clowers travels with the circus most of the year but keeps a house in her hometown of Knoxville.
Her life on the road can be difficult, she said, but it's worth it.
"Out here, I am giving a lot of love," she said. "My family knows I am doing something I love."
This year, she will travel to 45 cities.
She drives her truck that tows the trailer in which she lives, along with her Cavalier King Charles cocker spaniel, Bonnie, and two cats, Nacho and Biloxi, who travel in the truck cab with her.
"We don't travel in a caravan, but I like to stay a little ahead or a little behind the animals," Clowers said. "We are subject to inspection any time."

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