In one direction, it looks like an average farm. There are horses, goats, ponies and a dog. Look the other way, and it’s suddenly a safari. There is a zebra, a camel and an emu. And don’t forget the two elephants and five tigers.
It’s a normal day on a central Illinois farm. Get up at 7 a.m. and head to the backyard to feed the animals.
Only for the Frisco family, that food costs $165,000 a year.
From hay and grain — just like any farm — to horse meat and cod liver oil, the Friscos’ refrigerator is full of a variety of curious cuisine. But that’s nothing compared to the assortment of animals in the backyard.
In one direction, it looks like an average farm. There are horses, goats, ponies and a dog. Look the other way, and it’s suddenly a safari. There is a zebra, a camel and an emu.
And don’t forget the two elephants and five tigers.
People attending the Heart of Illinois Fair may have seen them at Exposition Gardens, but catching a glimpse of the exotic creatures lounging around the Friscos’ yard off Illinois Route 91 is a bit more unexpected.
Father and son Joe and Terry Frisco don’t think anything of it. Instead of riding tractors and cultivating crops, their daily chores include making sure the elephants get 100 gallons of water on a hot day and seeing that the tigers don’t fight over their meat.
Terry’s routine is similar from day to day, but he spends only a fraction of the year in central Illinois. The rest of the time, he and his wife, Linda, and 15-year-old home-schooled daughter, Felicia, are on the road and heading to the next gig. And during the colder part of the year, the family relocates to Florida.
Joe mostly stays behind now, happy to hand off the reins. He still helps out, ordering food and running errands. But the animals are really Terry’s babies, he said.
Joe has had a passion for animals since before he was director of the Glen Oak Zoo in the 1960s, and he passed that love on to his three sons, all of whom now train and perform with animals for different circus groups.
“People say I have my own dynasty,” Joe said. “I say, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’”
Life on the Frisco farm
Terry Frisco loads two empty garbage cans onto a cart and rolls it over to the 24-year-old, 8,000-pound female elephants, Dumbo and Gina. They share a space about the size of two large backyards, enclosed by just a few wires strung around four fence posts. After almost 15 years together, they’re still not keen on sharing.
“They have tiffs and push each other,” Terry said, as one nudged the other out of the way. “That’s Dumbo. She’s spoiled rotten. But Gina is stubborn, too.”
Dumbo has been on the Dunlap farm for 22 years, imported from a dealer in Zimbabwe. Gina has been with the Frisco family for 14 years, purchased from a man who brought 90 elephants to the United States and quickly figured out that was going to get expensive.
Between the two of them, the elephants eat 10 bales of hay, 30 pounds of grain and 25 pounds of fruits and vegetables a day. Terry also gives them a daily bath and often a pedicure. Because of their immense weight, trimming the large pads and toenails on the elephants’ feet is an important task.
But they seem to appreciate Terry’s efforts, rousing his hair or giving him high-fives with their trunks.
The tigers want in on the fun, too. Daruba, the 800-pound male who lives with four female tigers, was looking forward to a bit of male bonding. Terry walks over to their large outdoor cage and teases the white tiger with a hunk of raw steak. He climbs a ladder to make Daruba work for it. But that is no challenge. He easily stands on his back legs and fishes the meat away from Terry. That was not an easy task when he was born. Daruba was blind until undergoing cataract surgery at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The female tigers, two orange and black and two tan with gold stripes, soon join in, moseying out of their indoor quarters at the sight of food. But unlike the elephants, who playfully dip their trunks in each other’s water bins, the tigers are more aggressive when it comes to lunch.
Terry has to lead them back inside the barn. While he won’t admit he treats them almost better than the family dog, he doesn’t think twice about climbing in their cage with them to pet them. He has to get each tiger in its own compartment before he feeds them. Even growing up in captivity, they are possessive of their food, he points out.
Packing up and performing
Terry goes through his daily routine, barely breaking a sweat. It’s the touring that’s more of a challenge.
The Frisco family owns two semis and a trailer for the handful of workers. The tigers get one semi, and the elephants get the other.
They’re home just a few days sometimes before having to load up the animals to move on to the next fair. Their itinerary is constantly changing, and Joe estimates they spent $15,000 on gas during the past year.
Though they do this for a living, it’s not about the money, Joe points out. While animal rights activists are quick to protest the tiger and elephant performances, the Friscos aren’t too bothered by them.
“Despite what people think, we are animal people who are dedicated to animals,” Joe said. “There’s not big money in this. We do it because we love animals.”
Erin Wood can be reached at (309) 686-3194 or email@example.com.