Adorned with a mischievous clown riding a pig, dancing bears, and an elephant proudly standing on a ball, the brunette beauty could easily be another tattooed lady or "the living art gallery." However, the Tennessee native is actually a veterinary technician for an international circus. And while her humble beginnings on a farm always hinted at her passion for animals, it's also her love of tattoos that continue to reveal her love for the circus.
Rebel Ink chatted with Clowers about how she actually didn't run away to join the circus and the next tattoo that will pay homage to a star performer.
REBEL INK: Could you talk a little bit more about your upbringing?
Jessica Clowers: I moved to Knoxville when I started working at the zoo. But I'm originally from a small coal-mining town called Oliver Springs. I was the bratty kid who had a pony at four-years-old. I grew up on a farm, so we always had cats, dogs, horses, and goats. We were the type of people that would spot a rabbit if it was hurt, bring it inside, and take care of it. Then I started working at the zoo to be closer to Knoxville when we moved there, what we call the big city [laughs].
Is it safe to say that you always wanted to be involved with animals?
I always said I wanted to be a vet. I started working as a zookeeper at 19 for five years. And, in college, I was studying animal science. I also worked in an animal hospital for about six years. I knew a guy in the circus and, sometime in 2011, he told me they were looking for a vet tech. I didn't know what that entailed, but I just handed my resume and here I am now, in my third year.
What was it about the circus that drew you in?
Truthfully, I was a little nervous because I had never lived outside of Tennessee. I loved working with dogs and cats, but I missed working with wild animals. I wasn't sure if the gypsy lifestyle was for me, but I gave it a shot. And if I didn't like it, I would just go home. But it thrills me to work with large exotic animals. When you work in a zoo, you arrive for work and then go home. In the circus, the animals are outside my door all the time. I could walk out and see a cat, or what you would call a tiger or lion. We're like a little city that moves from town to town.
What's a typical day like for you?
I'm on-call 24/7, but I get up in the morning and check in with all the trainers. Then I'll check on the animals. If any of them need treatment, I make sure to do that. There's a lot of paperwork involved. We'll do practices with the animals to make sure everyone gets exercise and becomes familiar with their routines. Then they get rest. And when there's a show, I have to be by the ring to ensure all the animals are doing fine. And, of course, all the animals get their annual vaccinations and checkups.
A lot of people believe animals in circuses are being mistreated. How do you respond to that?
Personally, I would never work for any company that would allow animals being mistreated. All of our animals are healthy and strong athletes. If one doesn't feel like performing or isn't feeling well, they won't be in the show. They're taken care of 24/7, and develop strong bonds with their handlers, which I witness firsthand. And they definitely eat healthier than I do [laughs]! Whenever it's cold, we'll provide heaters, and if it's hot, they'll cool off in the pool or have fans delivered to them. The cats, in particular, perform for about ten minutes and then they nap. I know how the animals are being treated because I'm always around them.
What have been some of the surprising things you've discovered working with these animals?
Just before, I went to check in on the elephants and they're so funny. It's like watching a bunch of five-year-old kids play around. The cats are always sleeping, which is what they're supposed to do. If you have a housecat, they sleep all the time. These cats are no different. They'll sleep 20-22 hours a day. They're so lazy. But the tigers are more social and are likely to greet me. And whenever the donkey sees me, he starts braying until I play with him. And then there are some animals that if you give one attention, the rest get jealous and want some, too. We also have one elephant that's a total diva. Whenever the circus does any PR, she acts like the star.
How did being involved with the circus influence your tattoos?
One thing I've always liked is clowns. If I weren't a vet tech, I would be a clown [laughs]. They get to be silly all the time, so they probably have the next best job. When I first joined the circus, I went to my artist in Knoxville, Doc Cooper of Saint Tattoo, and told him I wanted a circus tattoo. He drew a clown riding a pig, which is perfect because I love pigs. That was my first one and, for awhile, I didn't get anything else. I started becoming a fan of circus posters and, around that time, I also bought a huge book dedicated to circus posters. Ever since then, whenever I'm in Knoxville, we'll go through the book and get something new. I always joke that I could be the tattooed lady riding on an elephant. Doc does all of my circus tattoos.
Was getting tattoos associated with circus culture a conscious choice?
I've always been a fan of sideshow acts. And truthfully, that's really where the circus comes from. Sure, there were always animals around, but part of the weird was those strange sideshow acts. There was always the tattooed lady in the circus. I've personally been a fan of tattoos even before the circus and, once I joined, I just became inspired by the beautiful posters of the past. And for any of the animals I work with, I try to get a tattoo of them. I think my next one is going to be a leopard. This one from the show has beautiful greenish-blue eyes. I do want to make sure we capture the color of those eyes.
Photography by Steve Prue
Article by Stephanie Nolasco