Parker made Elvis, Elvis gave Priscilla Presley a voice, & Priscilla Presley stood up for the horses
MEMPHIS, Tennessee––The clock appears to have just about run out on efforts to pass the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, or PAST Act, in the 117th Congress.
Priscilla Presley, 77, retired actress and former wife of the late entertainer Elvis Presley, appears to have said nothing about the PAST Act lately, after a decade of vigorously campaigning for it.
Heard Keith Dane
During previous Congressional sessions, Priscilla Presley prominently spoke alongside Clant Seay, founder of the Citizens Campaign Against “Big Lick” Animal Cruelty, Marty Irby of Animal Wellness Action, and Keith Dane of the Humane Society of the U.S., who first educated her about the cruelty that goes into making show horses take the “Big Lick” goose step.
But that Priscilla Presley seems to have fallen silent and that the PAST Act may be going nowhere are perhaps moot points.
A three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on July 22, 2022 ruled, in effect, that a 2016 rule governing USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service enforcement of the Horse Protection Act would have the force of law sixty days after the verdict.
“Justice delayed is justice denied”
That rule prohibits the use of ‘stacks’ (heavy platform shoes), chains, and other devices and practices used by walking horse trainers to produce the ‘Big Lick.’
Enforcement had been delayed for nearly six years because the rule, which had otherwise cleared every hurdle to be enforced, had not yet been printed in The Federal Register when the Donald Trump administration took office and froze all new rule-making.
If enforcement proceeds as anticipated, all that may be left for Priscilla Presley to do is take a bow, having long since repaid through her many personal appearances at local humane society fundraisers a debt of sorts to animal advocacy left by her late husband’s deceased manager, Tom Parker.
Walking horses were one of Elvis’ “passions in life”
“Elvis Presley spent many days taking a break to ride his walkers down to the gates of Graceland to exhibit and show off for the fans. The horses were one of his major passions in life. Priscilla Presley and the Presley family still maintain walkers at Graceland today,” Irby recalled in a May 25, 2022 media release distributed by Animal Wellness Action.
Unverifiable rumors have flown for decades that Elvis Presley adopted a dog from the North Shore Animal League in Port Washington, New York, at some point before his death at age 42 in 1977; took a dog for care at the Angell Memorial Hospital in Boston, operated by the Massachusetts SPCA; and visited and/or made donations to many other humane societies in Memphis, Las Vegas, and elsewhere.
If Elvis Presley did any of this, it appears to have eluded the publicity barrage ceaselessly generated by Parker around almost his every movement, especially his contributions to charity.
But then, Parker, publicity hound though he was, did not publicize his tenure with the Tampa Humane Society, either, after he left. The organization is now known as the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.
The Tampa Humane Society history surfaced only after actor Beau Bridges mentioned to Canadian Press TV writer Wendy McCann, while playing Parker in the 1993 NBC made-for-TV movie Elvis & The Colonel: The Untold Story, that Parker was “one of the first people to come up with the concept of a pet cemetery,” as a fundraiser for an animal shelter he ran in Tampa, Florida.
There was of course much more to the story, not least because pet cemeteries date back long before Parker’ time.
Archaeozoologist Marta Osypinska and her colleagues at the Polish Academy of Sciences in 2017 excavated the graves of 585 animals at a pet cemetery which appeared to have operated for more than a century at Berenice, a Roman port in Egypt.
The remains, mostly of cats but also including about 30 mostly elderly dogs and some monkeys, showed no hint of the animals having been sacrificed or otherwise used for ritual purposes, but many had been buried with ornamental necklaces or collars.
The earliest known pet cemetery in the U.S., including graves dug before 1693, was found in 2010 on the campus of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Parker invented only himself
In truth, Parker appears to have never invented much of anything, except colorful promotional stories and, of course, himself.
Born as Andreas Van Kuijk in Breda, the Netherlands, in 1909, Parker drifted into carnival work at an early age. He claimed to have been adept at handling animals and teaching them tricks even in boyhood.
Alana Nash, in The Colonel, a biography of Parker, wrote that Parker in early 1929 may have come under suspicion after newlywed Anna van den Enden, 23, was found beaten to death in her ransacked home behind a greengrocer’s store near the Van Kuijk family home. The killer spread pepper on and around the body, apparently to deter pursuit by police dogs. The unsolved murder has never been solved. Parker had done deliveries for the greengrocery.
Reaching the U.S. at age 19 as a stowaway, Parker adopted a new name, concealed his Dutch accent behind a southern drawl, and except for two years in the U.S. Army and two months in a mental hospital after going absent without leave soon after re-enlisting, spent most of the next decade as a carnival animal handler.
Tom Parker in Tampa
“Between tours he found other ways to scrounge up a buck in Tampa,” recalled then-Tampa Bay Times columnist Craig Pittman in 2018. “For instance, he buried a pony up to its knees in the dirt, put a curtain around the pony, and charged people to see ‘The World’s Smallest Horse.'”
After several years of running a pony ride concession at the Tampa fairgrounds, Parker in 1935 married a local woman, Marie Mott, elder sister of Bitsy Mott, who in 1945 took advantage of the wartime player shortage to play briefly for the Philadelphia Phillies.
As a married man, Parker found steady employment in 1940 as a dogcatcher for the Tampa Humane Society. The job came with a room on the grounds.
According to then-Humane Society of Tampa Bay director of education Karen Cheeks, the organization as of 1993 had no archives predating 1985, and little record of Parker’s doings.
The pet cemetery was eventually closed to make way for shelter expansion, then removed entirely in 2018, though the tombstones were preserved and relocated.
“Worked the hustle for all it was worth”
NewspaperArchive.com appears to have no articles on file mentioning Parker by name during his Tampa years.
The authors of Elvis & The Colonel, however, Dirk Vellenga and Mick Farren, dug up much more. Apparently Parker did a good job for the humane society, by the standards of the time, enlarging the cages and boosting adoptions.
But as Parker later did with Elvis, he took his own cut, too, and then some.
He “worked the hustle for all it was worth,” Vallenga and Farren wrote. “He pushed the tear-jerk quality of unwanted pets all the way to bathos. He constantly hit the local press with weepy stories and found a particularly warm reception from Paul Wilder, one of the editors of the Tampa Tribune, who used Parker’s doggy and kitty stories on a regular basis,” and was rewarded later with the first exclusive interview with Presley after Parker made the singer a star.
The articles brought donations of money and food, and Parker stretched his salary by trading pet food for items he and his wife could eat.
Dressed up as Santa & passed out puppies
“He dressed up as Santa and gave away puppies to children,” Pittman wrote, citing Elvis Ignited author Bob Kealing. “He dug a deep but narrow hole, put a dog in it, told reporters that the dog had fallen in, and invited people to send in contributions so he could hire a circus midget to rescue the dog. The shelter,” founded in 1912 and struggling most of the time since, “was in bad financial shape when he started, and within a year he had it out of the red.”
The pet cemetery “was Parker at his flamboyant sleaziest,” offered Vallenga and Farren. “He contacted a Tampa stonemason who would make miniature gravestones for $15 a pop. In turn, Parker sold them to the bereaved for $50,” along with equally pricy floral arrangements and tiny coffins.
Identifying himself as “doctor,” Parker according to Kealing and Pittman designated assistant Bevo Bevis “General Manager for Perpetual Care for Deceased Pets,” and, wrote Pittman, “had Bevis build small coffins from wood scraps,” which he “decorated with daisies he’d gotten as cast-offs from a local florist.
Benefit concert brought career change
“Soon,” continued Pittman, “the dogcatcher found a new way to make money: organizing a fundraising concert for the humane society starring country music star Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.”
Parker left the humane society in 1942 to become an animal handler on the set of the Spencer Tracy/Van Johnson film A Guy Named Joe, which was made in Tampa.
Later Parker promoted 1944 Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Jimmy Davis, who upon election made Parker an honorary colonel in the state militia.
From there Parker moved on to promoting another country music star, Hank Snow, and his son Jimmy Rogers Snow, who for thirty years hosted the gospel segment of the weekly Grand Ol’ Opry shows.
The Snows introduced Parker to Elvis Presley in early 1955. Parker added Presley to the Snows’ act, then dumped the Snows to promote Presley for the rest of Presley’s life.
The rest is, if not quite accurate history, at least an enduring legend.
While Tom Parker was in animal work for the money, Priscilla Presley became involved through her love of horses.
In 1983, six years after Elvis Presley died, recounted Heidi Hall of the Nashville Tennessean on December 25, 2013, Priscilla Presley attended the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.
She donated an award called the Graceland Challenge Trophy in memory of Elvis.
The award was “part of an exhibition featuring Ebony’s Double, the last walking horse Elvis ever bought,” Hall wrote. “She thought it was a one-time award,” but it was given every year afterward for 30 years to the winner of the Four-Year-Old Walking Horse World Grand Championship.
“I can’t support it”
Then Priscilla Presley learned the trophy was still being awarded, found out about soring, which had never been done to the walking horses kept by the Presley family, and revoked authorization for the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration to use the Presley name.
“I can’t support the trophy when inhumane methods are used on these horses. I can’t support it,” Priscilla Presley told media, probably drawing more attention to how walking horses are sored than a generation of activism by non-celebrities.
“Since I first learned about it a few years ago,” Priscilla Presley explained further, “the practice of soring Tennessee walking horses to manufacture the “Big Lick” gait they are forced to perform in the show ring has made me a determined advocate for reform.
“I’ve challenged the Big Lick faction of the industry to abandon its awful reliance on soring, lobbied in Washington D.C., spoken around the country in support of legislative and regulatory action, and joined with countless others determined to usher in a new and better day for the breed.”
“It’s barbaric, absolutely barbaric”
Often Priscilla Presley gave detailed descriptions of soring to reporters on celebrity beats who might not have quoted anyone else at comparable length, reaching audiences who probably would never have picked up anything resembling animal rights literature.
“It’s barbaric — it’s absolutely barbaric,” Priscilla Presley told Michael Collins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 2016.
“I don’t know of one kindhearted person who has seen this and could go on to one of these shows, knowing what is being done to these beautiful, beautiful animals,” she said.
Clant Seay and the Citizens Campaign Against “Big Lick” Animal Cruelty picket lines that have stood outside show arenas throughout the South to protest against soring can probably claim most of the credit for the drastic decline of “Big Lick” show audiences in recent years.
But having the Presley name behind the campaign has also helped, the name that Tom Parker made famous, if only for pecuniary reasons.