Viola the elephant was the subject of worldwide attention seven weeks ago when she briefly escaped while being bathed in an enclosure at the back of the Butte Civic Center.

Recorded for posterity by a passerby, video of the older pachyderm’s trek as she strolled down Harrison Avenue and then veered left to a small grassy yard just past Lucky Lil’s Casino went viral.

Local news outlets encouraged viewers who had “front-row seats” at her escape to share their stories. The British Broadcasting Corporation reported on her failed attempt, as did The New York Times. The video hit all the major networks and was shared a thousand and one times on social media.

Armando Loyal, handler, is pictured center left, with elephants, Viola, left, and Kelly, right, just before the Big Top Parade and Circus Celebration in downtown Baraboo, Wisconsin on June 24, 2023.


Viola’s escape from her leaser, the Jordan World Circus, outraged many, including officials with the world’s largest animal rights organization, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

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It wasn’t long after the April 16 incident that a PETA official informed the U.S. Department of Agriculture of Viola’s most recent escape in Butte. According to PETA’s website, the USDA recently cited the elephant’s owner, Carson & Barnes Circus, for “not properly securing her and failing to protect her from potential injury.”

“They need to revoke their license,” said Debbie Metzler, director of PETA’s Captive Animal Welfare.

Circus World elephants, Viola, front, and Kelly, participate in their last parade before retirement during the Big Top Parade and Circus Celebration in downtown Baraboo, Wis., Saturday, June 24, 2023. 


The USDA did not return phone messages from The Montana Standard seeking information about the citation.

Carson & Barnes has been in business since 1937, and this most recent run-in with the USDA is not a first: The circus owners have been previously cited more than 100 times. Messages to the circus’ home office also went unanswered this week.

“In the past, the USDA has settled with a monetary fine,” said Metzler. “It is up to their discretion.”

The PETA official said the USDA has been inconsistent with its rulings and the citation is at the bottom layer of an enforcement punishment.

“It can essentially be seen as a slap on the wrist,” she said.

According to Metzler, even though Viola was supposedly going into retirement last August, if anything, it was short-lived. She has been on the road with the Jordan World Circus since January. Her Butte performance on April 16, was followed with shows in several other Montana towns, including Helena, Bozeman and Billings.

“They didn’t skip a beat since Butte and have been traveling since,” she said.

Metzler said it’s PETA’s job to educate the public about circus animal abuses.  Which is why, several days ago, she found herself driving to the Jordan World Circus in Centralia, Washington, to get a closer look at Viola.

“I wanted to see what kind of condition she was in,” said Metzler.

The PETA official was saddened but not surprised to see one of Viola’s handlers threaten the elephant with a bullhook, a pole with a sharp metal hook and tip.

“He had the bullhook to prevent her from escaping,” said Metzler.

The American Association of Zoos and Aquariums has banned the use of a bullhook, which is considered by animal rights organizations to be “instruments of torture.”

Circus World elephants, Viola, front, and Kelly, participate in their last parade before their “retirement” from Circus World last June. The animals are still performing elsewhere under contracts with their Oklahoma owners. On Tuesday, Viola briefly escaped from her handler before a circus in Butte, Mont.


Viola’s brief escape in Butte was not the Asian elephant’s first attempt to flee. In 2010, she slipped on some mud and tumbled down a hill while making her getaway. Four years later, while Viola and two other elephants were running through a parking lot in St. Charles, Missouri, she sustained some lacerations.

Now in her 50s, Viola has surpassed the average lifespan of a captive Asian elephant, which, according to AZA, is 47.5 years.

Metzler fears, however, that Viola will not live to enjoy her retirement

“Unless people quit patronizing these circuses, Viola and the other elephants will remain,” she said. “Often times they are worked until their last breath.”

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