Citizens of Butte, Montana, got a surprise on Tuesday when they saw an elephant wandering around their town. The elephant, known as Viola, had escaped from her handlers while traveling with the Jordan World Circus for a showing in Butte.

NBC Montana reports that Viola was getting a bath outside of the Civic Center when a nearby truck backfired, scaring Viola into running away from her handlers. Viola wandered the streets for about 20 minutes before her handlers were able to guide her back safely.

Butte resident Mataya Smith told NBC Montana that the handlers “did everything that they could to just kind of guide her. They didn’t push her, they didn’t force her, they just nicely asked her to move with them and said ‘Hey, please don’t break this fence.’ They waited very patiently with her and just kind of petted her and gave her comfort and calmed her until the truck came by.”

Do circuses still use elephants?

Elephants in American circuses are known to have been around since the late 19th century, with circus showmen Dan Castello, P.T. Barnum and James A. Bailey using them in their circus shows, per Smithsonian Magazine. For many Americans in the 19th century, the circus was their way of learning about the world in “a pungent, thrilling, educational sensorium of sound, smell and color, right outside their doorsteps.”

Now, they are not as common. Several states, such as New Jersey and Hawaii, have banned the use of animals in circuses and traveling shows, according to Humane Society.

In 2017, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced they were shutting down after 146 years of business due to “high operating costs and long, costly legal battles with animal rights groups, such as the one to eliminate elephant acts,” per USA Today.

According to National Geographic, Asian elephants were the go-to breed for circuses in the 19th century due to their smaller size and more manageable nature. In 2020, the Asian elephants used in the Ringling circus were bought by White Oak Conservation, an animal refuge center located in Florida.

White Oak Conservation explained in a 2022 update that their elephants live in a habitat that is 1.5 miles long with a 3 mile long perimeter, with its first habitat having been completed in 2021. The first herd of retired performing Asian elephants were subsequently released into the habitat in 2021.

According to White Oak, this first herd consisted of 12 females, ranging in ages from 8 to 38 years old and an additional 20 elephants that were once used in performances will be brought in once additional habitats are completed.

According to The Washington Post, this would be the biggest herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere. When the circus elephants were first released into the White Oak Conservation elephant habitat, White Oak staff members would report seeing the retired circus elephants enjoying their new home, whether that be in the watering hole or napping in the shade.

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