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Elephant Escape From Circus Spurs Federal Complaint

April 29th, 2010 by Nicole Meyer

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VIOLAIDA filed a complaint today with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) over an incident in which an elephant named Viola temporarily escaped from the Cole Bros. Circus in Lynchburg, Virginia, and was injured after a fall. We have called on the USDA to order  Cole to cease using Viola in performances or to give rides until the incident is thoroughly investigated and her health status – both physical and mental – is fully evaluated.

Viola reportedly was “startled” by a rabbit and ran past customers waiting to purchase tickets on Tuesday evening, ignoring her handler’s commands. She was completely out of control and it is just luck that no people were injured or killed. Viola fell down a steep embankment and injured her shoulder and foot. It took several efforts to get her to her feet, and nearly 30 minutes to bring her back under control.

Such events are all too common. Just a few weeks ago, the elephant Dumbo- reportedly also “startled” –  killed her handler at a Pennsylvania Shrine Circus. Last fall, an elephant with a history of breaking loose escaped her handlers and was struck and injured by an SUV.  Since 1990, at least 14 human deaths and more than 120 human injuries have been attributed to elephants.

In one particularly notorious incident, the elephant Tyke, while performing for a circus in Hawaii, killed her trainer and gored her groomer before hundreds of horrified spectators. Tyke bolted from the arena and ran through city streets for more than thirty minutes. Police fired 86 shots at Tyke, who eventually collapsed and died. A similar incident occurred at a circus in Palm Bay, Florida, involving the elephant Janet, who was carrying people on her back at the time. Viola is also used to give rides.

Given the realities of circus life for elephants – constant exposure to changing environments, bright lights, loud noises and being in crowds with children and with other animals – it is inconceivable that a healthy elephant would be so startled by a rabbit that she would flee. We have suggested to the USDA that this likely means that she is already under excessive stress, meaning that a flight reaction could be triggered easily, at any time, even while performing or giving rides.

Viola is one of three Carson and Barnes elephants (along with Nina and Libby) leased to Cole for the season. We will continue to monitor them all as Cole travels around the eastern US.

Please click HERE to join IDA’s Elephant Task Force to learn more about what you can do to help elephants.

This blog was contributed by Deborah Robinson, IDA’s Captive Elephant Specialist.