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Protesters rally against circus in Billings

Following Viola the elephant's Butte escape
Protesting in front of the Metra
Posted at 10:39 AM, Apr 28, 2024

BILLINGS — This weekend in Billings at the Metra, the Jordan World Circus is under the big top, but that doesn’t sit right with some Billings residents following Viola the elephant’s Butte escape on April 17.

Protests near the Metra occurred on Friday and Saturday, with organizers claiming the circus animals deserve freedom, not chains.

"It's time for the circuses to reinvent themselves," said Meglena Wahrlich, one of the protest organizers, on Saturday. "It's time to innovate. Send those wild animals to sanctuaries."

Viola’s escape made headlines nationwide.



"When I saw the video of Viola escape for the third time now, it just broke my heart," said Kelly Navarro, another protest organizer, on Saturday. "She just seemed sad."

Protestors hoped to sway passing vehicles.

"I'm not here to completely say the circus is bad, that they abuse their animals. But there's just other circuses that are out there that are thriving with animal-free circuses," Navarro said. "It's just outdated. We need to move on. (Circuses) can thrive without the animals."

The 10,000-pound Asian elephant shocked Butte residents, lumbering through traffic after she got away from her handler.

PETA spoke out following Viola’s escape act, stating she is an elderly animal who has escaped twice before, and urged the public not to support the circus.

Reactions to elephant on the loose in Butte

"She shows signs of distress and has foot problems and joint problems," said Navarro.

MTN News contacted Jordan World Circus requesting an interview regarding the protests, but they declined. But Armando Loyal, Viola’s handler, did respond to a few of our questions via email. Below is his response:

"This is the United States of America the greatest country in the world, it is their right to protest. If there was something I did not like, I would have the same right. They can voice their opinion and that is what...is their opinion. Our animals are well cared for above and beyond any regulations or statuses. They receive love, affection and attention to the utmost. Viola has never been retired, contrary to what is being said.”

Loyal talked with MTN News when the circus was in Bozeman, explaining that Viola escaped after being startled by a truck backfiring.

"I’m the caretaker, handler, trainer, dad, everything for the elephants here,” Loyal said on Tuesday. "They get the best of care. All the love and attention we can give them. So for any naysayers, please just come see for yourself."

elephant on the loose in Butte

After the circus wraps up in mid-June, Loyal said the elephants are heading back home to Oklahoma where they have 200 acres to roam.

But that isn’t enough for protesters like Wahrlich and Navarro, who believe Viola and other circus animals deserve freedom:

"Most elephants in circuses in the US have been performing since the '70s. So they're in their 50s. They're older animals," Wahrlich said. "Most of the time, they're traveling. They're in trailers. They spend 20-plus hours on the road. While in the wild, or in a sanctuary, they have the opportunity to roam."

"For 34,000 miles, Viola has to travel for ten months in a semi-truck with another elephant," Navarro said. "That is no way to live for a wild animal as large and beautiful as her."