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There is perhaps nothing more emblematic of the circus than an elephant, its massive head adorned with bejeweled headdress, its sturdy feet perched on an impossibly narrow stool. But the circus elephant is equally as controversial as it is iconic, and after decades of pressure from animal rights groups, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus addressed that controversy head on when it announced on Thursday that it would eliminate elephant acts by 2018.
It’s not clear whether LIFE was looking for a heartwarming story or a hair-raising one when the magazine dispatched Cornell Capa to Gonzales, Texas, in 1948 to photograph Butch, a baby elephant just arrived from India to join the Dailey Circus.
Many of the photographs document Butch’s close relationship with her keeper, Singh, who fed Butch, cleaned Butch and—as any good friend should—allowed Butch to put Singh’s entire face in her mouth. Other photos, however, show Butch’s feet bound in shackles, and Butch’s habitat—though the elephant is warmly welcomed in the circus owners’ home—a far cry from the forests and grasslands from which Butch was taken.
Though the story never ran in LIFE, an article published the following year in the local paper, the Gonzales Inquirer, sheds some light on the consequences of raising wild animals in captivity. When Butch and her herd refused to cooperate for a photo shoot, circus owner Ben C. Davenport had some cowboys fire shots to try to round them up. The loud noise, along with galloping horses, frightened the elephants into a stampede. They dispersed throughout the town, injuring two men, blasting through fences and toppling over mailboxes.
One elephant, perhaps more frightened than the rest, remained missing until evening. Butch had run six miles, deep into the woods. When Davenport finally found her, he brought her back home in his Cadillac. Even under the most caring captive conditions—and how many elephants can say they’ve rolled through town in the back seat of a Caddy—the stimuli of human life can wear on an animal unaccustomed to them.
Butch’s fate is unknown, as the Dailey Bros. Circus appears to have disbanded in 1950. The 43 elephants performing for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, for their part, will live out their days on a 200-acre plot in Central Florida.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.