Aisha the hippo died on Saturday night after being hit by a car on a road in Villa Potenza, in the Marche region, Cronache Maceratesi reported.
The eight-year-old hippo was making a bid for freedom from the Orfei circus when the fatal crash occurred. Despite weighing 1.5 tonnes Aisha was no match for the Polo driven by a 25-year-old local man, who suffered only light injuries.
Vets, police and the fire service arrived at the scene but the hippo could not be saved.
Circus owners blamed animal rights activists for the accident, saying the Orfei had been “targeted” for months.
“We have also suffered attacks in Cesena and Ravenna,” Moreno Montemagni, a trainer at the circus, was quoted as saying.
The circus show was underway when the hippo, a zebra, a few camels and ostriches were allegedly let loose, bringing the performance to an end.
“To free Aisha, the animal rights activists wrecked an external net which is used to mark off the site, and neutralized the internal electrical enclosure,” Montemagni said, adding that graffiti was also scrawled on circus tow trucks.
Police have launched an investigation into the incident, Cronache Maceratesi said.