When the events of that day were ultimately televised and an investigation launched, if anything the details descended further into obscurity. In the ABC program, the off-camera shooter is unidentified — and for that matter, so is the victim. Mysteriously, no actual body was ever found, or anyone reported missing within a large radius. A former U.S. ambassador to Zambia (who was not in office at the time of these events) suggested that ABC staged the whole shooting with actors and no one was actually harmed. Mark’s version of the story also centered on the network’s eagerness to get dramatic footage, insinuating that one of the local scouts was bullied or excited by the camera crew into firing at someone recklessly.
One particular story highlights many of them, recounted in by Jeffrey Goldberg. The bare facts are these: in 1994, the dedicated conservationists Mark and Delia Owens hosted a film crew from ABC to document their anti-poaching efforts in Zambia. In 1996, the show aired, preceded by a warning of violence “which might be upsetting to viewers.” The warning was referring to a scene that showed a suspected (but unarmed) poacher being shot to death on camera. Under threat of legal action, the couple left the country immediately and have never been back.
Agee imagined subsequent scenes based on real events in American elephantine history, beginning with Old Bet, the centerpiece of an exotic traveling menagerie, who was reportedly shot by a Maine farmer in 1816, believing her to be the unholy behemoth of old. A later scene concerns another circus elephant, Mary, who was lynched in Tennessee in 1916 following an altercation with a brutal keeper — an event that, although Agee never made his movie of it, has been dramatized for the stage three times: Mark Medoff’s (1989), George Brant’s (2007), and Caleb Lewis’s (2009). As a proxy for more traditional, less newsworthy lynchings, this ill-starred elephant seems to be the nonpareil. All these accounts, in their way, are trying to say something of the clash between what turn out to be two inverse evils: the bigoted, airtight provincialism of the town proper, and the gaudy, sordid disassociation of traveling circus life — that is, being someone entirely because you are from somewhere, or being from nowhere at all. Mary happened to be so unfortunate as to drop into this unneighborly maw.
There being no native dynasty, the ones that came arrived as curiosities. Where in European courts they stood for majesty and might, and in Hindu and Buddhist settings for the wisdom and sacredness of animal life, in America they morphed to fit the national tendencies to uprootedness, exhibitionism, and making a buck — a theme suggested in a movie idea the author James Agee outlined in before his death in 1955: