A Wild Bull Elephant… About to be Shot

Pen and Ink Line Drawings by MARTIN COONEY

A wild bull elephant… about to be shot.

I drew the wild elephant photo in 1982 whilst living in Portland, Oregon, during very difficult economic times. The  lumber industry had quite suddenly and dramatically plunged into a dire crisis as a result of a drop in demand for new housing, caused by the wider national recession, combined with a halt in the logging of old growth timber due to the enforcement of a new wave of government-imposed restrictions put in place to help protect the newly famous “spotted owl”.

"What Time is that Interview?"

“What Time is that Interview?”

In many ways the Pacific North West’s micro-depression proved as bad, or worse, than the more recent global financial crisis of 2008 – it seemed everyone was looking for work, myself included! Jobs were few and far between and each new vacancy was bombarded with applications. Highly skilled workers found themselves washing dishes and wages were pitifully low.

A very happy birthday party indeed.

A very happy birthday party indeed.

Needless to say I found myself with plenty of time on my hands. However, poor as we were these were actually golden times for Kris and myself. We lived in a wonderful apartment in a sprawling Carpenter Gothic manse, built by lumber tycoon Simon Benson, on a corner of downtown Portland. It has since been converted into a museum and moved to a different location, but at the time it was a haven of the counter-culture scene and afforded us a wonderful sprawling bohemian life-style for around $200 a month!

The Simon Benson House, Downtown Portland, 1982.

The Simon Benson House, Downtown Portland, 1982.

During this time my drafting table was in permanent use. With no TV, no internet (obviously) and no money (!) we lived on the cheap: ate, drank, and made merry to our hearts content.  We took each day as it came, and I pounced on the opportunity of an excess of free-time to draw whatever I wished.

Urban living suited us just fine.

Urban living suited us just fine.

Perhaps this endless abundance of time is reflected in the elephant drawing above as, if you look closely you will see that it is actually composed of thousands of individual dots, each one applied with a single tap of a ‘Rotering’ pen. How I ever kept the finicky German-made cartridge pens from blobbing I’ll never know – and if I attempted this technique today my poor old eyes would be strained to the limits, but somehow or other I managed to keep a steady hand and kept my mind focused for the countless hours this demanding process took.

I chose this particular elephant as my subject matter as I had been reading an article in National Geographic describing the scene as the large bull elephant was photographed moments before it made one last desperate charge before being gunned down. The story went on to explain that having lead his family into a village bordering a game reserve they had become spooked by the (understandable) reaction of the locals who had defended themselves by opening fire on the group, killing all but the infuriated bull. With one last desperate charge the infuriated animal hurled himself at the attackers and was brought down mere seconds after the photograph was taken.

This tragic incident played on my mind for a long time as it seemed to typify the dilemma imposed when humans and wildlife are thrust together in the same confined space – the villagers did not want to shoot the elephant, the elephants did not want to trample the villagers, and yet the outcome once the elephants entered the village became all but inevitable.

For some reason this image – of wildlife and humans thrust into a life or death struggle neither side wished to instigate,  struck me as a poignant reminder of the fine balance between our human and the natural world. This particular desperate scenario was played out in a far-off land, with exotic creatures and a culture completely alien to me, but as we humans delve deeper into what is left of the wilderness these unfortunate conflicts arise on every continent, and in practically every country. Whether the wild beast in question is a bear, a mountain lion, a wolf, or any animal of sufficient strength to threaten human life the outcome is virtually preordained.

Just how we can solve this puzzling dilemma is a matter for much more well-informed brains than mine, but after having read about this heart-wrenching tale, as an artist, I merely wanted to give vent the incredible sadness I felt and created this drawing in honor of the all the magnificent beasts of the world in order that I might never forget their tragic plight.