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Documentary Review: ‘The Elephant in the Living Room’

April 15, 2011
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Tim Harrison is an animal advocate and police officer in Ohio who spends his days responding to calls about exotic animals that have escaped or have become unmanageable. We’ve all heard the stories about escaped chimpanzees, snakes, alligators, and other pets, and rarely do they end well. As Harrison says, “There are no happy endings.”

The mere fact that Harrison stays busy in Ohio, of all places, is alarming. However, exotic pet ownership and trade is largely unregulated, and many states don’t require any type of licensure to own a potentially lethal pet.

Director Michael Webber tackles the emotionally charged issue of exotic pet ownership in the United States. He takes us undercover at an exotic pet auction where monkeys, cubs, poisonous snakes and other exotics are casually obtained by anyone who has the money to purchase the animals. Plenty of children were in attendance.

Many people don’t think about the consequences of buying a cute lion cub that will eventually weigh close to 600 pounds when fully grown. Often the owner simply lets the pet go in the wild. There have been so many pythons let loose in Florida that entire ecosystems are changing due to unfettered breeding and overpopulation.

It’s easy to vilify the people who contribute to the problem, but Webber shows the bond that develops between some of the owners and their pets, and that certainly complicates the issue. Terry Brumfield is a retired truck driver in poor health who suffered severe depression after a debilitating injury. He was given a lion cub by a friend and formed a deep bond with the beast that pulled him out of his depression.

He now owns Lacie (a female lion) and Lambert (a male).  They are being kept in a dirty horse trailer after Lambert escapes and attacks cars on the highway. Seeing the majestic animals contained in such a dingy, small space is sickening. It is obvious that Terry loves the lions very much, and they appear to adore him as well, but he can’t take care of them. Making matters worse, one morning Terry finds a surprise litter of cubs, bringing his total lion count to five.

Harrison tries to talk Terry into giving up the lions, but when he steadfastly refuses to do so, Harrison works with him to make a more humane enclosure for the animals.  Although there are many more people and their pets featured in the film, Terry’s story is most prominently featured.  It is a tragic example of good intentions gone wrong. Terry is barely ambulatory himself, but he is trying to care for these huge cats. You feel sorry for Terry, sorry for the cats, and sorry for Harrison, who is trying to clean up all these man-made messes.

Harrison makes the film compulsively watchable. He’s charismatic, compassionate, intelligent, and heroic. You get the sense that despite all his efforts, it’s like trying to plug a dam with your fingers-more leaks will keep popping up elsewhere. There are thousands of people like Terry all over the United States.

The Elephant in the Living Room runs you through an emotional wringer.  It shows the best and worst of human nature, and our treatment of animals. It’s not an easy film to watch (particularly if you are an animal lover), but it illuminates a growing problem that needs to be addressed.

Webber does try to show both sides of the argument during the film, but it is pretty hard to be completely objective about the subject matter. Many of the people arguing that it is their right to own the animals come across as petulant and entitled. At the very least, they are misguided, like Terry.

It doesn’t really matter, when entire ecosystems are changing because of a man made problem, that’s scary stuff. How many times have we heard not to mess with mother nature?

Webber has created a thought provoking film that you won’t soon forget.

Rating 4/5  Elephant in the Living Room is rated PG, and is now playing in select theaters. Directed by Michael Webber. You can watch the trailer below. For more information, visit the official website.

 

 

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