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Tiger Next Door, The (DVD Review)

13 Apr, 2010 By: John Latchem

Street 4/20/10
First Run
$24.95 DVD
Not rated.

No, this isn’t about sexually addicted golfers who prey on the innocent porn stars living down the street from you.

Rather, it is an examination of a trend in America of people who want to keep exotic animals as pets. In many states, tiger ownership is unregulated, and it is estimated that there are more tigers living in private captivity in America than there are in the wild.

Director Camilla Calamandrei’s engrossing film, which aired on Animal Planet, focuses on tiger breeder Dennis Hill, a former hippie who struts around with a long white beard that would make Gandalf proud. He has been raising and selling tigers, bears, monkeys and other wild animals from his Indiana backyard since 1992, but in recent years has had to curtail his activities after state and federal authorities withdrew most of his permits due to substandard living conditions. Hill is filled with excuses as to why it isn’t his fault.

Hill maintains a casual relationship with his tigers, and seems to love them. Some of his neighbors are afraid the tiny chain-link enclosures they live in aren’t enough to contain them. Others claim Hill is just a callous collector willing to neglect the animals for profit. Even Hill at one point admits he may be hoarding too many of the animals.

Calamandrei sets up Hill’s story with news footage of various stories of tiger captivity gone wrong. One involves a tiger that was pulled from an apartment in Harlem. Other stories deal with people who were killed by their pet tigers. This sets up an uneasy tension akin to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, which told of a man who thought he could live with bears in the wild, until they killed him. In Hill’s case, we are left with the morbid curiosity of waiting to see if one of his big cats will be the end of him.

As a result of a permit agreement, Hill must rid himself of all but three of his tigers. He wants to keep his rare white tigers (those favored by Siegfried and Roy, and we all know what happened there), allowing him to continue his obsession with breeding a pure white tiger with no stripes.

A few of Hill’s neighbors, and some people who run tiger sanctuaries that have taken in Hill’s tigers, would rather him not keep any exotic animals, arguing it’s either unsafe to them or unfair to the animals.

Some of the deleted scenes provide updates on the status of some of the tigers that were taken. Other clips expand on stories of neglect.

Yet Hill also has his supporters, and the film makes sure to present both sides of the issue.

The fear Calamandrei seems to share with some government agencies is that many of the animals are being raised simply as commodities, and are actually worth more dead than alive, with the skins, bones and meats all profitable as luxury items, and that it is cruel to raise animals for this purpose.

I think a more interesting discussion might be whether qualified private ownership actually creates more of an incentive to care for the animals, much in the same way we raise chickens or cows. But this is not a debate Calamandrei engages within the film (the supplemental materials do state her preference to ban private ownership), and the film does a splendid job of illustrating the difficulties and dangers of trying to keep wild animals as pets.

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