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Elephant in the Living Room, The (Blu-ray Review)

5 Feb, 2012 By: John Latchem

Street 2/7/12
Level 33
$19.99 DVD, $24.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG’ for thematic material including some disturbing situations, mild language and smoking.

There’s something inherently fascinating about the idea that random, ordinary American citizens might have lions or monkeys just hanging around their property. But seeing some of these people casually interacting with their exotic pets adds a certain morbid curiosity about whether or not they are out of their minds.

Director Mike Webber takes an in-depth look at the issue in The Elephant in the Living Room, adding to a growing canon of films chronicling a bizarre human capacity to underestimate wild, predatory animals (Grizzly Man, Project Nim, etc.).

Webber’s film covers much of the same ground as a similar documentary from 2010: The Tiger Next Door, which chronicled an Indiana man who bred exotic animals and was forced to give them up after pressure from his neighbors. The engrossing, thought-provoking and, in some cases, heart-wrenching, Elephant in the Living Room takes a bit of a different approach to the material, presenting more of an overview of the issue through the experiences of two men on both sides of it.

We meet Tim Harrison, a public safety officer for Oakwood, Ohio, a town near Dayton. He notes that when he started out, he would deal with about five exotic animal incidents a year. But after the advent of animal-related reality TV in the 1990s (cue a clip of the Crocodile Hunter), he began receiving hundreds of calls. The film is riveting as he recounts some of these tales, such as a boa constrictor living in the walls of a house for a month, or kids playing with a deadly African pit viper in their garage.

And then there is the time a lion escaped his cage and started chasing cars on the highway. The big cat, Lambert, was one of two lions owned at the time by Terry Brumfield, who emotionally confesses that he loved his lion so much he was willing to kill himself if it was harmed in the incident.

Tim eventually seeks out Terry to help him improve the situation for his lions, who were confined to a tiny horse trailer for months after the freeway incident. Not having much to do in confinement, it isn’t long before the pair starts popping out cubs.

The film notes that 15,000 exotic big cats (lions, tigers, etc.) are kept as pets in the United States, so Terry’s case is certainly not unique.

Moving the lions to a bigger enclosure alleviates some problems, but tragedy strikes when Lambert is killed in a freak accident involving a power surge in a nearby freezer that electrifies the groundwater and cage. This puts even more pressure on Terry to find a proper home for the remaining animals.

Webber occasionally interrupts the primary storylines to show news stories about the dangers of irresponsible pet ownership, often with statistics related to the events in question. For example, we are told that 15,000 primates are kept as pets in America as the film briefly recounts the incident in which a chimpanzee tore off a woman’s face. In another clip, Harrison reads an article in an exotic animal ownership newsletter about the bear from Semi-Pro, just before the film cuts to the report about how the same bear killed its trainer.

Then there are other horror stories involving pet pythons eating babies. And, yes, even pet elephants, a concept that lends the movie its title. Webber maintains a brisk pace jumping from story to story.

Of course, the film came out before the motherlode of exotic pet incidents, when in late 2011 an owner unleashed 56 animals from his farm into the unsuspecting community of Zanesville, Ohio, before he killed himself. But that just feeds into the point the film is trying to make.

The looming question is what motivates people to want to own these animals, as if there’s some sort of cultural divide that allows Americans to overlook their inherent danger because they’re so cute when they’re young. It doesn’t help, the film points out, when animal experts bring elephants and monkeys and bears and other cute but dangerous animals onto late-night talk shows

One emergency room doctor opines that he’s seen more fatal injuries from these types of animals in America than in his experiences visiting their native countries, noting that “people in Africa don’t keep cobras in their house.”

Key to the narrative here is one statistic (of many) the film presents early on: 30 states allow exotic pet ownership, and nine don’t even require licenses. This leads one incredulous sheriff to note that while you need a license for your dog, it’s not necessary to get one for a lion.

Another graphic makes the staggering claim that there are more Tigers living in captivity in Texas than there are in the wild in India. Such a fact on its own would make for a fascinating discussion about the incentives of private ownership in bolstering endangered species, but that’s a topic for another day.

The focus here is more about how surprisingly easy it is for people to acquire these creatures, and the potential dangers irresponsible ownership might pose to both the people and animals involved.

Harrison has taken up the cause of limiting exotic pet ownership, and he has a clear motivation for doing so. One of his fellow officers was once killed by a rhino viper that was loose in a home. Before meeting Terry, Harrison spends much of the film guiding cameras through the underground world of exotic pets, exposing seedy auctions and bazaars where people can acquire almost anything. (Harrison certainly is not without a sense of humor about it all, as he heads to a reptile expo in Pennsylvania wearing a Snakes on a Plane T-shirt.)

But this isn’t a documentary that just piles on support for one side. One scene gives the Nevada couple behind REXANO (Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership) a chance to advocate the idea that private ownership can be beneficial to both owner and animal. (They later posted a statement on their website questioning the overall veracity of the film.)

Also weighing in is Kevin Foose, who owns an exotic pet store in Las Vegas and laments the degree to which stupid people try to own these animals without having any idea what they are getting into, creating a perception that causes problems for those who do know what they are doing.

The making of the film is fully explored in the bonus materials, with a filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes and a great 46-minute conversation in which Webber and Harrison are joined by Harrison cohort Russ Clear to answer questions people have had about the film.

Among the startling revelations is the degree to which Webber became ill due to his proximity to the conditions of the lion cages, which are typically filled with feces and dead carcasses. The trio also take a moment to pay their respects to Terry, who died in 2010 when a train collided with his car. Fittingly, he was buried next to his lion.

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