The Elephant In The Living Room

In 2005, the Humane Society of the United States estimated that 5,000 tigers were in private ownership in the United States, many as household pets -- a quantity greater than the number of tigers that still exist in the wild. The trend of exotic pet ownership in the U.S. has increased dramatically in recent years, ranging from “big cats” (lions, tigers,...read more

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Reviewed by Mark Deming
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In 2005, the Humane Society of the United States estimated that 5,000 tigers were in private ownership in the United States, many as household pets -- a quantity greater than the number of tigers that still exist in the wild. The trend of exotic pet ownership in the U.S. has increased dramatically in recent years, ranging from “big cats” (lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars) to poisonous snakes and reptiles, small primates, bears, and even elephants. There’s no arguing the beauty and charisma of these animals, but is it good for the animals, the owners, and the community at large to keep them as pets? Documentary filmmaker Michael Webber takes a deep look into the issue of exotic pets in his film The Elephant in the Living Room, and he’s crafted a story that’s thoughtful, compelling, and thought-provoking.

The Elephant in the Living Room is dotted with interviews with exotic pet owners and dealers from across the United States and news reports about pets that have either gotten loose or been abandoned by their owners (including reports that some large breeds of African snakes abandoned in Florida are now breeding in the wild at a steady rate), but the film’s primary focus is on two men living in Ohio. Tim Harrison is a safety officer -- a policeman, paramedic, and firefighter -- who also works with an animal rescue group. In the course of his work, Harrison has encountered a remarkable number of animals that, in his opinion, have no business being in people’s homes; he worked as a veterinarian’s assistant as a teenager and has a deep love for animals, but he also believes it’s not in anyone’s best interest to keep certain animals as pets, and notes ruefully that, in his experience, having a big cat in your home never ends well. At the other end of the scale is Terry Brumfield, a former truck driver who keeps a pair of lions in his backyard. Brumfield is a shaggy mountain of a man who looks like someone you wouldn’t want angry with you; he admits to dealing with severe bouts of depression, and says one of the few things that has helped him was adopting his two African lions. Although there’s no doubt that Brumfield loves his animals deeply and would rather fight than give them up, he’s also living with serious back and neck injuries after an highway accident and uses a regimen of pain killers, so it’s questionable if he’s up to the demands of caring for the big cats, especially after the lions give birth to a litter of cubs.

The Elephant in the Living Room doesn’t make much of a secret of its point of view, as director Webber offers plenty of facts, figures, and news stories to back up his opinions on the dangers of exotic pets, both to people and to the animals themselves, and he sneaks hidden cameras into two events where reptiles and big cats are being sold. But the film’s tone isn’t that of a propaganda piece so much as a cautionary tale, and the movie’s concern is with the animals as much as the people around them -- a view summed up by Harrison in his wish that lions should have a chance to be lions, which they can’t do caged up in Ohio. Webber also has two protagonists who are interesting enough to carry a film on their own. Tim Harrison comes off as a bright, fiercely committed man fighting what often seems like an uphill battle against a growing tide of dangerous critters, though he’s also personable, compassionate toward the people he deals with, and has a sense of humor about his work (he shows up at a sale of rare reptiles wearing a Snakes on a Plane T-shirt). Terry Brumfield is a more mysterious and less articulate man, yet the footage of him with his cats is remarkable; there’s a peace and sense of awe visible on his face when he spends time with his lions that’s truly wondrous, and there’s never a moment where anyone could question his love for his big cats, even if you fault his judgment. As Brumfield’s story plays itself out, though, it makes a subtle but clear point about the very real differences between humans and animals -- that our ways will never be their ways. A man who deals in exotic pets for a living tells Webber on camera that the owners of these animals need to be flawless in their care for the sake of the animals and themselves; as The Elephant in the Living Room makes clear, people have a hard time being flawless, and it doesn’t help when they’re living with animals that, for all their beauty, were never meant to be living in a suburb in the United States.

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  • Released: 2010
  • Review: In 2005, the Humane Society of the United States estimated that 5,000 tigers were in private ownership in the United States, many as household pets -- a quantity greater than the number of tigers that still exist in the wild. The trend of exotic pet owners… (more)

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