"You don't have to go to India to see a tiger. You don't have to go to Canada to see a cougar. You don't have to go to Africa to see a Gaboon viper. You can go to Anytown, USA. Those animals are here," says Tim Harrison, one of the subjects of the new documentary "The Elephant in the Living Room."
"Elephant," which has taken the top documentary prize at several film festivals, opens today in 22 cities across the country, with more cities getting screenings in the following weeks.
The 95-minute documentaryexplores the U.S. subculture of people who keep wild animals for pets. One of the experts on this topic is Harrison, a public safety officer near Dayton, Ohio, who says the number of calls about exotic animals began spiking in the early 1990s. He fingers the rise of reality TV shows featuring wild animals.
Director Mike Webberhas said the documentary,funded partly by a grant from the Humane Society of the United States, isn't an "agenda" film but rather an exploration of both sides.
To that end, he trails not only Harrison, who must deal with the consequences of others' choices, but also Terry Brumfield in Piketon, Ohio.
Brumfield wrecked a tractor trailer in 1999. The accident battered him physically and mentally, so one day a friend brought a lion cub by to cheer him up. Brumfield grew attached to the cub, named Lambert, and kept him. Brumfield got another cub too –Lacy.
Now the 500-pound African lions live in a pen on Brumfield's property – just the sort of situation that Harrison both understands (as an animal lover) and must manage (again, as an animal lover as well as public safety officer).
"Elephant" progresses along three tracks: Harrison's work, Brumfield's attachment to his lions, and the issue of exotic pet ownership in general.
As for Harrison, in one year he caught nearly 30 alligators – in Ohio. He also shares stories about Burmese pythons, boa constrictors, kids playing with a Gaboon viper, a cougar running through a suburban neighborhood.
Some of the stories are enhanced by still photos and home videos of the incidents as well as comments from eyewitnesses.
As for Brumfield, he can't say enough about how much he loves those lions. He says people call him crazy, but they don't understand. He says the lions are like his own children.
And as for owning wild animals, Webber explores that via profiles of people, incidents and locales. For example, national park rangers in Florida's Everglades found 12 Burmese pythons in one day. One ranger alone has caught more than 100 on the job.
Rangers and other experts surmise that pet owners abandoned the reptiles there, and because Burmese pythons are "breeding machines," the Everglades now have an ongoing challenge.
Webber also conveys information about the problem through well-placed title cards. For example:
"Thirty states allow private ownership of predatory, exotic pets. Nine of those states require no license or permit whatsoever."
Another: "There are more tigers in captivity in Texas than there are in the wild in India."
And peppering the documentary are news segments from recent years: "Hollywood Bear Kills Trainer,""Deadly Snake Attack,""Cougar Attack,""Chimp Attacks Woman,""Baby Bear Found,""African Lion Loose."
That last one was Lambert, whose escape and eventual capture meant both he and Lacy were confined to a horse trailer.Brumfield stands outside the trailer, lonely, conflicted. Some of these shots could have been trimmed to keep the film moving more briskly.
The narrative strands coalesce in the film's second half as Harrison eventually becomes personally involved in Brumfield's situation. Lambert and Lacy's story deepens in ways that will both warm and rend the viewer's heart.
"The Elephant in the Living Room" does what good documentaries can do: shine a light into a dark corner and show us something we need to see.
Even if, especially if, it's a danger to the unsuspecting.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material including some disturbing situations, mild language and smoking.