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Monday, July 28, 2014
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Published: Friday, 3/28/2014

CULTURE SHOCK

Filmmaker documents dangers of exotic wildlife

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In 2011, Ohio filmmaker Mike Webber released The Elephant in the Living Room, an acclaimed documentary about the prevalence of domesticated wild animals in the United States, and the danger this posed to the owners and everyone else.

Webber’s film followed Tim Harrison, a former public safety officer-turned director of the Dayton-based Outreach for Animals, as he rescued and relocated exotic animals, including fully grown lions that had run loose on the interstate near rural Pike County, and were subsequently captured and confined to a rusted horse trailer.

The documentary illuminated a problem most of us knew little about, and its warning of a coming catastrophe, unfortunately, proved prophetic.

On Oct. 19 of that year, Terry Thompson, the 62-year-old owner of the Muskingum County Animal Farm near Zanesville, Ohio, let loose more than 50 exotics from his farm into the surrounding area of homes and woods in rural Ohio, including lions, grizzly bears, wolves, and tigers. Thompson committed suicide, most of the animals were killed by sheriff’s deputies, schools in the area canceled classes and residents were urged to stay in their homes while the animals were on the loose, and the gripping tragedy made national headlines.

“In a sense, some people were saying the film predicted this to happen,” Webber said in a recent phone interview. “Ironically enough, almost exactly a year before that incident, Tim and I gave a speech at the Ohio Statehouse begging the legislators to pay attention to this and telling people what would happen if they didn’t. A year later and it happened ... and Zanesville became one of the top news stories in the world.”

Zanesville was the tipping point for state officials and Ohio passed strict laws governing ownership of wild animals, while Webber and Harrison made the rounds on TV news programs such as Nightline, 20/20, and Today, as their film became a pertinent talking point. After media interest faded, Webber returned to his Dayton-based film production company, MainSail Productions, and Harrison continued to help these animals and their owners.

The pair also kept filming Harrison’s efforts. Three years later, they’re ready to showcase those adventures in a proposed new series called American Exotic.

“The idea behind the series, regardless of where you stand with the issue, is it’s really compelling what Tim Harrison does, going out and rescuing, capturing, relocating, and otherwise helping these exotic pets and their owners,” Webber said. “When the movie finished, I wanted to continue to do that work, I wanted to continue to bring light to this issue, which wasn’t going away, and so I did.”

But before American Exotic becomes a series, it has to go through Kickstarter. Webber is trying to raise $70,000 for post-production for a six-episode first season to be released on the Web either late this year or early 2015. As of Wednesday morning, the campaign had 51 backers pledging $3,173 with 31 days remaining in the campaign. For more information, visit americanexotic.com.

Before deciding to self-release the series through the Web, at least two networks expressed interest in American Exotic, Webber said, but he and Harrison nixed the deals “because of disagreements of either the concept of the show or things that would be asked of us that we just weren’t willing to do,” including staging fights and rescues.

“We have all of these stories and these shows without having to stage them and without doing things that honestly we feel are wrong for the animals and quite possibly can hurt them in the long run,” he said. “We have stories from California with escaped chimpanzees, stories from Pennsylvania in Amish country, where escaped panthers are terrorizing a town ... to Ohio, where we’re relocating bears that the people can no longer care for or alligators that have grown too big for the bathtub.

“The stories go on and on.”

 

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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