The Elephant in the Living Room is a startling revelation about a subject I frankly knew very little about: the domestication of wild animals. Illumination is, of course, the hallmark of a good documentary -- introducing us to a mounting problem or concern of which we are blissfully ignorant.
That's not to say I wasn't aware of the dangers of raising wild animals. The blaring headlines about the woman viciously mauled beyond recognition by a pet chimp in Connecticut or the 2-year-old girl in Florida strangled and suffocated by the family's pet python, were impossible to ignore and forget.
But where I was caught unaware was the prevalence of the exotics subculture. These aren't just a few animal lovers sprinkled throughout the nation, to quote statistics from The Elephant in the Living Room, "There are 15,000 big cats living with exotic animal owners in the U.S.," and, "There are more tigers in captivity in Texas than in the wild of India."
THE ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM
Directed by Michael Webber. A NightFly Entertainment release, opening Friday at Rave Franklin Park and Levis Commons. Rated PG. Running time: 95 minutes.
Critic's rating: * * * *
Himself .......... Tim Harrison
Himself ......... Terry Brumfield
* * * * * Outstanding; * * * * Very Good; * * * Good; * * Fair; * Poor
And if that doesn't get your attention, how about this: "30 states allow private ownership of predatory, exotic animals. Nine of those states require no license or permit whatsoever."
Until recently, Ohio was one of those nine states.
As one sheriff interviewed in the film says, there's a law for dogs to have dog tags, but no law requiring a lion to wear tags as well.
Things changed in Ohio, though, on Jan. 7, when outgoing Gov. Ted Strickland signed an executive order to regulate exotics. The order expires Wednesday, and Gov. John Kasich has yet to announce his intentions to keep or revoke it. For more, read The Blade's outdoors editor Steve Pollick's column.
Meanwhile, there's a reason to be concerned about this escalating interest in domesticating exotics, says Tim Harrison, of Oakwood, Ohio, a Dayton suburb, who is the director of the Dayton-based Outreach for Animals. Harrison has spent years dealing with lions, cougars, bears, monkeys, alligators, and other animals of the wild that have escaped from homes and into suburban neighborhoods or even released into nearby woods -- more tragically, he once had to capture a venomous snake loose in a house after it bit and killed its owner, a firefighter friend. So it's hard to dismiss Harrison's concern that Ohio has a growing problem with exotic animals.
A former truck driver crippled with health issues after a traffic accident and now raising lions in his rural Pike County home, Brumfield is as loving and close to his exotic pets as any father is to his child. Even after his lions escape their pen and run loose on the interstate until they're captured, Brumfield refuses to allow the state authorities or other animal organizations to take them away. The lions are subsequently caged in a rusted horse trailer on Brumfield's lot, rendering the owner heartbroken and impotent with indecision.
Meanwhile, Harrison is worried Brumfield's plight will end in the familiar tragedies he's seen before.
Harrison and Brumfield's relationship with each other and the lions form the emotional backbone of this film; it's difficult not to be moved by Brumfield's interaction with his lions, and at least consider these animals as overgrown cats, though armed with the tools and size to maul and kill.
That inherent danger in owning such animals is the centerpiece of The Elephant in the Living Room's argument. Though the film does not suggest these animals aren't capable of being domesticated, the chilling reality is that if an exotic pet lashes out -- even playfully -- it's with far more deadly consequences than a dog bite or cat scratch.
Consider this sobering quote from Roger Paholka, a doctor at Miami Valley Medical Center in Dayton, a Level 1 Trauma Center, who also performs medical missionary work in Africa.
"I see more fatal injuries from snakes and other wild animals in this country than we do in Africa. And we've been working in Africa for 25 years," he tells the camera. "People in Africa don't keep cobras in their house. They don't keep lions and leopards in their yard. They keep a safe distance from them because they're afraid of them. We should be too, but we're not."
And why is that? Paholka and the film's writer-director-producer Michael Webber suggest late-night TV is at least partially to blame, as animal trainers parade chimps, bears, snakes, and other exotics on talk shows as quasi-guests. Audiences see how cute and lovable these animals are, and that natural barrier of fear is broken down.
Meanwhile, the demand for such pets is on the rise. At the Mt. Hope Auction near Canton, which features a wish list of exotics for sale -- monkeys, alligators, snakes, etc. -- the place is crammed with buyers. Particularly alarming are the parents Webber films with an undercover camera buying children venomous snakes as pets. Whether you agree or disagree with owning dangerous exotic animals, can anyone make a sane, reasonable argument as to why a young boy should have a highly venomous snake as a pet? There's no rationale for it. None. In that respect, common sense is on the side of the filmmaker and The Elephant in the Living Room.
As Ken Foose, an exotic animal shop owner in Las Vegas says about the subculture, "If we keep shooting ourselves in the foot, and giving these people more fuel for their fear, we're going to lose. It's up to us -- we keepers of lions, tigers, bears, snakes -- we've got to make sure that we are flawless, or as close to flawless as we can be. We've got to make sure we don't cause these incidents. It's because of us that this is coming back to haunt us now."
The Elephant in the Living Room opens Friday night with a full run of showings at Levis Commons 12, as well as a onetime screening at 7 p.m. Friday at Franklin Park 16 following speakers from the Humane Society and a post-film Q&A.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.