Film Review: The Elephant in the Living Room

Michael Webber’s documentary about the rewards and liabilities of America’s growing fascination with exotic pets, from poisonous snakes to elephants, gives equal time to devoted animal owners and the doctors, police officers and animal rescuer

An Ohio public-safety officer who’s answered more calls about nuisance alligators in one year than his Florida colleagues.…A Texas sanitation worker who got a Christmas-day call to pick up some roadside debris that turned out to be a dead tiger.…An Ohio doctor who says he’s treated more serious wild-animal injuries in a Dayton emergency room than in the clinic he runs in Swaziland.…

Michael Webber’s sympathetic but clear-eyed documentary is a chronicle of good intentions and the road they pave, made heart-breakingly immediate by the voices of people on the front lines, many of whom have far more complex relationships with exotic pets (a term that encompasses everything from parrots to pythons) than it first seems. The Ohio native crisscrosses the United States, taking in an exotic reptile expo in Pennsylvania (“they’re pretty laid back,” says one salesman of the crocodile he holds up for inspection, a statement undermined by the tape holding its mouth shut), talking to a reptile owner and dealer in Las Vegas and tagging along with Florida Wildlife Conservation officers as they try to root out the feral Burmese pythons upsetting the local ecosystem. Investigator Bill Stiffler has caught over 100 of them and sadly observes that most were euthanized—pretty much anyone who wants a Burmese already has one or doesn’t want a 16-footer weighing several hundred pounds. “It’s not necessarily a python problem,” he says philosophically. “It’s a people problem that we have.”

But two Ohio men serve as the documentary’s anchors: Pikefield truck driver Terry Brumfield and Oakwood public safety officer Tim Harrison. Brumfield always loved animals, but it took a crippling work-related injury to push him into the realm of extreme pet ownership: Adopting cute little Lambert and Laci helped him stave off devastating depression, but as cuddly lion cubs inevitably do, they matured into 500- pound top-of-the-food-chain predators. When the full-grown Lambert gets loose and starts chasing cars on nearby Route 23—playfully, Brumfield insists, like a big old dog—both beasts are moved into cramped temporary housing while authorities debate the animals’ future.

Brumfield initially sees Harrison, put in charge of the case, as the enemy. But Harrison understands the situation better than Brumfield imagined: He once raised exotics himself, including a lioness who broke his heart when she grew too large to keep. As a public safety officer—a combination cop, firefighter and paramedic—he deals regularly with feral alligators (a record-setting 29 in one particularly hectic year), fugitive big cats, unmanageable primates (especially chimpanzees) and venomous snakes that have slipped out of their tanks and taken refuge in heating ducts and other hideouts. Harrison founded Outreach for Animals, a group dedicated to monitoring the homegrown trade in exotics, working with owners to keep their pets healthy and contained—many learn the basics of feeding, say, a captive-born giraffe, only after it’s already installed in the backyard—and finding homes for abandoned and unwanted animals whose natures are at fundamental odds with their environments.

Unlike many point-counterpoint documentaries whose ostensible fairness lies lightly over a clear-cut agenda, Webber presents a genuine discussion of a complicated, divisive and frequently gut-wrenching issue. Terry Brumfield loves his lions not wisely but too well, while Harrison is caught between heart and head. He knows exactly how badly exotic-pet stories can end, and the moment when he decides to throw every resource at his command behind helping Brumfield keep his cats is a bona fide tearjerker. And that’s before Brumfield, whose lion holdings unexpectedly increase from two to five while he’s procrastinating, decides he’s in over his head, leaving Harrison to try and find homes—preferably one home—for Laci, Lambert and their three adorable, rapidly growing cubs. As Harrison knows all too well, unwanted lions are in no short supply, while safe, reputable and well-funded wildlife refuges are.

Though a far warmer film than Werner Herzog’s 2005 Grizzly Man, about self-proclaimed bear whisperer Timothy Treadwell, whose overestimation of his rapport with wild grizzlies cost him his life, The Elephant in the Living Room is ultimately a strikingly similar cautionary tale. Both acknowledge the almost mystical power of looking into the eyes of wild beasts and finding some primordial common ground, but also counsel strongly against the dangerous assumption that cougars, bears and lions see they same thing when they look at us.