My favorite books growing up were about people who lived with wild animals. From Curious George and Elsa (the lioness in Born Free), to lesser knowns like Sterling North's books, The Wolfling and Rascal (a raccoon), the idea of having one of these exotic pets seemed like an incredible fantasy. But that fantasy has become an incredible, and often tragic, reality in our world today and filmmaker Michael Webber's documentary feature “The Elephant in the Living Room" has captured this world in a way that is both eye opening and heart stopping.
The film highlights the work of Tim Harrison, noted “Wildlife Warrior” with Outreach for Animals, as he helps to capture lions, tigers, pythons and much more, when they have been released accidentally or on purpose into the wild. Harrison also seeks to educate people about the problems of owning exotic animals and seeks to help place exotics that are being mistreated or that have grown beyond their owner's ability to care for. Webber does an excellent job of balancing education and excellent storytelling as he shines the light on a huge issue not only in the US, but around the world. The film uses text factoids strategically placed throughout the film to give us facts such as the estimate that there are over 15,000 privately owned exotic cats in the US. Another surprising fact is that such ownership goes practically unregulated. Unless you are a breeder or a dealer, there is no ownership requirements for exotic animals. While a few states have permit requirements, in most places there are far more regulations for owning a dog than there is a bengal tiger or other exotic animal.
But what sets this apart from many films on animal issues is that Webber understands that there is a human element to this story that is both very interesting, but also more significant in the bigger picture. Webber avoids the trap of becoming condemning or judgmental of those who own exotic animals and instead allows us to see their story as well. The film chronicles a year in the life of Terry Brumfeld, a man who owns two African lions. Their story forms the emotional center of the film and Webber treats it with care and respect. Brumfeld is a man who suffers from a depression and was given a lion cub by a friend to help him with his depression. He is also a man who was willing to talk about his doubts and fears in front of the camera in a very courageous way. His introspection helps us to understand the emotional attachment that is often a part of exotic animal ownership.
Webber and Harrison both participated in an excellent question and answer session after the filmed screened Wednesday at the Sedona International Film Festival. Their personal stories and insights into the issues and the characters in the film were fascinating. Tim Harrison shared that he went from being a person who raised exotics himself to his present role of rescuing exotics and educating people on the problems of exotic ownership after he saw his first infant that had been constricted by a python. Maybe the most difficult word in that sentence is “first” - indicating it was not the last such case he has personally witnessed. Tim also shared that this change has not come without some personal cost. He has received death threats due to his work in this field. The exotic animal issue is both highly emotionally charged and a very lucrative business.
It is no longer a rarity to hear news stories about chimpanzees attacking their owners, supposedly tame mountain lions roaming neighborhoods of panicked people, and other problems when exotic pet ownership goes bad. This film explores those issues as well as the problem of people releasing alligators, pythons and other animals into the wild. South Florida has become a rich habitat for a growing burmese python population that began through people releasing their pets that had grown too large.
“The Elephant in the Living Room” is an animal movie, but even more it is a film about people and about life transformations. The film took over a year to shoot and another year to compile and edit. It is an excellent example of the very best in documentary filmmaking.
See the trailer for The Elephant in the Living Room.
This film will be screening again on Friday, February 26 at 2:30 pm in the Sedona Rouge Theater. Tickets were still available at the time of publication.