Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! Exotic beasts of burden like these are must-sees during a visit to the local zoo, but they might live closer to home than you think. Over the past two decades there’s been a disturbing rise in the exotic animal trade, where imported reptiles and mammals are sold to private collectors without any oversight or regulation. As a result, Burmese pythons, Bengal tigers, and African lions are popping up on American streets after escaping their sometimes-inadequate enclosures, occasionally killing innocent people in the process. Michael Webber’s informative documentary The Elephant in the Living Room analyzes the growing trend of attacks while examining the possible reasons Americans might want to keep these dangerous wild animals as pets. Webber digs deeper than the sensational headlines, finding the tangible justifications driving each side of the debate.
Two complex men reside at the heart of the documentary. Tim Harrison, a public safety officer in Dayton, Ohio, has spent the last 30 years capturing escaped exotic animals and advocating for their safety and rights. Terry Brumfield, a depressive trying to recuperate after a debilitating car accident, lives at a backcountry home in the same area. Terry owns two full-grown African lions, a male named Lambert and a female named Lacy, and sees them as not just pets, but part of his family. At first, it’s unclear how Webber will weave the two stories together, but after Lambert escapes and shreds a few passing cars on a local highway, Tim takes a special interest in Terry’s case.
Webber spends equal amount of time with both men, but Tim’s unflinching passion and durability begin to overwhelm Terry’s passivity and deteriorating mental situation. Tim takes the camera crew and infiltrates exotic pet expos, validating the unreal statistics the filmmakers use as chapter headings between each segment. The most revealing argument against owning these animals comes during Tim’s visit to a venomous snake trade show, where Webber’s hidden camera slowly tracks along table after table of plastic containers holding the most dangerous snakes in the world, all accessible for the right price. “It’s like buying potato salad at the local grocery store,” Tim sarcastically says, critiquing the almost cavalier attitude of the vendors and the customers poking and prodding these animals. Walking out into the fresh air, Tim says, “You’ve got to respect what they are,” and this example of mass delusion shows that much of the American public doesn’t have a clue about the commitment and responsibility that comes with owning these animals.
Yet through Terry’s deeply heartbreaking perspective, Webber portrays the understandable reasons someone might make this decision anyway. Lambert and Lacy are Terry’s only markers of happiness amid worsening bouts of depression, and giving up these animals seems like a death sentence for him. Terry and Tim spend ample amounts of time trying to come up with a solution, and the arrival of three lion cubs only complicates the situation. Terry’s home-video footage capturing his interactions with the lions is consistently engaging, but turns tragic when he documents Lambert’s sudden death from an accidental electrocution. The impending moments are difficult to watch, and thankfully Tim doesn’t judge Terry, and neither does the film.
Aside from Terry and Tim, The Elephant in the Living Room branches out, maybe too much so, to other perspectives around the country. A Nevada couple raising big cats, a Florida Fish and Game Officer dealing with an infestation of pythons, and an ER doctor in Ohio all get their moment on the soapbox. These side plots are always interesting, but never really fleshed out beyond the surface. It doesn’t help that Webber juxtaposes his interviews and news footage with a consistent musical score that is both overtly precious and manipulative. By constantly hounding the material with melodramatic tunes, Webber never allows his film to breath, diminishing the very human pain on display.
Ultimately, the documentary isn’t about presenting a balanced opinion, but creating an ideological four-alarm fire about this epidemic of irresponsibility and arrogance. It’s hard to blame Webber for doing just that, because some of the statistics and situations he reveals paint an unimaginable situation. In the end, it all comes back to Tim’s warnings, often succinct and eloquent phrasings that could pertain to many aspects of our culture these days. “We should be afraid of them. But we’re not.” Take heed, America.