THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM"
There thousands and thousands of exotic animals living in private residences in the U.S. Thirty states allow citizens to own exotic, predatory animals, and nine of those states require no license whatsoever. Stop and think about that for a second: you have to get a license to own a dog, but not to own a Burmese Python or an African lion. The animals aren't in their natural environments and may be governed by their owners more out of love than out of responsibility. It's no wonder we turn on the news and hear the stories of people like Charla Nash, the woman who was severely mauled by her friend's 200-pound chimpanzee. The Elephant in the Living Room examines this problem in extraordinary detail, showing us how it impacts two different men, each on the opposite side of the fence. The documentary hits the sweet spot of being entertaining, informative, and deeply moving.
It starts off following Ohio police officer Tim Harrison, who specializes in capturing exotic animals that have gotten loose in major cities and small towns alike. Throughout his career, he has confronted deadly snakes in suburban garages, alligators running through city streets, and a whole lot more. Harrison recounts some of his adventures, carefully pointing out that most of the people who think it's "cool" to own an exotic animal are usually too na´ve to provide the heavy-duty security needed to keep those animals away from the public. He warns that the odds are high that someone near you owns (and has negligible containment facilities for) a creature that, at the very least, belongs in a zoo.
Harrison is a fascinating man. Via hidden cameras, he takes us inside the secretive world of exotic pet auctions, where poisonous snakes and reptiles are sold to individuals and families, some of whom have small children. Many of these creatures are stored in Tupperware for the transport home. Harrison is appalled by what he sees. At one auction, he buys a very deadly snake, simply to prevent some misguided citizen from acquiring it. The most admirable quality of Harrison is that he cares as much for the animals as for the people who could potentially be harmed by them. An advocate of humane treatment, he understands the attachment people have to their pets - no matter how unlikely - and doesn't want to see harm come to anyone or anything.
This leads to the second half of the film, where Harrison comes into contact with Terry Brumfield, a fellow Ohio resident. Following a near-debilitating accident, Terry sank into a deep depression, which was lifted when someone gave him a lion cub. When he meets Harrison, Terry has two adult lions, one male and one female. The male escaped its pen and ran amok around town. To prevent a recurrence, both lions spent months inside a transport trailer that was too small for them. Harrison wants him to consider letting them go to a sanctuary, where they will have more room to roam without anyone having to worry about escape. Terry sees the logic in that, yet his psychological well-being is so enmeshed with the lions that he can't bring himself to surrender them.
The good-hearted Harrison genuinely tries to help Terry, and an unlikely friendship is formed. Harrison understands something very important: that Terry is fundamentally sad, so his lions are, in many ways, the lifeline that ties him to some semblance of happiness. Rather than taking a purely bureaucratic approach, he finds a more positive way to assist this man. The journey of Harrison, Terry, and the lions ends up going to a place that's surprising and disturbing, yet ultimately redemptive.
Director Michael Webber supplements the stories of Tim Harrison and Terry Brumfield with news footage of incidents where predatory animals got loose to illustrate how common it really is. He also interviews ownership advocates, who make the case that there's nothing wrong with owning an exotic animal so long as you are slavishly responsible. While presenting both sides, The Elephant in the Living Room ultimately comes down one way, arguing with compassion that allowing private citizens to own dangerous wild animals is a no-win situation for everybody.
This documentary hits you on many levels. It's an eye-opener in terms of how widespread exotic animal ownership is. It is a compelling look at a man with a fascinating job; Harrison never knows what kind of unusual creature he'll face when he comes to work every day. Most of all, it is a touching portrait of two men on opposite sides of the issue who work together to do what is right. The first two things are fairly easy for a film to achieve. That Webber so fully captures the third thing - the dynamic between Harrison and Terry - is what makes The Elephant in the Living Room a must-see. The director got remarkable access to the lives of both men, allowing the audience to understand the issue from an angle that would never be possible were it simply a "facts and statistics" doc.
You are not likely to find a more provocative or humane documentary than this. It's one of the best I've ever seen.
( out of four)
The Elephant in the Living Room hits DVD on August 23. The disc has a number of bonus features, starting with audio commentary from director Mike Webber and producer John Adkins. They talk about the making of the film, and also expand on some of the issues raised in it.
"Beyond the Call: Untold Stories" reunites Webber, Harrison, and Russ Clear to answer behind-the-scenes questions about production. Among the topics covered are how a shocking piece of video was captured, the use of hidden cameras for segments of the film, and the sad tragedy that befell Terry Brumfield not long after the movie hit the festival circuit. This 48-minute documentary is full of useful supplementary information.
There are also four deleted scenes, two featuring more of Terry and his creatures, one with Tim reading an unintentionally humorous advice column for big cat owners, and one in which Terry's female lion, Sophie, goes to the vet.
The theatrical trailer is also included. (Look closely and you'll see a familiar source quoted.)
The Elephant in the Living Room is rated PG for disturbing situations, mild language, and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.