For this week’s Letter Game entry, I decided to take my own suggestion and watch a film I’ve been intending to get to for almost half a year. I heard about it on the radio after work one day, a documentary which sheds light on people who own exotic pets. Not animal trainers or zoologists, mind you, but rather regular everyday folk who keep lions, elephants, poisonous snakes, chimpanzees, hyenas, bears, and whatever other species you can think of – as household pets. They think it’s “cool” to harbor such beasts, but without the proper training and environment for the animals, their stories invariably end in misery. What happens when your tiger gets loose in your neighborhood? Or when your cobra bites you accidentally? Or when you just can’t afford to take care of your lions anymore – who do you call then?
So the film is a cautionary tale at its heart, its primary subject public safety officer Tim Harrison. Harrison was once an owner of exotic animals, but now spends his time trying to educate others and prevent people from taking on responsibilities that they cannot possibly be prepared for. In Florida, pet pythons are abandoned in the National Parks so often that they’ve become a naturally occuring species. Harrison flips through a newspaper meant for wildlife enthusiasts, the want ads stuffed to the gills with offers of practically every creature under the sun… and they’re all free. Because short of murdering the animal, there are few outlets to rid oneself of an exotic pet. The pet shelter isn’t going to be able to take your abandoned elephant. The film stops at one point to tell of a huge tiger found dead in a park in Dallas, its bright coat indicating that the cat was in good health at the time of its demise. But caretakers unable to take care of the beast had shot it in the face at close range and dumped the body in the underbrush, an act just as horrific as the murder of a human being. “It almost made me want to cry,” muses the man who came across the carcass. “Sometimes it still does.”
Harrison knows this feeling well. He tells the camera that he doesn’t get any happy ending in his line of work because the animals are in bad condition where they are and are rarely able to placed in an appropriate home. Animals that go unclaimed often have to be euthanized. While hunched over in the woods, listening for the sound of a cougar that escaped from a residential home, Harrison thinks aloud. Maybe it would be best for the cat, he concludes, to just walk away now and let the animal live its life. Of course this is not possible given the danger the creature poses to the surrounding community, but the cougar is not to blame for its position. “What we have is not a python problem,” one of the park rangers in Florida opined, “what we have is a people problem.” What’s amazing about Harrison is how easily he can commiserate with these pet owners at the same time that he loathes them for their selfishness. He too once cared deeply for an animal and can therefore understand the drive to contain an otherwise untamed beast.
One such pet owner is Terry Brumfield, a man whose crippling depression was alleviated by the relationship he formed with a lion cub that he named Lambert. That void could have just as easily have been filled by a dog or housecat, but Brumfield was introduced to the lion when it was small and cute and mostly harmless. As always, it’s a lot more “cool” to own a lion than it is to own a corgi, and the unique pet allowed Brumfield to form closer relationships with the humans throughout town, all of whom are disappointed when he doesn’t bring the animal around. At the time of filming, Lambert is fully grown and Brumfield has acquired a second lion to give Lambert some company. But handicapped and far from wealthy, the lions’ master is unable to properly care for them; they are confined to a trailer not large enough for the two to roam freely. But Brumfield loves the animals dearly. With tears in his eyes, he claims that if he ever felt that he were the cause of his pets’ demise, he would feel compelled to take his own life too. That’s how strongly he feels for these animals. They become like family, much as any pet might, and it becomes difficult to admit that the kitten you cared for when it weighed 20 pounds cannot be so easily managed now that it weighs half a ton.
Yes, The Elephant in the Living Room is a “message” documentary, in as much as it intends to convince its viewer not to seek the thrill of exotic pet ownership, despite how easy it may be to obtain such creatures. Harrison visits, with a hidden camera documenting the event, a reptile expo where some of the most poisonous snakes on earth are kept in flimsy plastic containers held closed with a bit of masking tape. Great lizards are kept in small glass enclosures while hundreds of potential buyers – anybody off the street, really – peruse the merchandise. Many states have no laws regulating the exotic animal trade, making it difficult to prosecute owners who fail to take proper care of their animals and end up endangering others. But Brumfield’s story helps illuminate a fact that Harrison already knows: these pet owners are not evil, just misguided. This admission is not typical of the genre, as most documentaries trying to sell a point of view opt to demonize their opponents. That sentiment gives the film a somewhat tragic edge.
It would be easy to paint Harrison as a righteous hero, fighting the foolish hubris which makes humans purchase wild animals for amusement. Instead, the film shows him doing his job with great sadness – the sorry state of the animals he encounters unfortunate but understandable. There are some heavily emotional moments within, a sense of tension to the film that can really grip a viewer. At other times, the movie appears to have so many disparate thoughts that it wishes to convey that some of the meaning gets lost in the shuffle. The center of the film – the story of Harrison and Brumfield and how their lives intersect – is the film at its strongest, though, making The Elephant in the Living Room not just educational or persuasive, but also emotional and riveting.
It takes the movie a little while to find its voice, but once it does, it roars.