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Movie Review: The Elephant in the Living Room

By Philip Martin

This article was published April 1, 2011 at 2:42 a.m.

— One of the most inane shows to ever appear on television was a Saturday morning game show hosted by Alan Thicke called Animal Crack-Ups. While the show’s premise wasn’t so bad - celebrities would watch kooky clips of animals caught in the act of being themselves (most provided by Japanese TV) and then try to answer questions to win money for animal-related charities - the program sported a dubious theme song that, at one point, asserted “Animals are just like people too/Animals are just like me and you.”

Er, no, they’re not.

Anyone who doubts this show immediately see Michael Webber’s alarming and heartbreaking documentary The Elephant in the Living Room,which examines the small but apparently rapidly growing subculture of people who keep exotic animals as pets.

It’s told largely through the eventually convergent stories of two complicated men. The first is Dayton, Ohio, public safety officer Tim Harrison, a combination police-officerfirefighter- emergency-medical-technician who specializes in rescuing and retrieving unusual pets when they escape or are abandoned.

Harrison has written books and founded Outreach for Animals, an organization that advocates “proper behavior around wildlife.”

The other is Terry Brumfield, a depressive truck driver from rural Ohio, who was severely injured in a crash in 1999. In the film he says he “laid in the bed and on the couch for a year and a half” after the accident, and it was only after a friend brought him a young African lion cub, Lambert, that hebegan to recover his taste for life. He eventually acquired a second cub, a female named Lacy.

As Brumfield’s home video footage shows, at first the cubs were adorable playmates but when they got to be about 2 years old and reached sexual maturity, Brumfield realized he couldn’t control them and moved them from his house to a pen on his property. And when Lambert escaped and began terrorizing passing cars, Harrison necessarily intervened.

While the arguments against owning such ungovernable animals are clear, Harrison understands Brumfield’s reluctance to part with his pets and is remarkably nonjudgmental.Harrison understands the relationship between Brumfield and his cats was genuinely therapeutic - and separation will be traumatic for all. Brumfield is doubtful he can let the beasts go.

While there’s no question that Webber sides with the cop, it has a full measure of empathy for Brumfield as well.

Harrison, who started working with exotic animals in high school when he was a veterinary assistant, remembers that in the 1980s he “went over to the dark side,” owning a python and a tiger. But years in the field have convinced him wild animals are never appropriate pets and that usually these relationships end in grief. Two of Harrison’s friends were strangled by their own snakes, but more often it is the animal who suffers. Anyone who adopts an exotic animal, he says, is “signing a death warrant.”

“One of you is going to die,” he says. “Usually it’s the animal.”

Webber’s cameras follow Harrison as he goes about his work, capturing alligators and tracking down boa constrictors. He supplies harrowing stories - like the kids he found playing with a deadly Gaboon viper in a garage - while the documentary feeds us some startling statistics about the spike in ownership of wild animals and the shocking lack of regulation of the trade.

In a revealing scene, Harrison tours an exotic pet trade show where some of the most dangerous snakes in the world are sold in Tupperware containers. “It’s like buying potato salad at the local grocery store,” he says.

The film falters a bit when it tries to branch out and show the pervasiveness of the problem. Webber touches on a few well-publicized cases from other parts of the country, whipping from California and Nevada to Connecticut and Florida.

In a way, this information diminishes the emotional power of the key story. They turn it away from poetry to journalism, and while there’s no disputing that the spike in exotic pet ownership is interesting, it’s not as potent as Brumfield’s passion.

The Elephant

in the Living Room 87 Cast: Documentary, Tim Harrison, Terry Brumfield Director: Michael Webber Rating: Not rated Running time: 95 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 04/01/2011

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