Everyone probably remembers their first pet. That first little komodo dragon, lion cub, spider monkey, puff adder. No? Me either, but there are far more people in the United States who know first hand what it is to own an exotic animal than should. In many states it is not illegal and in some regulations are near zero. The Elephant in the Living Room tackles this fascinating topic, educating on the problem while delving into the complicated issues that arise when people make pets out of wild animals.
Filmmaker, Michael Webber, takes us through the labyrinth that is exotic animals as pets. Our tour guide for most of the film is the confident yet understanding police officer, Tim Harrison. In southern Ohio, Harrison handles endless cases of wild animals turned pets going back to their roots. Owners who lose control of their dangerous friends or simply turn them loose after they realize what was once a cool little jungle cat, alligator, or other wild animal is no longer so cool when it can eat you and your family. There are reports of lions, cougars, bears, and more on the road terrorizing people in their cars. People call about non-indigenous venomous snakes slithering into their garages. One call is from a father who reports that his children have been playing with some sort of python. Harrison comes to the house and finds not a python but one of the most dangerous snakes in the world.
There are no shortage of amazing stories of fatal attacks, near fatal attacks, and close encounters with animals that should be anywhere but in residential neighborhoods. Harrison educates on the problem by browsing one of the popular publications that advertises exotic animals for sale. There he reads endless ads for all sorts of creatures, many of which are listed as free to a good home. The worst kept secret in this dangerous market is that large, dangerous animals can be had for nothing. While some may pay five hundred dollars or more for their pure bred puppy of choice, a lion is free of charge. Harrison and Webber show the insanity of these markets up close by sneaking in cameras to two large shows. One is a reptile show with endless tables packed with reptiles from all over the world, most venomous and in plastic containers you’d expect to purchase food in. The other show is in Amish country, where every type of large cat, primate, and other furry critters are sold to the highest bidder as if they were bidding on livestock. These are legal markets, yet both the sellers and buyers feel the need to keep the cameras away. Speaking of buyers, many of them at the reptile show were children. Mom and dad purchased Johnny an eight foot python that will easily grow to be twice that size or a baby alligator that will one day grow larger than any member of the family.
Once the problem of exotic pets is hammered home from numerous directions, Webber focuses on the story of Terry Brumfield, a man who got in a car accident and whose back and neck are severely damaged. Brumfield struggles with depression. His cure was procuring two lion cubs. The cubs, one male and one female, grow up and Terry finds himself very much attached to the big cats while also struggling to contain them. The male lion escapes one day and terrorizes motorists on the highway. Brumfield is threatened by the law but somehow keeps his lions. Harrison tries to help Brumfield, who feels as though he’s in a no win situation. He doesn’t want to the give the lions up but he doesn’t want them to get out and hurt people. In a surprising turn, Harrison and Brumfield develop a friendship. It is there that we see these two men sharing both a love for animals and conflicted consciences. Harrison knows these lions need to be in a sanctuary where they can run and not be in danger of harming themselves or others. Brumfield has raised the lions since they were cubs. They are his lifeline. Losing the lions means losing life to Brumfield. Their story develops and takes some twists along the way that are fascinating and heartbreaking.
What could have been not much more than an issue documentary turns into a rather sophisticated look at two men involved in the thick of the topic. The human story is what ends up driving the film home and puts it over the top of an already solid educational look at the problem of exotic animals as pets problem in the US.