- Overall Feeling
After receiving several awards for “Best Documentary”, the 2010 American film, The Elephant in the Living Room, received praise from critics as one of the best films of the year. This is a documentary that I, and many other viewers, consider to be one of the best of its genre. As an avid animal lover and fighter for animal rights, I wasn’t sure what to think going into it. The film takes its viewers on a journey through the controversial and often taboo subculture of raising traditionally non-domesticated animals as common household pets. Exploring several angles in the heated national debate, director Michael Webber chronicles different elements to build a heartfelt story. From pet owners’ homes to going undercover at exotic pet shows and even inside the courtroom, The Elephant in the Living Room portrayed the issues from both sides.
With a controversial, yet often unspoken issue, it’s hard not to go into the documentary with preconceived notions when the media only presents stories about wild animals kept as pets ripping the faces off neighbors. But the unexpected dynamic of the two main characters, Ohio police officer Tim Harrison and African lion owner Terry Brumfield, show what a tricky issue owning exotic pets can be. In the end, regardless of what we as humans think is ethical, we need to do what’s best for the animals, whatever that might be.
The strength of the film lies in director and producer Michael Webber’s openness; it didn’t appear that Webber had a hidden agenda. I can’t imagine he went into the documentary knowing exactly how it would turn out, but I also can’t imagine he expected much of what actually went down in the 96 minute flick. The issues dealt with aren’t black and white, which is made clear by the many different opinions given from pet owners, law makers, police officers and others who weigh in on animal rights. Although the film was fairly chronological, it did reference several news stories and law suits from the past that showed exotic animals attacking and sometimes killing or horribly disfiguring a person. But that was the point — often the public is only shown debatably isolated examples, whereas this documentary shows the characteristics of responsible exotic pet owners.
Truth is Stranger Than Fiction
Essentially, the movie deals with the legality of owning exotic animals as pets. The movie explains how more often than not, if an animal escapes, it’s the owners fault for not providing a proper habitat for the animal. While I’m all for freedom in America, it’s hard for me to justify how keeping a massive lion, typically found in unbounded deserts, in a small wirecage is in the best interest of the animal. But it isn’t illegal, although some would like it to be. The film shows the different sides of these thoughts, taking us directly into the homes of the animal lovers. Often times, the animal owners, just like any domesticated animal lover, treat their animals like their own kin. This is all fine and dandy, until an animal escapes and due to its typically larger size and strength, has the ability to do more damage to a human or their property than say, a house cat. But how can we say some animals are acceptable for people to own, and other’s are not? It’s this muddied line that has many pet owners, state legislators, and families of those harmed by exotic pets, up in arms.
One of the most interesting pieces of the documentary occurs when police officer Tim Harrison, whose friend was killed by an exotic pet, takes a hidden camera into an exotic pet show where animals are brought in from overseas to be sold to the public. Not only had I never heard of such events, but I had no idea how popular they would be. Harrison talks to some of the people at the show, asking if they’ve ever owned exotic pets before and what their relationships are like. While the responses are interesting, Harrison’s mission is to find out if one of the most poisonous snakes in the world is up for sale, which makes things even a little more interesting. I understand people have different preferences for pets, some like dogs, some like birds, some like snakes, but to desire something… poisonous, struck me as unusual. It was hard for officer Harrison to really justify someone’s desire to own something that not even they can physically handle. Although, like a fish, a beautiful animal can be kept in a cage just for looking, but if a non-poisonous snake is available, why would you rather have one that could kill you?
The Odd Couple
Easily the most important aspect of the film was the relationship between African lion owner Terry Brumfield and Ohio police officer Tim Harrison. While more often than not, we see some really awful people sporting a badge claiming to “protect and serve the people” all while they’re pepper-spraying peaceful rally members, officer Harrison reclaims the “good cop” name. Harrison not only goes above and beyond what I can only imagine to be his typical duties as an officer responding to law offenders, he also seems to genuinely share the same notion as the pet owners — we have to do what’s best for the animals. Because the law isn’t clear cut on many issues surrounding exotic pet trafficking, Harrison is often left to make judgement calls. He realizes his duty in this case, is two-fold; he needs to make sure the people are safe, but perhaps more importantly, that the animals are taken care of. Often times human rights supersede those of animals, but officer Harrison makes sure that’s not the case. In dealing with Brumfield, we see a man consumed with his love for his animals. Playing dad to two full grown African lions, the eccentric Brumfield initially brushes off Harrison’s attempts at trying to help out when one of his lions escapes its pen. But it’s through Harrison’s true passion and caring that helps Brumfield see he also has the animals best interest in mind, and the two begin to share an unlikely acquaintanceship.
While there isn’t really much bad to say about the film, I have to wonder its mission. Yes, it definitely brought light to an often overlooked issue, but did it help with legislation? I almost wish Webber had taken a little longer to make the film so we could see how some of the issues pan out in the court room. But in recognizing that many court cases takes years and several appeals, I understood why things had to end the way they did. Without giving too much away, the ending is sad but satisfying, in sticking with doing what’s best for the animals.
Overall 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Buy It, Rent It, Or Skip It?
This documentary is definitely for keeps. You’ll no doubt want to show this interesting, eye opening, and unique documentary to family and friends, pausing frequently to discuss your own thoughts. While you won’t find something new every time you watch it, the documentary is a bit of a humbling experience. When looking at this film, not for its specific claims but more of the overall picture, we can see man helping man. More importantly, we can see man helping animal. It’s important not to forget that we’re all on this planet together, and it’s a bit ego-centric of us humans to put ourselves at the top of the food chain. The Elephant in the Living Room is a documentary for the whole family that will leave your jaw on the floor.
‘The Elephant in the Living Room’ Trailer: