There's a wonderful irony to the title of Michael Webber's documentary The Elephant in the Living Room, which examines the subculture of exotic animals being kept as pets and the people who love them. It's a phrase that always refers to anything but a literal elephant in a living room. In this case, the elephant is real, and so is the living room—but Webber's also talking about folks who live with chimps, poisonous snakes and lions in suburban America.
Much of the movie, which opens at Horton Plaza on Friday, May 6, focuses on Tim Harrison, who encountered all kinds of crazy creatures in the course of his day job as a peace officer—a hybrid cop / firefighter / EMT, in a community not far from Dayton, Ohio. Having become something of an expert in the subject, he's often the guy who gets the call when, say, a male African lion escapes his pen and starts attacking cars on the freeway.
Sound like something you could be watching on the Discovery Channel? Sure, but there's a narrative to The Elephant in the Living Room that makes it work as a full-length film, and if Harrison ever did get his own show, I'd be tempted to DVR it.
The lion and the freeway, by the way, is how Harrison meets Terry Brumfield, a former trucker in ill health who keeps two full-grown lions as pets. There's the escapee, Lambert, who weighs in at more than 550 pounds, and his mate, Lacie. When Brumfield acquired the lions—to help combat depression—Ohio required a license to drive a car, own a business or have a dog. But lions? No license required.
What develops is an interesting arrangement between the two men. Harrison, who regularly wears a Snakes on a Plane T-shirt, is an advocate for banning exotic animals as pets. He thinks the idea of having a pair of African lions is ridiculous, and it's hard to argue with him. At the same time, he begins to work with Brumfield to try to improve the lives of the cats, which end up living in a decrepit horse trailer after the freeway incident. Harrison's first concern is for the animals' well being, and as time goes by, he starts to gain a greater understanding of the relationship between the man and the animals.
That relationship is one of the strengths of Webber's film, because it's also punctuated with interviews with other crazy people who keep tigers and hyenas, and by the kind of hysterical local news reports we see when one of these creatures gets out and does something awful.
Webber also attends an exotic-animal auction and a reptile expo, using a hidden camera to get footage that's unbelievable and unbelievably depressing—like parents buying enormous snakes or baby crocodiles for their children, or monkeys being auctioned off as pets. One fact you learn is that there are more tigers living in captivity in Texas than there are living in Africa. That's a disturbing stat, but by focusing specifically on Brumfield and his lions, Webber can offer up a potent explanation for this kind of behavior without condoning it.
There are two events that occur unexpectedly in The Elephant in the Living Room, and to tell you what they are would ruin the film's story, which is far more interesting than many of the big-budget blockbusters that annually start descending on theaters right about now.
Webber might have lucked out when Lambert got loose, because it gave him a story to tell, and Brumfield and his lions exemplify all the problems—most of which are entirely legal—that he's examining. By the end of it, you have a better understanding about what motivates someone to keep a wild animal as a member of his or her own family. Hopefully, you'll also see that it's a risky endeavor.
Or you might just want to get your very own lion cub. Those little guys surely are cute.
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