You’ve got to understand, you’ve got to respect what they are.
— Tim Harrison
Driving the streets of Dayton, Ohio at the start of The Elephant in the Living Room, Public Safety Officer Tim Harrison describes his job. Trained to handle a cluster of emergencies — he and his fellows are “police officers, firefighters, and paramedics all wrapped into one” — he observes that he’s been called on more than a few times to capture wild animals, indeed, “some of the most dangerous animals on the planet.” Just as you may be wondering, “In Dayton?”, he starts listing examples: a boa constrictor loose in the walls of a woman’s home, a 16-foot python and any number of alligators bought as babies (“When they’re little and cute”) and then let loose. When a four-year-old boy found an African viper, Harrison says, he and a friend were “putting the snake around their necks, putting it on the ground and driving it like a car, and the snake never bit ’em!”
While Harrison notes just how lucky this child was, he also points out the risks people take when they bring exotic animals into their homes. He knows what he’s talking about, having once owned a pair of African lions. “To be there lying on the floor” with them, Harrison recollects as you see his home video footage showing him with Tabitha: “To have one licking on your head, I was chewing on her neck, she’d lay there perfectly still… it was almost like a family connection.” And, he concludes, “It broke my heart when I had to give it up.”
Harrison’s experience serves as a map for Michael Webber’s documentary, as he not only responds to reports of animals on the loose, but also helps to relocate them. As the head of Outreach for Animals, he spends hours on the phone finding new, safe homes for cougars and bears and leopards. Harrison maintains that wild animals must be appreciated as such, no matter how much time they spend in homes or pens, on TV talk shows or on movie sets. Dr. Roger Paholka of Dayton’s Miami Valley Medical center underlines, “I see more fatal injuries in this country from snakes and from wild animals than we do in Africa and we’ve been working in Africa for 25 years. People in Africa don’t keep cobras in their house.”
And people in the U.S. do. The film includes periodic TV news reports of animals escaped or suddenly appearing on highways or sidewalks: an elephant named Twiggy is discovered starving in Indiana, a three-month-old black bear cub is chained to a porch in Ohio, and, after it attacks a woman in Stamford, Connecticut, a chimpanzee is shot by police.
Such stories tend to make local headlines, sensational and frivolous. But for Harrison, they’re indications of serious misunderstandings with serious consequences. The numbers themselves are daunting. “It is estimated,” notes the film in a title card, “that as many as 15,000 exotic big cats are living with private owners in the United States.” These and other animals, especially monkeys and reptiles, are often available for purchase at exotic animals sales. Arriving at one of these in Hamburg, PA, Harrison (wearing a Snakes on a Plane t-shirt: nice touch) nods toward one guy “dealing right out of his vehicle, right here right here in the parking lot.” He then suggests that Webber hide his camera (“We got some people looking at us a little freaky”) before they head inside, where buyers pick up puff adders and alligators (“How big is this thing gonna get?” he asks, looking at a small boy holding one in a plastic container. “About eight foot,” comes the answer. Oof.)
As alarming as this scene may be, the film includes testimony from Zuzana Kukol, a big cat owner who resents efforts to curtail her rights. Born in Czechoslovakia, she says, “I left the Communism because there was not enough freedom and right now I’m in United States of American, and I’m still fighting for my freedoms to keep the animals of different breeds and species.” While she’s started an organization called Rexano (Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership), advocating for animal as well as public safety, Kukol feels demonized in the press. “No matter how much we prove by our statistics that we are not a public enemy,” she says, cougar purring on the couch beside her, “The hysteria takes over and the government and the extreme animal rights groups just want to ban us because they have nothing better to do.”
To its credit, The Elephant in the Living Room doesn’t simplify any of these issues, especially in the case of Terry Brumfield, a former big rig driver suffering from depression following debilitating injuries in a truck accident. Harrison is called in when Brumfield’s African lions, Lambert and Lacey, get loose one night and chase cars on a Columbus highway. On Harrison’s first visit to Terry’s home, where the lions are now locked inside a too small cage, both men are startled to discover that Lacey has birthed four cubs. Harrison brings in a couple of large friends to build an appropriate enclosure in what seems a consistently muddy back yard.
The film includes Terry’s own video footage, as he describes and demonstrates his close relationship with the lions (and refers to his apparently endlessly supportive wife, who never appears on camera). Harrison’s efforts to save the lions, and also preserve Terry’s sense of self, are at once moving and startling. Terry comes to see that his inability to “manage ’em” might lead to his beloved lions’ discomfort and risk of injury, which reshapes his thinking about rights, his and the lions’. Even as the film careens a bit, between instruction and judgment, sympathy and scolding, it reveals a remarkable, mostly underground world, where auctions and black marketeers do damage and men like Terry and Tim try their best to do good.