The Elephant in The Living Room, available now on DVD, is an intense documentary on the surprisingly prevalent exotic animal trade in the U.S. It focuses on the complications and dangers that arise when a person tries to raise a wild animal in their household. Directed by Michael Webber, the film follows Tim Harrison, a public safety officer – he explains this is a policeman, firefighter and paramedic all rolled into one – who frequently receives calls regarding escaped exotic pets in his home state of Ohio. Most of these incredible incidents are capsulated into short news clips or secondhand reports, however, while the main drama circles around a man named Terry Brumfield who is stubbornly raising two African lions, Lambert and Lacey. This is unfortunate since the rescue calls are often more interesting than the long shots of the very unkempt Brumfield insisting how much he loves his lions. The story about Lambert escaping and ending up on the highway, for example! This was apparently not caught on film, although there is a bewildered audio recording from a driver who called the police. “There is a lion on the road…! Did you say a lion? …Yes, it’s chasing cars!!”
Another incident, the removal of one of the most poisonous snakes in the world from a family’s garage is also disappointingly short. It makes sense that cameras are not always on hand for upexpected events, but it does seem like more time could have been spent with Harrison in order to capture a few more. Then again, there are several stories about people who have been killed by their own pets, including a friend of Harrison’s, which I’m glad we don’t have to see.
A couple who raise exotic animals and a former zoologist who sells them are both presented as defenders of the practice, explaining that the people who are against it are just afraid of the animals escaping. They insist that if it is done right, there is no danger. But what is never discussed, surprisingly, is whether it’s right to keep animals like this away from their natural habitat. Can the quality of their lives as house pets ever be as good as the life that was meant for them in the wild? Apparently, this consideration comes second to mankind’s desire for cool pets.
Harrison alone, who is a renowned animal protection advocate, an author and producer of educational wildlife videos, voices real concern over this in a scene where he questions whether he should even be hunting a mountain lion that residents have spotted in their local woods. He remarks that at this point, if he catches it, things will most likely end badly for the animal. Later, we see him making multiple unsuccessful calls to animal sanctuaries and zoos to take in new animals, and resorting to shooting a poisonous snake that has nowhere to go.
It is therefore difficult to feel sympathy for Brumfield, whose love for his lions comes off as selfish. The two gorgeous creatures provide him with comfort for his illness and depression, and they certainly seem to love him back, but living with him means life in a small cage in a back yard. The footage of the lions shows them sometimes covered in mud, pacing around their small perimeter, or sprawled listlessly in a corner. It is never explained what he feeds them, but it’s clear that they get no exercise. The situation begs the obvious question that if Brumfield loves them as much as he claims, wouldn’t he want a better home for them?
After the highway incident with Lambert, the lions are forced into an even tinier space, a metal trailer, at which point Harrison gets involved. (You can see Lambert peeking out of the trailer on the DVD cover, which is how Harrison first sees him. It’s an affecting scene.) Standing there, gazing in at Lambert through the trailer’s narrow opening, Brumfield threatens to kill anyone who tries to take Lambert away, or to kill himself if he loses him, but the poor thing is just sitting there, trapped in a metal box. Harrison does feel sympathy for Brumfield, however, despite the fact that a friend of his was killed by an exotic pet, and Ohio law is also, shockingly, on Brumfield’s side. This actually changes by the end of the film, thanks to the work of the admirable Harrison, but there are still parts of the U.S. where owning wild animals is legal.
It takes a tragedy and his own physical fatigue to finally convince Brumfield to allow Harrison to try and find a home for the lions. As their story unfolds, Harrison also takes us along via hidden cameras to witness some exotic animal black markets, where the average American can purchase anything from a poisonous reptile to a baby cougar, and most likely release it into a residential neighborhood. Thank god the rest of us are content to watch National Geographic and Animal Planet.
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