In one sad moment among many in Michael Webber’s The Elephant In The Living Room, exotic-animal rescuer/advocate Tim Harrison comes to a realization that nearly makes him weep: “If you think about it, I don’t have any happy endings.” And he really doesn’t: Harrison’s job entails wrangling exotic pets—huge pythons, jungle cats, alligators—that have gotten loose, mostly abandoned by people who couldn’t take care of them properly. Sometimes he’s able to place them with zoos or shelters; more often, they end up being “put down,” to use the euphemism most common to his profession. Harrison lives and works in Ohio, where he’s made it his mission to stop the sale of exotic pets altogether.
Elephant makes a solid case for such a ban, particularly with disturbing hidden-camera footage taken at live-animal swap meets. Dads and their kids roam the aisles of fold-up tables covered with the world’s most dangerous snakes, which are kept from the public only via Tupperware secured with tape. Harrison purchases a deadly puff adder as easily as you might grab a box of cereal off the shelf, and he gets footage of monkeys and baby tigers ready to be auctioned off. It’s heartbreaking, and clearly framed by Webber to expose the uselessness and cruelty of the whole enterprise.
But much of Elephant is also given over to the story of Terry Brumfield, in an effort to understand why someone might want to own, say, a pair of full-grown lions. Badly injured in a truck accident, Brumfield fell into a depression that was at least partly cured by his relationship with Lambert, a lion cub he raised into a full-grown, 550-pound adult. Their interplay is sweet, but it’s clear—even to Brumfield—that a backyard pen in rural Ohio is no place for the king of the jungle. It doesn’t help when Lambert escapes his enclosure and causes a ruckus on rural route 23, lunging at cars. And though some lip service is given to pro-exotic-pet types (the chief argument: “This is America, I should be free to own whatever I want”), The Elephant In The Living Room comes down clearly in favor of Harrison’s cause. It’s hard not to. In that sense, the documentary shoots fish in a barrel—or maybe snakes in Tupperware—but it does so with gripping, maddening, well-told stories.