There are more tigers in Texas than in India, according to Michael Webber's award-wining documentary, The Elephant In the Living Room, which plays next weekend at Movies at the Museum at the Portland Museum of Art. You could even run across one in Maine, where an owner need only obtain a permit to possess a wild animal (not allowed: deer, bear, moose, wild turkey, hybrid wild turkey, or wild turkey-domestic turkey cross).
What type of hubris draws someone to this type of pet-ownership? Is it the desire to exert power over a majestic, wild being? Is it the chance to flout the risk of injury? Is it the opportunity to make a dangerous animal dependent on a human for food, water, shelter? Or perhaps, the rush of being humanly, emotionally dependent on such an untamed creature?
The Elephant In the Living Room, a 95-minute documentary written, directed, and produced by Webber, piques these curiosities and pulls on our heartstrings, with a good dose of sensationalism thrown in — hidden cameras, a recorded 911 call, horror stories told via television news clips. The film, which has already won several film-festival accolades, creates an anecdotal patchwork that suggests exotic-pet ownership is a huge problem in the United States. (The California-based organization Born Free USA is currently involved in several state- and federal-level legislative fights to create more comprehensive wild-animal protection bills.)
Webber zooms in on two interwoven stories: those of Tim Harrison, a public safety officer in Ohio who specializes in dealing with (capturing, rescuing, investigating reports of) exotic animals, and Terry Brumfield, who credits his pet lions (Lambert and Lacy) for bringing him out of an illness-induced depression, and subsequently keeping his spirits high. Brumfield loves his lions. While these men, for much of the movie, have conflicting interests — Harrison is opposed to exotic pet-ownership, and Brumfield obviously is for it — they do have one thing in common: They want what they think is best for Lambert, Lacy, and their three cubs. (Yes, you read that right. This guy in Ohio had pet lions and they did it so then this random dude suddenly had five lions in his backyard.)
At first, Brumfield resists Harrison's presence; he warms up when he realizes that Harrison is not going to force him to get rid of his pets (at the time of the filming, Ohio required no permit to possess a non-domesticated feline). What follows is the occasionally overlong — and occasionally tragic — story of what happens to Lambert, Lacy, their cubs, their owner, and their rescuer. Emo tunes in the background remind us that there are no good guys or bad guys, except maybe the animals themselves (they're good).
Interspersed with this well-shot tale are shorter bits about pythons in the Everglades, reptile fairs where boys are given baby 'gators as presents, and a hunt for a cougar that's reportedly on the loose in suburban Cleveland. While these sections are interesting, they sometimes feel random — thrown in as supporting evidence, but without the psychological portrait that accompanies Brumfield's tale (who are the parents who bestow boas as gifts??), lacking the gravity to make an impact. And, to be frank, it's harder for some people to get angsty about deadly reptiles than about baby lions.