When I was in seventh grade, my science teacher kept three fully grown Burmese pythons in the classroom. They were between 10 and 15 feet long. I kept thinking about those snakes while I was watching The Elephant in the Living Room, a documentary film about exotic pets that is playing at the Rave Ridgmar and Rave North East Mall movie theaters at 7:20 this Saturday and Sunday night only.
The film follows two main subjects: Tim Harrison, a firefighter/paramedic/police officer in rural Ohio who spends much of his time tracking down exotic animals that have gotten loose from their owners (big cats, poisonous snakes, and primates); and Terry Brumfield, a man who lives in Tim’s area and seems to live only for the two fully grown lions (one male and one female) that he keeps on his property. Terry, who looks rather leonine himself with his mane of hair and full beard, is forced to keep the big cats in a horse trailer for five months after the male gets out of his cage and attacks a bunch of cars on the interstate. Tim, who spends much of his time trying to figure out how to move the lions to a safe place and trying to convince Terry to go along, notes that you wouldn’t keep a dog in a horse trailer for five months.
The filmmakers go all over the country speaking to people who’ve dealt with exotic animals. There’s a hilarious interview with a Dallas sanitation worker who found a tiger’s corpse: “I thought I’d find a human body before I found a tiger, knowing Dallas.” There’s also some fascinating tidbits of information, like the fact that one of America’s largest exotic pet expos used to be held in Mt. Hope, Ohio, deep in the heart of Amish country.
However, there’s also a great deal of serious exploration into the sticky ethics of owning these animals. The film allows that they can be owned responsibly. (Indeed, I remember how my science teacher treated the pythons, so I know that’s true.) Yet it also shows many people who buy and sell these animals who aren’t responsible. And sometimes it’s good intentions that get in the way. The mentally fragile Terry sees his lions jumping around in their cages and gushes that they’re just like house cats. Maybe, but if your house cat gets away from you, it’s probably not going to kill a bunch of people. Even the ones that are unloosed in an unpopulated area can still wreak havoc on the environment, as we see wildlife officials in the Florida Everglades trying to deal with pythons that have been left there by pet owners who couldn’t deal with them any more.
Anyway, the film is having two showings at two locations this weekend, and if you’re interested in the subject, it’s definitely worth a look.