April 8, 2014

The Elephant in the Living Room

Michael Webber, 2010
This documentary focuses on the subculture of exotic animal collectors who recklessly attempt to obtain everything from Bengal Tigers to Gaboon Vipers.

Michael Webber directs a detailed documentary with a topic immediately interesting on paper. The fascination that some Americans have with exotic animals is quite cleverly explained when a doctor being interviewed in the film explains during his missionary trips to Africa he noticed that the residents kept their distance from the poisonous snakes. But some Americans try to get closer to them. They ignore the risks. They even put them in the hands of our children. Obviously its a small fraction of the American population, because most of us are quite happy having a golden retriever. These exotic animal collectors are looking for something more. There are voids to fill. Statements to make. There is a certain irony to it, because a dog has a lot more to offer than a reptile who is really only focused on it's next meal. It's not to say that all of the animals are completely shut off emotionally. The lions shown on Ohio hillbilly Terry Brumfield's property clearly have SOME kind of emotional connection to him. He feels it justifies possessing them. But there's much more to it. He seems to be a very lonely person. He seems to be quite isolated from the rest of society, and when he IS in public he is eager to show off the offspring of his carnivorous pets. There's a sense of entitlement that these people have that is frustrating, irresponsible, and also cruel.

The hero of the film is clearly Public Safety Officer Tim Harrison. He works tirelessly to find homes for the animals that constantly become too much to care for or unwanted, selflessly cleaning up everyone else's mess. Tim's work is like that of an inner-city police officer, no matter how many hours he puts in the problems will never go away. An existential grindstone.

While the film examines the subculture, it doesn't make emotional impression like animal-based documentaries tend to do (Grizzly Man, Blackfish, The Cove). It's difficult to come away from it with anything really memorable like the aforementioned docs. If only Webber could have dug a little deeper. What if he was able to spend more time at the Amish exotic pet auction? Go deeper into the underworld? It would have been worth the risk. The film takes the easy path of demonizing the animal collectors. It ultimately comes off as more of an extended episode of Animal Planet's Fatal Attractions.

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