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Caged Madness

The Elephant in the Living Room

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Five minutes into watching The Elephant in the Living Room, a gripping documentary concerning the epidemic of households containing exotic pets, I thought the subject matter might be best handled in an episode of PBS' Frontline. As the movie concluded 90 minutes later, I was frustrated that the film didn't go on for another half hour, at the very least.

The Elephant in the Living Room is the most unlikely movie-going experience you may have this year: It's entertaining, engaging and infuriating. And you will never view a "cute animal segment" on television the same way.

On any given evening, Dave, Jay, Jimmy and Conan clown around with lions, tigers, snakes and gators hauled onto the stage by "Jungle" Jack Hanna. Most of us watch the creatures with curiosity. But those who know the animals best see something that can--and might--eat your face off.

The recurring theme of The Elephant in the Living Room is the day-to-day policework of Tim Harrison, who faces lions, tigers and bears (oh my). Harrison is a public safety officer in the wilds of Ohio, one of 38 states that allow the ownership of exotic pets.

For many of his 34 years as a policeman, Harrison received occasional calls to handle snakes on the loose, but in recent years, "it was as if somebody turned a switch on." In one recent 12-month period, Harrison responded to 19 alligator calls in Dayton, Ohio, and 10 more in Cincinnati (more than in most sections of Florida). Harrison blames the outbreak on the number of people who buy baby gators as pets, ignorant to the threat of a soon-to-be full-grown alligator.

Accompanied by an undercover camera, Harrison visits a Pennsylvania reptile sale, where acres of countertops are lined with Tupperware containers filled with baby boa constrictors and alligators. Harrison even purchases a Puff Adder, one of deadliest snakes on the planet. In another jaw-dropping scene, Harrison takes the cameras to one of the largest exotic pet auctions in the world, in the surreal setting of an Ohio Amish community.

Harrison's greatest challenge is Terry Brumfield, a depressed hulk of a man who is one prime rib dinner away from a quadruple bypass. Brumfield is convinced that his reasons for living are his two fully grown lions, which soon become the parents of four cubs. The pride of lions becomes Brumfield's obsession, and Harrison knows full well that the scenario could end tragically.

Elephant in the Living Room is far from perfect. Its constant fade-out, fade-ins for each segue of the film is distracting, the soundtrack is syrupy and the film could use a first-rate editor to craft more expert transitions. Above all, the movie needs some input from a mentalhealth professional to explain the pathology of someone who thinks wild creatures are best chained up in a back yard.

The thesis is simple: exotic pet ownership is madness. The film has no doubt invited controversy and sparked debate, as any great documentary should. Don't ignore The Elephant in the Living Room.

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