A week before the release of Imax docu “Born to Be Wild,” “The Elephant in the Living Room” offers a smallscreen-style approach to the flipside of wild-animal orphan rescue, focusing on America’s “exotic pet” craze — those brave and/or stupid enough to bring lions and tigers and bears into their homes. Contrasting sensational stories of infants strangled in their cribs by boa constrictors with teary testimonials about how raising lion cubs saved a suicidal man’s life, director Michael Webber attempts an even-handed take on the controversial subject, with a limited run serving to raise awareness for homevideo.
A documentary in the post-reality TV vein, “Elephant” is caught somewhere between the hysteria of local news reports — a dozen or so of which replay onscreen — and the more empathetic but no less eyebrow-raising stories featured on Animal Planet’s “Confessions: Animal Hoarding.” Webber’s primary subject is Ohio public safety officer Tim Harrison, who specializes in capturing and finding new homes for irresponsible owners’ dangerous animals after they get loose.
A former lion owner himself, Harrison is sympathetic to the impulse that compels people to adopt cuddly baby animals (venomous snakes, not so much). What saddens him is the fact that few exotic-pet collectors understand what they’re getting into: Though owners invariably describe their hobby as a matter of personal freedom, pic is full to bursting with stories of vipers, cougars and other critters liberating themselves, at which point these natural predators pose a very real threat to unsuspecting neighbors.
It sounds surreal when a woman calls 911 to report a lion on the highway, though the pic suggests such sightings are increasingly common all over the U.S. As it turns out, the big cat swiping at cars on the interstate is none other than Landry, whom “Elephant” introduces in the opening scenes as the pet that, through sheer companionship, saved ex-trucker Terry W. Brumfield’s life.
Unlike ordinary house cats, domesticated over millennia of cohabitation with humans, lions are wild animals, and Harrison argues it’s only a matter of time before they turn on their owners or escape. Roy Horn, who narrowly survived a tiger attack, would surely agree; Hollywood bear trainer Stephan Miller was not so lucky, as the film points out.
As the fad catches on, more and more owners realize they can no longer handle their exotic pets, which leads to stories of cruelty (a Dallas man tells of a dead tiger he retrieved by the side of the road, shot in the face by its owner) and desperation (dozens of people trying to give away fully grown predators for free). “I don’t have any happy endings,” Harrison admits of a career that involves stepping in after owners have lost control of their critters.
Auds can’t possibly predict the upsetting twist to Landry’s story, nor the welcome surprise that precedes it, but these two scenes — both of which Webber was fortunate enough to capture on camera — are documentary gold, movingly encapsulating the circle of life as it pertains to exotic pet owners. According to one of the pic’s many onscreen factoids, 30 states allow residents to raise non-native species, nine of them without requiring any sort of license, setting up a legislative showdown that extends all the way to Congress.
Rather than getting sidetracked in political considerations, the pic sticks to the human-interest side, using Brumfield to illustrate the emotional arguments both for and against exotic-pet ownership. Still, Webber doesn’t seem to trust his own approach, burying everything beneath David E. Russo’s heavy-handed synth score. While most of his footage amounts to an extended ride-along with Harrison, a couple of hidden-camera scenes — inside the country’s biggest reptile convention and at an animal auction deep in Amish country — give this tame, heartstring-tugging doc a bit more bite.