I wrote extensively about The Elephant in the Living Room during its limited and brief theatrical release in April—and it’s easily one of my favorite films of the year. The documentary tells a fragment of the story behind exotic animal ownership in America. It’s fascinating, mind-boggling, and disturbing.
The central figures in the story are a pair of mated adult African lions, a law enforcement officer and activist named Tim Harrison, and the lions’ owner, Terry Brumfield—a disabled loner nursed back to health by the love he shares with the king-sized felines.
Here’s some of what I wrote about the film earlier this year:
Over the course of this documentary, we not only get to see some of the amazingly ridiculous (and legitimate) calls that Harrison has to investigate—such as extracting a boa constrictor from inside a wall, stalking a mountain lion in a suburban patch of woods, and returning an escaped full-grown lion to its home—we watch Harrison as he travels the country keeping his finger on the pulse of exotic pet sales, ownership, and the consequences.
Brumfield, like other exotic animal owners, laments governmental restrictions on what he can and cannot do with his pets, and believes Harrison (and others) want to do Lambert and Lacie harm. He warns Harrison that he’ll see another Waco if anyone tries to remove the lions by force.
The whole scenario is a recipe for disaster, and both director Michael Webber’s and Terry Brumfield’s movie cameras are on hand to catch much of the almost literally unbelievable action.
This is a cause film in its highest form. I’m sure a great many exotic pet owners will disagree—primarily because the deck is strongly stacked in the favor of Harrison and his sympathizers, with new legislation appearing on the books at the state and Federal level restricting pet ownership freedoms—but Webber does an excellent job presenting a balanced view in this film. The portraits he presents of both Brumfield and Harrison are quite sympathetic.
But this is a tragic film, and often hard to watch.
So that’s kind of what I “officially” think of the film. But when I’ve thought about it since April—and in particular after watching the bonus features included on the DVD release—I find that what I tell people about most in person is the absolute star power of Harrison. If you think of real-world larger-than-life characters that have actually walked this planet, Harrison stacks up with the most notorious and celebrated of them: Daniel Boone, John Colter, Andrew Jackson, John Coffee Hays, George Custer, Audie Murphy, John Glenn, Brett Favre. He has star charisma, but doesn’t appear to expend or leverage it on ephemeral trivialities or worldly indulgence. He’s an everyday action hero with his feet on the ground.
Now, frankly, that’s not a lot of credit to Harrison and his humility. After all, Harrison seems to be, like Brumfield’s lions (or even Brumfield himself), a force of nature who just lives out the role he’s meant to in life. What’s brilliant here is director Michael Webber’s vision in spotting, following, and putting this portrait of Harrison and his work on film.
And the extended bonus feature on this disc—a daytime fireside chat between Webber, Harrison, and one of Harrison’s cohorts—exactly, and I do mean exactly, satisfies the “tell me more” impulse that audiences will no doubt have after watching the feature film.
And that doesn’t even touch the deleted scenes (which do, regrettably, duplicate some of the footage incorporated into that fireside chat). This is not only a solid documentary, it’s an excellent, excellent DVD release.
I couldn’t recommend the film enough when it was first released—and I’m even more sold on it now. If you care at all about animals and law enforcement—if last week’s news about the dozens of exotic animals slaughtered in Harrison’s backyard interested you at all—you need to see this film.
NPR asked Harrison last week for his thoughts on the Ohio tragedy. “No police officer in the United States of America has a dart rifle in their cruiser,” Harrison observed, referring to animal tranquilizers. “The sun was going down, Scott, at that period of time. They had to make a decision. Do we allow them to run free through our neighborhood here in Zanesville, or do we stop them now? And they had to choose to make the decision to stop the animals.”
Harrison knows what he’s talking about, having been on the front lines of this decade-plus explosion in exotic animal ownership. And Webber captures in all in the best fashion.
The Elephant in the Living Room is PG for “thematic material including some disturbing situations, mild language and smoking.” Some of this gets pretty intense—but the biggest thing to worry about is your children. This is not a kiddie film, by any means, and even older ones may get traumatized by what is done to and what becomes of some of the animals.
Courtesy of the film’s producers, Greg screened a promotional DVD of The Elephant in the Living Room.