July 5, 2011
"The Elephant in the Living Room" Reveals the Realities of Exotic Pet Trade
Award-winning documentary examines what's wrong with keeping wild animals as pets
Producer Mike Webber set out to document America’s fascination with exotic pets in his film The Elephant in the Living Room. For three years, he attended trade shows, interviewed owners, and followed Ohio public safety officer and animal advocate Tim Harrison as he responded to calls for assistance with out-of-control wild animals kept as pets. Filming “changed my life,” says Webber, who has become an outspoken supporter of banning private ownership of exotic pets. The film, which was partially funded by The HSUS's Animal Content in Entertainment grant program, has won multiple Best Documentary awards, including a Genesis Award, and helped persuade outgoing Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland to sign a temporary ban on exotic pet ownership. In this edited interview with All Animals senior writer Karen E. Lange, Webber and Harrison talk about their life-altering work.
Mike, in making the film, was there ever a point when you thought to yourself, “I just can’t watch this anymore”?
Mike Webber (MW): I had gone to Reptile Expo. I saw them selling kids baby alligators. I saw them selling teenagers venomous snakes—Gaboon vipers that have killed people. I’m watching people with very young children buying 10-to-20-foot, 200-pound constricting snakes. And I’m hearing on the news [about] children being constricted by these snakes. It was hard to not intervene.
Can you talk about the skin condition you developed as a result of exposure to one or more of the wild animals?
MW: Being in contact with animals that do not have proper veterinary care, carcasses, fecal matter, it wasn’t two months before I began to come down with the most aggressive rash you’ve ever had. I had biopsies, skin cultures, [and was] treated for bacteria, fungus, just anything. It was so bad I would just stay in bed. It covered 90 percent of my face, head, neck. It itched and burned. I practically gave up and said, “I can’t finish this film.” [Finally,] I decided to go to a friend who was a vet [and said,] “Treat me like an animal.” I got better. I believe it was parasites.
Tim, how did you deal safely with dangerous exotic animals?
Tim Harrison (TH): When you’re working with large animals, you can’t force it. You have to be able to blend in with the animal. They don’t love you. But they understand that you’re not there to hurt them. [One time, an] Asian water monitor, he grabbed my hand, but it never bit down. As soon as he grabbed my hand, I went with him. The natural reaction is to pull back. I don’t fight back. I understand that this animal doesn’t want to be there. You’d be surprised how easy it is to work with these animals. Just calm everything down. I’ve gone into basements with tigers and just sat down and read a book.
In the film, Terry Brumfield cares deeply about his pet lions. Is that the type of relationship most owners have with their exotic pets?
MW: A common thing that I’ve found is that they’ve kind of given up on people. They find loyalty, companionship in their exotic. Because that animal needs them. Their love and connection with their exotic far exceeds what I’ve seen people have with their dog or cat. It’s amplified by 10. They’ll literally call it their son. They’ll bury it in clothes.
TH: The majority of these exotic owners love their animals. [When I confront them,] I get guns pointed in my face, I get people screaming at me. It’s all love and pride and embarrassment. [I say,] “That animal trusted you, and look where it’s at.” I see tears in their eyes. Most of them have a heart. They got stuck in a situation. The animal dealers are the devils. The dealers sold them an animal, and they won’t take it back.
What’s needed to end exotic pet ownership?
TH: Education. Do you see any show on TV that says, “There’s a cobra, let’s leave it alone”? No, they grab it by its tail and swing it around. People are bringing these animals into their homes, and they think they’re going to act like the surgically altered, sedated animals they see on the Jay Leno Show. If you bring a large [exotic] animal into your home, you’ve just signed a death warrant—one of you is going to die.
MW: I found it fascinating at the beginning to see these animals in the same way that a lot of the owners have. The problem is, it doesn’t take long for that fascination to start to wear off and to feel wrong and selfish. You think, “That tiger, it’s never going to run, it’s never going to hunt.” I reached a point where I was no longer interested in seeing animals in cages anymore. There’s a disrespect for the animal. Ultimately, we have to be able to change the mindset, so the ideas about animals are different in our society.
The Elephant in the Living Room will be available on DVD on August 23.