“The Elephant in the Living Room” opens Friday for 1 week

Tim Harrison is a police officer in Oakwood, Ohio, who captures escaped wild pets across Ohio and runs the advocacy group Outreach for Animals.  Terry Brumfield of Piketon hand-raised two lions in his home, one of whom made headlines in 2007 after escaping and chasing cars down US-23.

Both men have devoted their adult lives to non-humans, yet they fall on opposite sides of a controversy over how we should relate to wild animals.  They are subjects of a new documentary by filmmaker Mike Webber, who spent a year exploring the wild subculture of Americans who keep wild exotic animals as pets.

Terry Brumfield of Piketon, OH, who was in a fatal train accident this September, with one of the lions he raised from infancy. Photo courtesy of Michael Webber.

Twenty-one states including Ohio have no prohibitions on keeping wild animals in private homes.  But the rest have at least partial bans, and there are people everywhere who strongly believe that wild animals should be left in the wild.  As a result, the nation-wide community of people who buy, sell, and own wild exotic animals does not welcome outside scrutiny.

I asked Webber a few questions about his experience of making The Elephant in the Living Room, which opens at The Rave in Westchester this Friday.

FT: I imagine you met a lot of animal owners with colorful personas and interesting takes on their relationships with their animals.  What was it about [Terry Brumfield] that led you to choose him as a central figure?

MW: I was specifically looking for someone who was raising a large predatory exotic, like a lion or tiger.  To me, this represents the most fascinating and compelling example of an exotic pet owner.

When I met Terry Brumfield, there were a lot of things about him that I liked.  Aside from owning two African lions which he raised as cubs in his home and currently kept in his back yard, he was a great character and was very open and honest.  He was also a “home video junky” and had hours of video of himself and the lions.  He recorded everything and continued to do so even during the year I spent with him.  Viewing that material allowed me to more fully understand who he was as a person.

Obviously, Terry’s willingness to allow me to follow his story was a necessary component which turned out to be the most difficult (if not impossible) obstacle with everyone else I met.

I was also looking for an exotic owner who had no regulations, no restrictions, no oversight over the pet.  In this case, Terry was required to have a dog tags for his dogs, but regulations whatsoever to keep two African lions in his yard.  He was the perfect subject and over he course of production he and I became very good friends.

Officer Tim Harrison of Oakwood, whose career as an animal advocate began in a Tipp City veterinary clinic. Photo courtesy of Michael Webber.

FT: In your video interview with IFFBoston you said you were often urged by cities and states not to make the movie.  Can you say more about this?  What was your understanding of the motives/interests behind these requests?  How did you respond?

When you are doing a documentary on such a heated and controversial topic as this, you are going to be met with a tremendous amount of resistance.  Although I did not have an agenda with this film and wanted to explore both sides, people and organizations were naturally resistant and skeptical of my intensions.  It is commonly known that filmmakers have sometimes misrepresented their films in order to gain the access they need, which is something I resolved not to do.

What made this even more challenging is that I didn’t want to explore this world from the outside like many documentaries are forced do.   I wanted to tackle this from the inside with people who are right in the middle of this firestorm.  In that case, access is everything.  Access to the people, to the events, locations, everything.  That access is what ultimately makes the film so powerful.

In gaining that access, many of the people who appeared in the film had a tremendous amount of pressure not to do so.  I was physically chased out of areas, followed so that I wouldn’t be in contact with certain people, pressured by cities and one state not to cover some stories, etc.  However, their were brave people on both sides of the issue who, like myself, did not buckle to the pressure of others and participated in the project anyway.

When you see this movie, I feel like we are watching a film that was never supposed to be made, involving people whose stories were never supposed to be told.

Photo courtesy of Michael Webber.

FT:  You’ve commented that we Americans could stand to change the way we look at wild animals.  How did making this film impact your thinking about our relationships with pet animals?

MW: The film itself does not take a side, there is no narration and you never hear me voice my opinion.  I follow the personal journey of two characters on opposite sides of the issue while allowing others to voice their position.  But having gone through this journey, it did effect the way I view non-domestic animals in captivity.

Originally, I enjoyed filming these majestic animals.  I challenge anyone to spend time close to animals like tigers, lions, bears and primates and not feel that way.  But at some point that feeling changed.  Seeing these non-domestic animals that were made to hunt, to run, to live in the wild confined to a small cages for their entire life, a personal “pet” that is too wild and dangerous for its owner to even touch… the more this realization settled in the more my enjoyment faded away.

FT: Do you live with any pets yourself?

MW: I have a German shepherd and a poodle.
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The Elephant in the Living Room opens Friday, Nov. 5 at The Rave theater in West Chester, for a one-week run.  Click here for movie times and tickets.

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