Last night I watched the documentary movie The Elephant in the Living Room (check out the movie website). It is a stunning look inside one of the more bizarre and troubling subcultures in America: multi-billion dollar exotic animal industry. Although I was aware some people keep lions and bears and pythons as pets, I had no idea how enormous the market for exotics is or the magnitude of the problems it creates for the animals themselves. For example, I learned that there are over 15,000 big cats owned by people in the United States. There are more tigers in captivity in Texas than there are in the wild in Africa.
Most of the film takes place in Ohio, which seems to be the epicenter of exotic pet culture. We follow the interwoven stories of Tim Harrison, an Ohio public safety officer who works for an organization called Outreach for Animals, and a man named Terry, who keeps several lions as pets in his backyard. Tim spends his days trying to track down and catch the various exotic pets that for one reason or another end up on the loose in the neighborhoods around Dayton. Terry spends his days struggling to care for his outsized pets, which becomes especially difficult after his large male escapes from his pen and starts chasing down and attacking cars on the highway.
One of the things I liked most about the film is that it allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Although it is hard to watch the footage of exotic pet auctions and reptile expos and not be disturbed by how animals are traded like baseball cards and sold to children as if they were toys, the movie nonetheless feels quietly balanced. The overriding tone is not outrage (as it could be), but sadness. There really are no winners. For Terry, things end in heartbreak. He loses his beloved male lion, Lambert, to a freak electrocution, and finally realizes that he can no longer shoulder the burden of caring for the female, Lacy, and her three cubs. For Tim, things also end in heartbreak--day after day of heartbreak as he tries to deal with an increasing number of abandoned, lost, or escaped animals. Most of all, we feel sad for the animals, for whom things also seem to go badly. As Tim says at one point, "There are no happy endings for the animals."