After watching the documentary The Elephant In The Living Room, I’ve become convinced that there are fewer Americans too daunted by responsibility to own a dog than there are those who are totally unphased by that of keeping a pet cougar. While news stories occasionally pop up about failed attempts to domesticate wild animals, from the man in Harlem who kept a tiger and an alligator to the tragic chimp attack in Connecticut, far more people keep zoo animals as housepets than we realize, especially in the midwest, where regulations are far more lax.
The Elephant In The Living Room was filmed mostly in Ohio, where 48 wild animals famously escaped from a private collection in 2011 and had to be killed (and where restrictions on private ownership of wild animals have since been put in place, due in large part to that incident). At the time of filming, the state had no regulations at all pertaining to owning or selling wild animals, which is how Terry Brumfield, profiled in the film, is allowed to own two African lions in his backyard. He clearly loves the big cats and kept them in his house when they were babies, but it’s also clear that he can’t provide the habitat or resources the animals need to thrive now that they’re fully grown and more aggressive.
The films shows that this is a common scenario for exotic pet owners which often ends with the animals either being turned over to authorities who, with no access to at-capacity rescues and reserves, are forced to put the animals down, or with the animals being set free into the woods, threatening both humans and the natural habitat. This is especially true in Florida, where released pythons are devastating the Everglades.
The film would have benefitted from more profiles of wild animal owners like Terry, to better understand what motivates people to take on pets like these, but laws and stigma drive most exotic pet owners underground; the filmmakers sneak into a large exotic reptile expo and an exotic pet auction, and both have the tense, paranoid aura of a gun show, a legal world that fears regulation and exposure. As the exotic pet trade grows and draws attention to itself through tragedy, that regulation is inevitable, and The Elephant in the Living Room quietly makes the case that those laws can’t come too soon.