KANSAS CITY, Mo. _ “Nobody likes to go to school on a Friday night.”That was filmmaker Michael Webber’s mantra when it came to “The Elephant in the Living Room,” his documentary about people who keep exotic _ and frequently dangerous _ wild animals in their homes.
“When people think of a documentary, they too often think of charts and graphs, text and statistics. And often documentaries are pretty one-sided … there’s an agenda,” Webber said in a recent phone conversation.
“All that gives the impression that documentaries are educational and less than entertaining.”
Webber was determined that “Elephant” never feel like a lesson.
“Lots of people say it’s a documentary that almost plays like fiction. I guess my background in narrative fiction film has influenced my style of storytelling. I brought all of that with me.”
“Elephant” centers on two men. Tim Harrison is a public safety officer in Dayton, Ohio, who specializes in dangerous animals. Terry Brumfield is an Ohioan who keeps two lions _ Lambert and Lacie _ on his rural property.
Several years ago Webber, who has produced mostly horror films (” The Visitation,” “House”) and mysteries (“Devil You Know”),read Harrison’s books “Wild Times” and “Wildlife Warrior. “
“Basically these were stories of what Tim has seen in 30 years _ pulling pythons out of walls, taking lions out of basements. I thought it was really amazing and that I should meet this guy.
“We talked off and on by phone for almost a year, and then I had the epiphany that this was the documentary I’d been looking for.
“I also realized later why nobody had done this story before. It’s because while there are thousands of exotic animal owners, it’s hard to find anyone who can represent the other side of the story. Tim is unique _ he has raised and loves exotic animals, but he also sees the danger. He became the cornerstone of the project, letting me follow him around for a year.”
Webber’s camera caught some hair-raising moments. In one incident, a concerned parent called Harrison because neighborhood children were playing with a large snake. He was stunned to find it was a gaboon viper, among the world’s most venomous snakes. It had slipped out of its cage and, b y some miracle, had not bitten any of the youngsters.
“I also wanted to capture what life is like for someone who’s raising a big predator in their home,” Webber said. “I didn’t want to tell this story from the outside. I wanted to be embedded in their lives.”
Brumfield’s story was particularly compelling. In poor health and living on a fixed income, Brumfield struggled to provide good living conditions for his lions Lambert and Lacie. He and Harrison were thrown together when Lambert escaped his enclosure and began playing among the cars on a nearby highway.
Webber said he realized how completely these owners adore their pets. At the same time, he said, they’re tempting nature.
“There’s no question that they love their animals. The bond they have with their tiger or chimp or snake far surpasses the bond the rest of us have with our dogs and cats. That surprised me.
“They often refer to these animals as if they’re children. I have a friend with a chimp, and they refer to it as a member of the family. Very few people regard their dog as their son. But owners of exotic animals will do that.”
Maybe it has something to do with having a wild animal who is dependent upon you, Webber said.
“Take a big majestic creature like a tiger. It’s wild, but you’ve raised it in your home. Here’s an animal that’s supposed to be hunting in an Indian jungle and instead it looks to you for its food. That’s really compelling.
“So it’s often an unbreakable bond. And in a way that makes the situation worse when things start to go bad.”
That happened even in the case of Brumfield and his lions, Webber said.
“In many ways Lambert was an incredibly gentle beast. He loved Terry and regarded him as the king of their pride. In all the time I photographed Lambert he never growled at me, never charged the fence. His mate, Lacie, was always growling and butting the cage, but Lambert would try to calm her down.”
But as Lambert aged and became sexually active, things changed.
“Lambert had all the instincts and programming of a lion in Africa. One day he did turn on Terry. He had reached sexual maturity and was programmed to take over the pride.”
That exotic animals often turn violent isn’t the animals’ fault, Webber said.
“When that chimpanzee ripped a woman’s face off … it wasn’t because it was a bad animal. Basically he was saying, ‘I’m a chimpanzee. This is what I do.’ These attacks aren’t unfortunate coincidences. The animals are programmed to do this.”
While “Elephant” doesn’t openly advocate tighter restrictions on exotic animals, it strongly suggests that the lack of regulation is endangering both the animals and their owners.
“You need a license to own a poodle. But you can keep a lion, tiger, chimp, crocodile or poisonous snake in your back yard and in many states there’s no regulation whatsoever,” Webber said.
“That realization _ coupled with all the incidents of escape, injury and death _ really caught my attention. There seems to be no state that isn’t affected.