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MOVIE REVIEW

The Elephant in the Living Room

Lions, snakes, and bears — at home

The film shares the downside of trying to raise wild animals. The film shares the downside of trying to raise wild animals. (Michael Webber)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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Michael Webber’s documentary, “The Elephant in the Living Room,’’ follows Tim Harrison around the Ohio area as Harrison responds to emergency calls about wild-animal sightings. It’s unclear how the animals got loose, but in most cases they’re pets who’ve become too onerous, too dangerous, or too large to keep. Harrison — a tall, strong-looking former firefighter, cop, and paramedic — works to educate the public on the dangers of exotic animals. But he spends all of this movie living a nature episode of “Cops.’’

Webber treats these incidents with two parts sensationalist horror-movie concern and one part sorrow. The movie effectively rids you of any notion that owning a cougar or a python is a good idea. Throughout, TV news footage provides a seemingly endless stream of stories of snakes that eat infants and bears that kill trainers.

While it’s good Animal Planet-style entertainment to show Harrison crossing the state to apprehend fugitive wildlife, what’s more curious is the sort of person who’d want a jackal for a pet — or had one and lived to regret it. The impulse to buy a snake, then toss it into the wild once it’s demonstrated no real interest in being domesticated, is a richer dramatic prospect than watching wildlife officers in the Florida Everglades shoot the snake dead.

To that end, the movie produces one sad example of the sort of person who would own, say, a pair of lions. His name is Terry Brumfield. Brumfield is a squat fellow in poor health, and to lift his spirits after a bout of depression he brought Lambert and Lacy into his life. Caring for them turned out to be a mixed affair. One afternoon in 2007, Lambert, who weighs 550 pounds, managed to escape onto the highway. Webber gets hold of a driver’s rattled 911 call, then gets hold of the caller herself. At the time, Ohio didn’t require a license to own an exotic animal, and Brumfield was able to retain custody of his lions, reluctantly agreeing to cage them in a rusty trailer in his yard. Harrison wants Brumfield to turn the beasts over to a wildlife organization.

The movie pivots on the relationship between the lion owner and his lions, and between Harrison and Brumfield, who sees no difference between raising quarter-ton Lambert and a human baby. But there’s a kind of macho element to the movie that contradicts Harrison’s interest in humane treatment with filming the suffering of animals and hoisting a couple of them for the camera.

Some of “The Elephant in the Room’’ proceeds in the stylized manner of Errol Morris — oblique, fanciful, chilling, amused. This is the darker side of Morris’s pet-cemetery film, “Gates of Heaven.’’ There’s also a kind of moral, activist outrage that Webber taps into. But it’s not the hyperventilating newscasts or many scenes of men nabbing runaway snakes that capture that ire. It’s the moments that display the weird, complex quirk in man’s nature to overlook an animal’s nature, and there aren’t quite enough of those.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM

Written and directed by: Michael Webber

At: Stuart Street Playhouse

Running time: 95 minutes

Unrated (many scenes of animals stuck in cages, one of an animal being shot in the wild)

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