'Elephant in Living Room' Warns About Exotic Pets

PHOTO An estimated 30,000 Americans have exotic pets in their homes, an increasing danger to them and their communities.
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Two lion cubs -- Lambert and then Lacey -- filled the hole in Terry Brumfield's heart after the Piketon, Ohio, truck driver was seriously injured in an accident and slipped into a deep depression.

He bought the exotic cats from a breeder and, at first, they were like cuddly kittens.

"I pet and hug him," he said of the male that grew to 550 pounds. "He's something special. He roars at night like he's lonesome."

But by the age of 2, as the lions sexually matured, Brumfield, a burly man with a mane-like beard so scraggy he looked like the lions he so adored, realized he couldn't control them.

One day, Lambert leaped out of the top of his cage and escaped, roaming the Ohio state freeway's Route 23 and attacking cars.

Tim Harrison, a Dayton public safety officer and leading expert on exotic animals, eventually intervened. His relationship with Brumfield and the fate of both Lambert and his master -- at once heartrending and heartbreaking -- unfold in a new film, "Elephant in the Living Room."

The documentary, the first by feature film director Michael Webber, just won the Humane Society's Genesis Award and premieres in 100 cities around country starting April 1. The film is a cautionary tale about the millions of exotic animals -- lions, tigers, bears, primates and reptiles -- that are raised as household pets across the United States.

Its main character, Brumfield, is one of tens of thousands of Americans who buy into a $20.5 billion industry -- one that is overshadowed only by the sale of guns and drugs, according to Harrison, who in 2001 founded Outreach for Animals, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public on the dangers of owning exotic animals.

It may not be ethical, but in nine states it's perfectly legal and in 30, there are only some restrictions or permit requirements.

Dayton passed a law five years ago banning all ownership of these animals that has dramatically cut Harrison's rescue operations, and he hopes the documentary will help do the same in all other cities and states.

"These dealers are horrible people," said Harrison. "They sell them the animals on the Internet and at auctions, but they never come back to help them. I am the last resort.

"Whenever somebody brings home a dangerous animal, you are signing a death warrant: One of you us going to die," he said. "Usually, it's the animal."

The film takes viewers into the deep sub-culture of exotic animal sales, including a hidden camera tour of a reptile expo in Pennsylvania and an exotic animal auction in Amish country where monkeys, lions, apes and hyenas were available.

Harrison tackles a 10-foot alligator and searches for a python that escaped for 28 days into the walls of a house where a woman in a wheelchair lived. He captures a 16-foot gaboon viper, with the longest fangs in the world, after boys were playing innocently with the snake in a garage.

"You don't have to go to Africa," said Harrison, 54. "Go to Anytown, USA."

Filmmaker Michael Moore called the film, "the scariest, most entertaining and technically perfect documentary."

Webber's camera goes along for the bumpy ride.

"When I first went to visit Terry, I hear this roar, and it wasn't even a full-fledged roar," said Webber. "It was Lambert, and my chest shook. It scared me to death. I felt like a piece of small prey."

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