'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.PlayPhoto by Michael Webber, Courtesy of Elephant in the Living Room
WATCH Trailer: 'The Elephant in the Living Room'

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."

Terry Brumfield of Ohio with Lambert, his pet lion.

In the end, the documentary was nearly left unfinished because a mysterious animal-borne illness felled the director during six months of post-production.

Harrison said the film was almost "too personal" to watch. He had been "on the dark side," raising both a python and a tiger in the 1980s. He lost two close friends who were strangled to death by snakes and eventually took on the crusade to keep people from even acquiring these animals in the first place.

More Tigers in Texas Than in All of India

There are 15,000 exotic cats in captivity in American homes, as well as 7.3 million reptiles.

Harrison noted that an estimated 3,400 tigers are living with ordinary families in Texas -- more than double the 1,400 that live in the wild in India.

In the film, Dr. Roger Pocholka, an emergency room physician at Miami Valley Hospital, laments, "I travel to Africa, and I see more fatal injuries in this country. You don't keep lions and cobras in the house. They are afraid and we should be too.

"I get angry at the animal specials that show how tame and manageable they are," he said. "We see them as cuddly, but they'll eat your face -- literally!"

The film's story follows the journey of Harrison and lion-owner Brumfield, who meet after Lambert's escape and capture. As the film opens, Brumfield is forced to confine Lambert and his mate Lacey in a small prison-like trailer.

Knowing things could get worse, Brumfield says, "I have to shoot him."

But he so desperately loves Lambert, who nuzzles against his master, that he adds, "I have two shells and a gun, then I'll kill myself."

Harrison confronts Brumfield and tries to convince him to find a better home for his beloved lions -- which, by the end of the film, include two baby cubs -- at a zoo or game reserve.

"That animal trusted you when you bought him," he sternly tells the owners. "He loved you and he trusted you, and you went against his trust."

"Am I a hero or a villain?" asks Harrison, who has worked with exotic animals for 37 years. "If you've ever seen a small child constricted by a python or a person mauled by a big cat or a beautiful creature put down when there is no reason to be killed, it's horrible."

Webber began to follow Harrison on his rescue routes after reading the officer's book, "Wildlife Warrior."

"I always look for unique scripts and I wanted to take the audience to a world they had never seen before," said Webber. "I was fascinated and didn't quite believe these things could be true. I started doing my own research and realized it was the elephant in the living room. It was going on all over the country."

Webber, 40, who came from a narrative film background ("Like Dandelion Dust," 2009), built on Brumfield's desire to do the right by his lions.

"Terry was, to me, was such a fascinating character study," said Webber. "He was suffering from depression ... and I connected with him and knew the struggles he was having -- just to get out of bed in the morning and do something. He found a connection with these lions and they are what gave him the reason to go on. ... Those animals helped him."

Webber also gave thumbnails of news events happening real-time: A woman's hands and face are ripped apart by a chimpanzee in Stamford, Conn.; a Virginia Beach woman suffocates as her neck is crushed by a python; a 2-year old is strangled in his crib by a pet snake; and a California trainer is killed by his bear.

Filming was nearly halted when Webber contracted what experts think may have been a parasite. He had spent hours lying amid the excrement and dead carcasses of road kill to get close-up shots of animals.

After a shoot, he would just "peel off his clothes and drop them right into the garbage can" before even entering his house.

Filming was so dangerous that Webber told Harrison, "If one of us dies, the other has to finish the film. The story has to be told."

But there was a different kind of danger "lurking in the background," said Webber, who lost 15 pounds and most of his will to keep working.

"I started getting these aggressive hives, almost as if I had poison oak all over my face and head," he said. "No one could stop it -- not even doctors at the university -- and no one knew what it was."

Director Nearly Dies of Animal-Borne Illness

A veterinarian friend finally diagnosed his condition.

"I told him to just treat me like a dog or a cat or a horse," said Webber. "That thing nearly defeated me."

The trade in exotic animals has been escalating in the U.S., according to Harrison. For years, he got three or four calls. But in 1995, when Australian animal trainer Steve Irwin launched his popular TV show, the number of rescue calls jumped to a high of more than 100 a year in 2003 in Dayton, Ohio, alone.

"We had 19 alligators on the loose that year," said Harrison, who has appeared on National Geographic and "Inside Edition." "They were sold by the hundreds. Every kid wanted them."

The crocodiles Irwin worked with were, "the most docile animals in the world," he said. "They were overfed and can't lift their bellies off the ground."

What viewers don't see are that the seemingly tame animals on television have been surgically altered, had their claws removed and been medicated "to take the edge off."

In the real world, Harrison said, "the wild can kick our butt anytime it wants.

"You see it on TV and monkey see, monkey do," said Harrison of the reality shows that glorify exotic animals. "When you watch them raise tigers, you don't see the house torn apart when they hit the wall."

Harrison hopes the new film will result in action: State laws need to prevent sale and ownership of these animals and zoos need to do a better job of educating, he said. Television also needs to portray them in more realistic light and encourage respect for the animal and its life in the wild -- not in the backyard.

Both Harrison and Webber show enormous empathy for exotic animal owners like Brumfield, who become attached to their pets before realizing they can't handle them.

"They have an empty spot that needs to be filled," said Harrison. "It takes time to know they did wrong. Their ego and their love -- they cannot release the animal until it gets to the point when they know I am right, and they want to do the best for the lions. Terry was still their father and the leader of the pride and he feels he has failed the animals."

Said Webber of Brumfield, "What I liked about Terry was he was very honest. He didn't try to fool me or himself. He didn't paint a glamorous picture of what was going on to prevent me from doing the right thing."

Webber and Harrison developed close friendships with Brumfield that continued for months after the film was shot in 2009. They called regularly and took interest in the book Brumfield decided to write about his life with his lions. He even got a chance to view the documentary.

But the story had an bittersweet ending not told in the film.

On Sept. 22, 2010, Brumfield called Webber, then moments later, talked to Harrison.

"Terry gave me a call and he was in great spirits," said Harrison. "But three hours later he came up with his youngest son in a truck over the railroad tracks that ran through is property and [the train] didn't blow its horn."

Brumfield was thrown from the vehicle and killed instantly at the age of 57.

"He landed on Lambert's grave," said Harrison, trying not to give away the plot of the film. "Terry wanted to be buried with Lambert. We fought with the county and they agreed.

Webber and Harrison gave the eulogy.

"He was so articulate on one hand and so salt-of-the-earth on the other," said Webber of Brumfield. But his life with four lions was, "a situation he just couldn't quite get out of."