The Elephant in the Living Room: An Inside Look at Exotic Pet Ownership in the United States

Kelly Kruszewski

In November of 2007, 911 dispatchers in Pike County, Ohio, received a call from an alarmed driver—there was a lion attacking cars on Route 23.  Apparently, the lion escaped from his enclosure and ran toward the local highway.  Terry Brumfield owned the lion whose name was Lambert.  In an article published in the Columbus Dispatch shortly after the incident, Brumfield says: “To me, he’s a big, old house cat. A big, old teddy bear.”

    More can be said of Terry Brumfield and his lions in a documentary by Michael Webber known as The Elephant in the Living Room, which uncovers the subculture of exotic animal ownership in the United States.  The documentary follows Tim Harrison, a Dayton, Ohio, public safety officer with years of experience in dealing with exotic animals and even his own past-ownership of them, of which he refers to as the “dark side.”  The documentary also shadows Terry and his two lions, Lacy and Lambert, whom he took in when they were just cubs.  In 2007, when Lambert escaped his enclosure, Ohio did not require a permit for exotic or dangerous animals.  Currently, in nine states it’s actually legal to own an exotic or dangerous animal and in thirty states there are only some restrictions on licensing and permits. 

There is a subculture of exotic animal ownership where dealers bring in exotic animals for sale at auctions and expos and some are even sold over the Internet.  In the film, Tim Harrison takes the viewer into the Amish country of Mount Hope, Ohio, where the nation’s largest exotic pet auction takes place, along with the film’s director, Michael Webber, who is equipped with a hidden camera (cameras and recording devices of any kind are forbidden inside the auction).  Once inside, Tim and Michael reveal animals of a wide variety, such as crocodiles, hyenas, and extremely venomous snakes for sale.  Children can be seen walking away with their new pet crocodiles and bobcats as if they’ve just purchased a kitten or puppy.  Tim buys a Puff Adder, presumably so that nobody else can endanger themself with it, and he subsequently brings it to a venom research center. The Puff Adder is one of the most dangerous and most venomous snakes in the world and is found exclusively in Africa.  This snake, among other extremely poisonous snakes, could be purchased in its own personal Tupperware container marked with red tape as an indication that it is a poisonous breed for sale.  Noticeably, the auction’s website now warns potential pet owners that certain exotic animals will no longer be for sale, and one can presume it may be as a result of Tim and Michael’s undercover camera.  All in all, exotic animal ownership is dangerous.  It’s dangerous to the animal owners, to people like Tim Harrison who are the first to respond to a phone call about a cougar in someone’s backyard, and it’s dangerous to the animals themselves who arguably have no place in someone’s home and rather belong in their appropriate wild habitats.  Tim notes to the viewer 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 one of the more disheartening moments of the film, the viewer is shown where Lacy and Lambert end up after Lambert’s highway adventure—an old horse trailer in Terry’s backyard.  Lambert’s cage is obviously not a safe environment and will lead to further escape attempts.  Tim continuously urges Terry to give up the lions to a sanctuary because if they end up killing or hurting someone, they will end up being put down.  Unfortunately, Terry, both stubborn and genuinely loving toward his lions, tells the viewer the day he puts Lambert down there will be two bullets in his gun, one for Lambert, and one for himself.

A more recent story concerning exotic animal ownership made headlines on October 19th, 2011.  In Zanesville, Ohio, schools were closed and motorists warned to remain in their cars because exotic animal owner Terry Thompson was found dead with the cages of all of his exotic animals left open and the animals were on the loose.  Thompson freed all of his exotic animals—including wolves, lions, Bengal tigers and bears—and then committed suicide.  The sheriff’s department had made numerous visits to Thompson’s property in the last ten years in response to reports of animal cruelty or loose animals.  Thompson had even threatened to let the animals go on prior occasions.  Thompson was convicted in 2005 of animal cruelty, allowing an animal to roam freely in addition to rendering animal waste without a license.  Yet, Ohio’s weak exotic animal laws allowed his ownership of over 50 exotic breeds to continue.  And now 49 of those exotic animals are dead for no other reason than they were in a place they never belonged.

In the film, Tim ponders to the viewer “am I a hero or a villain?” It’s not a happy ending for anyone.  On the one hand, these exotic animals, which can be dangerous, may harm or kill human beings if they’re not caught, but when they are caught their fate is usually death.  Exotic animal laws vary from state to state.  Some states require permits for ownership, some restrict it entirely, and some have no laws at all.  Tim Harrison and the documentary director, Michael Webber, hope this film will bring to light the reality of exotic pet ownership in this country and as a result stricter state laws preventing the sale and ownership of these animals. And after the tragedy that occurred in Zanesville, Ohio, we can only hope that it will. For more information on the film, you can visit the film’s website here.

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11 Responses

  1. There really needs to be more laws pertaining to owning exotic and wild animals. Animals that require a lot of room to roam around and need the natural world, don’t deserve to be locked up in small cages or kept as “pets”.

    This documentary sounds very good and informative and I will definitely watch it. Thanks for posting it!

    Here’s my opinion on what happened in Ohio. Take a look!: http://palmtreesbarefeet.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/animal-massacre-in-zanesville-ohio/

  2. This is terrible. I do not think exotic animals should be kept in captivity.

  3. What an interesting post. I find it almost unbelievable that people manage to get larger mammals on to the market. Snakes are relatively easy to transport but how on earth do hyena’s and lions get to the stage of actually being up for sale!
    Although I don’t keep caged pets myself, I have many friends here in South Africa who keep all types of snakes. With proper knowledge these people often provide a great service by removing problem snakes and educating people about them.
    But keeping a lion?? Surely people can’t be that stupid. Well obviously they are. I’ll have to watch the documentary

  4. This was a really incredible documentary, and what’s really awesome is that we got it on demand, which means that it’s readily available to the mass public and has a sort of eye catching name. very salient with the recent Ohio massacre.

  5. [...] the Zanesville tragedy, dozens of states have begun to look at state laws regarding private ownership of exotic [...]

  6. Very interesting. I think there really needs to be more inspections and tighter rules regarding exotic pet ownership. However, I don’t think it should be banned. Careful owners will provide love, enrichment and much better health care and diet than on the wild (if a person thinks animals should only live in their natural state, why doesn’t he start living in a cave and stop using the internet?). But again, unfortunately there isn’t enough systems to ensure that only responsible people get these animals.

  7. Concerned Exotic Animal Keeper……you are an idiot and should be put down. Your argument is nonsensical and utterly ignorant. I pity you.

  8. Wild animals should stay in the wild where they were meant to be, not in cages for the selfish enjoyment of people. In particular, a beautiful male lion named Lambert died because a man of poor means was depressed, good Lord, absolute height of stupidity, shame on him.

  9. [...] The Elephant In The Living Room-Documentary exploring exotic pet ownership in America Last night I watched this fascinating documentary on Netflix. Unregulated exotic pet ownership in America is a big problem. Dangerous snakes, Big Cats, elephants, bears, etc. can be owned in many states with no licensing or tags or inspections. There is more regulation for dog and cat ownership than exotic wild animals and it is usually the animals who suffer. But sometimes we hear about people like Carla Nash whose face was ripped off by a pet chimp and the man who let all his wild animals out of their cages and then committed suicide. The animals were hunted and killed. It was a tragedy all the way around. I think if more people know about this situation some changes can be made. The Elephant in the Living Room: An Inside Look at Exotic Pet Ownership in the United States | Anima… [...]

  10. Reblogged this on " OUR WORLD".

  11. I just watched this documentary it’s a shame that Lambert had to die because of his selfish owner. I understand that one loves their animals as a family member but a wild animal should be cared for professionally tree was no reason for this beautiful animal to have suffered like that.

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