You don't have to work very hard to convince Central Floridians that exotic animals - lions, snakes, alligators - are everywhere, and not just in zoos. I was recently asked if I'd like to feed a pond full of baby gators … at a putt-putt course for kids. And of course Repticon 2011 is just around the corner, where exotic and venomous animals - and not just reptiles - are available to buy "like potato salad at the local grocery store," says a hidden camera-carrying infiltrator at a similar convention in this shaggy yet passionate doc examining the phenomenon of wild animals being kept as pets in America. (It's currently legal in Florida to own practically any animal, from monkeys to cheetahs, with the purchase of a $150 permit.)
Director Michael Webber spends too much screen time replaying local news reports of a lion loose on a highway and a strangled python owner, but when he settles on a defining example of the problem - the clash between disabled, loving lion owner Terry and weary Tim Harrison, an Ohio public safety officer who spends too much of his job cleaning up the mess when exotic animal owners slip up - the film engrosses and educates in equal order.
Initially, Terry is full of righteous defiance and dangerous, if understandable, parental protection for his adult African lions. When things start spiraling out of control, Tim's pleas for oversight and intervention start seeping into Terry's head, and the men form an unlikely bond - both want nothing more than to protect these animals.
The Elephant in the Living Room is structurally scattershot but its evidence is sound and fair, its characters sympathetic and its message, if muddled, is still important and effectively delivered. It's being distributed independently and screens at the Plaza Cinema Café starting April 1.
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