The Elephant in the Living Room - Exposing Exotic Pet Ownership in the US

Opening at select theaters throughout the US in April 2011

The Elephant in the Living Room is a compelling documentary that examines the little-known yet widespread problem of exotic pet ownership in the US—in particular the practice of making pets out of dangerous wild animals such as lions, tigers, elephants, bears and venomous snakes. Director Michael Webber adopts a non-judgmental tone as he profiles two people on opposite sides of the issue: Terry Brumfield, a gentle man who raises and maintains a deep affection for his pet African lions; and Tim Harrison, a Dayton, Ohio police officer/firefighter/paramedic who is also executive director of Outreach for Animals—an organization that feels wild animals should be left in their natural habitats.

Recently, Michael answered some questions from AWI about his film:

How did you get involved in this issue?
I read books on the subject of exotic animal pets and they happened to be written by Tim Harrison, the Ohio police officer. I realized that this was the “elephant in the living room.” I was like “Wow, this is happening all over the place and nobody knows it,” and I came up with that concept.

Later in the conversation, Michael adds that doing the film wasn’t always easy. Tim Harrison received death threats after writing the books and needed armed body guards. His other subject, Terry Brumfield, was threatened and warned not to talk to Michael. “One of the big reasons,” he surmises, “is that it’s a multibillion dollar industry. A big industry like that is not going to go down without a fight.”

What was the most surprising thing you learned making the film?
I think initially, the most surprising thing was the lack of laws in some states. I learned that in the county where I live in Ohio, I have to have a license to keep my dog, an animal that has been domesticated for thousands of years, but I can actually stick an elephant in my backyard—or a tiger or lion—and there is nothing that anybody can do about it.

The other thing that was shocking to me was the availability of the animals. You think about these majestic animals that are endangered in the wild, and here in the United States, there are so many of them I would be crazy to buy a tiger or a lion because I could get one for free. And the reason there is a surplus is because they are overbred by the dealers and trainers. Once they become sexually mature and a year or two old, the owners don’t want them anymore so they are trying to give them away. They try to find a home for the mature animals so they can get another younger one.

Can you describe the legislation in Ohio regarding exotic animals?
Last year the outgoing governor of Ohio signed an executive order to ban the sale, purchase and ownership of dangerous exotics. That executive order needs to be filled by the new governor, Governor Kasich. You would think that it's common sense that people shouldn't keep a tiger in their backyard or a Gaboon viper in their house, much less completely unregulated. It’s not like that. It’s a real debate and there is every reason to believe that he actually won’t sign it. It’s possible that Ohio could remain the wild, wild west like many other states where there is no state regulation whatsoever on the ownership of dangerous exotics.

Go to for more information.

Things you can do:

  • Refrain from purchasing or keeping an exotic animal or any other wild animal as a pet.
  • Call officials in your state and inquire about its laws relating to exotic animal ownership. Encourage the adoption of a ban on dangerous exotic pets if none is in place.
  • Watch The Elephant in the Living Room and encourage others to do so.
  • Stay tuned for a new television series that Michael Webber and Tim Harrison are working on to educate even more people about the problem with dangerous exotics in the US On continuing and expanding the work, Michael says, "I don’t think you can do something like The Elephant in the Living Room and then just walk away from it and be done with it."