Thoughts About the Movie “The Elephant in the Living Room”

13 08 2012

When I’m not watching horror movies (or similar) on Netflix, I’m balancing things out karmically with documentaries. So in this case, to balance out the incredibly awful (as in, really lame) movie “Bane” (which has nothing to do with Batman), I watched “The Elephant in the Living Room”. In short, it’s about people (mostly in Ohio) that keep exotic animals as pets – lions, for instance – and at least one man tasked with promoting responsible pet ownership and in some cases, putting the animals down if they present a threat to the general public.

Spoilers follow in the form of a movie discussion, so if you want to view the film with virgin eyes, queue it up and come back here later to see how my thoughts on the subject compare to your own.

Okay. This movie was rough going for me, especially near the end, because I recently had to put my dog of nearly 13 years down due to his failing health. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make, and my only consolation is that he’s in a better place now, and was spared the agony of what his health problems were going to evolve into. He was a happy dog and led a good life, I believe, and I wanted him to have that happy life be his legacy and not potential years of senility (among other problems) define his last days.

So yeah, I completely empathize with people who bond with their pets, whether they be “normal” animals like cats and dogs, or something a bit more exotic like lions and chimps.

On the other hand, back around the time when Harry Browne was seeking the US Presidential nomination for the Libertarian party, I did some cursory research into that party’s ideology. In short, and not to put words in anyone’s mouth or to grossly misrepresent Libertarianism, I think it’s fair to say that a central tenet is “everything should be legal so long as it isn’t hurting anyone else.” So if I say, wanted to keep an arsenal of AK-47s, and I kept them locked up in a gun safe, and mailed the key to China, and I just had the guns for the sake of saying “I own a lot of AK-47s”, what’s the harm? Nobody and nothing is getting shot. Nobody and nothing ever will get shot, because I can’t even open the gun safe if I wanted to. So does the debate about legal assault weapons apply to hypothetical me? Maybe not.

But.

The same cannot be said for exotic animals. Like it or not, if you’re keeping one (or more) in captivity, you’re going to have to interact with it/them and because these are wild animals (accent on “wild”) you plain cannot know what they’ll do to you, or to someone else. Worse, time and time again, stories break where despite a bevy of precautions, nature wins and an animal escapes and if everyone is lucky, the animal is caught and returned unharmed, having caused no harm of its own.

My dog bit my thumb once, when we got our third dog (back when I was married). I went to grab his collar to curb his aggressive demeanor and he latched on to my thumb like it was a stick in his mouth and then he started to bite down. I knew in that instant that if I didn’t get him off of my thumb, he’d snap a bone without breaking a sweat. Fortunately nothing got broken, and eventually he accepted the new dog and things returned to normal. But that was a stark reminder that you can “domesticate” a dog all you want, but some portion of them remains unpredictable and wild. Worse, they’re not going to speak English and tell you rationally about their feelings, ever. So imagine a lion with some sort of problem. It’s not going to speak English either (not even “Bob Rohhhhhhhrman”, sorry, local humor there) and chances are, it’s going to lead off with its teeth or its claws.

Sure puts my 20-pound dog in perspective.

In some ways, the attitude of the lion owner featured prominently in the film reminds me of the episode of The Simpsons where Homer grows “tomacco” (tomato and tobacco hybrid) that he invented. His daughter Lisa begs him to stop growing tomacco and Homer says, “but Lisa, I’m just one man! What possible difference can I make?”

So it goes with lion ownership. It’s tough, it’s challenging, but hey, he’s just one guy and what could he do? I mean, other than not own a lion (or a pride, as becomes the case) in the first place?

As for the jabs at the “nanny state” from the pro-exotic pets crowd interspersed throughout the film, I don’t think the issue boils down to a simple case of say, me not thinking anyone can safely own a lion in suburbia, not even Siegfried and Roy, and therefore legislating that belief unto others. I do believe the issue is more framed as, does this represent a threat to the public? Yes, guns represent a threat, but as I texted to my sister while watching the movie (I paused it first, but you know what I mean), it’s not like guns are going to sneak out of the gun safe at night and shoot some baby. The same cannot be said about a Black Mamba that’s being kept in a mop bucket.

And, if memory serves, but jurisdictions vary, seems to me there are laws against say, owning unlicensed guns or leaving loaded weapons on the floor unattended with small children around. Maybe not. I don’t think it’s asking too much to regulate what exotic animals are being passed around, or how they are to be cared for. If I were to have kept my dog in a shoebox and fed him once a week, the Humane Society (and who knows who else) would have had my head on a plate. So why is it cool to stick a cobra wherever and feed it, uh, something not really knowing what it needs to eat, and how it needs to eat it?

And that’s another angle that is touched on in the movie: Sometimes it’s not a matter of some wild animal escaping, it’s the owners realizing that they’re in over their heads and setting it loose. This is where I hesitate about Libertarianism, because what hasn’t been explained to my satisfaction (or better yet, modeled) is how this free utopia is going to enforce the part about not hurting others. Sure, man, own 50 cobras. Freedom! But if you mistreat them or set them loose on an unsuspecting public, we’re going to… what?

That’s a debate for any political ideology, of course.

Anyway, it was an engaging and thought-provoking documentary and one I heartily recommend. Just please, lay off of the wild animals if you really and truly don’t understand what you’re getting yourself into. The thought that came to me at the end was, “God is better at playing God than you are.”

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