Travel Adventure Documentary Magazine
Travel Adventure Documentary magazine
where filmmakers and exhibitors meet

Elephant in the Living Room

Ralph Franklin Posted by Ralph Franklin in Blogs November 16th, 2012

(The writer is a filmmaker, agent and publisher of TAD.

By Ralph Franklin

The call that came in was desperate: Please, I need help. My lion is missing.  Or how about this one: My alligator got out of the bathtub, and I can’t find him.

If you were the cameraman for Outreach for Animals you would grab your equipment as your team went into action.

 A wild animal in your home, your bathtub,  or even your backyard seems crazy, but it’s happening all across America,

You need a license for your dog, but not the lion you have caged behind your garage.

 How many wild animals, including snakes, crocodiles and lizards are in the U.S. today is hard to figure, but those who know, estimate 13 million—about five percent of the U.S. population.

And Ohio seems to be one of the states that has its share. When the frantic "wild animal" call comes into Ohio police or fire departments, it usually ends up at  Outreach for Animals, the non-profit  organization formed in 2001 by those  policemen, firefighters and paramedics.

They have taken on the task of trying to educate the owners of these wild animals —telling them their so-called “pets” belong in their natural habitat and not in their home or backyard.  

Who are the people who own these creatures?

They could be your neighbors or the ones down the street—just plain, normal folks who love animals. Their choice of "pets" is not normal—no domesticated animals like cats and dogs.  Regardless, they love them just as much as we love our domesticated ones. 

Charla Nash before and
after the chimp attack

You may not remember the name Charla Nash, of Poughkeepsie, New York. She went over to help her friend, Sandra Herold, now deceased, who was having some problems with her 200-pound "pet " chimpanzee named Travis. Sandra loved Travis, who, she told reporters, "slept in my bed every single night like a sweet potato." 

Sweet Potato decided, however,  he didn't need any help from Sandra and proceeded to almost rip her apart. Her hands "looked like hamburger." Her face was worse: her nose and ears were missing. Sandra barely survived.  In 2011, she became the first person to receive a face and hand transplant. She is blind, however. What has all this to do with filmmaking? Lots.

Tim with tranquilized tiger

A few years ago, Marion, Indiana, filmmaker Steve Gonser introduced me to two members of Outreach who had produced a number of educational/documentary films on animals, including the Rattlesnake Man of Virgina. I hoped to find something I could use on my Audubon Film lecture circuit. Rus Muntz was the Outreach cameraman and Tim Harrison its director.

 Tim is also the guy who jumps in his car to find and capture that  particular exotic creature that's missing. (I have seen the footage of Tim's rescue work, and how or why he does it is hard to understand. I put him into a different league of human beings.)

 My hopes of booking one of the Outreach films came to an abrupt end when  I received a call from an excited Rus telling  me that Ohio film director Michael Webber was inspired with what Outreach was doing and decided to make a documentary on its efforts,  Elephant in the Living Room.

Tim Harrison, Rus Muntz and producer
Michael Weber, Santa Barbara Film Festival

On February 11, 2009, I previewed the film at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and was impressed. As I watched, I still found it hard to believe—let alone understand—why so-called normal human beings were living with wild animals.

Webber occasionally illustrates facts and statistics throughout the film, like: There are more tigers in captivity in Texas than there are in the wild in India.

The film was an eye-opener as to this sub-culture here in America. A culture where people are buying and selling these exotic animals every day. I saw the tragedy and the heartbreak when a beloved "pet" had to be put down.

 After the showing, I met and congratulated the crew members. I felt they had a real winner. And they did. The New York Times wrote: "Alarming,  Chilling." And Variety described it as  "Documentary gold, one of the best movies, you’ve literally got to see." The Los Angeles Times: "An impeccably made film."

The rave reviews came in slow, but they came in as did the awards. Elephant in the Living Room was the winner of  TV's Animal Planet Genesis Awards in 2011. Click to see the Genesis Awards.



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