Local filmmaker releases documentary on exotic animal industry

It is the group’s second film investigating how exotic animals wind up as pets and the problems that can occur

A local documentary filmmaker has released a second film about animal rights, this time investigating celebrity conservationists and the big cat industry.

Warren County film director Mike Webber and retired Oakwood police officer Tim Harrison, creators of the 2011 film “Elephant in the Living Room,” have screened their latest film “The Conservation Game” to several film festivals this spring and summer.

The film chronicles the big cat industry. It details where lions and tigers end up and sheds light on celebrity conservationists who the film portrays as being involved in the exotic animal trade industry. It also advocates for passage of the Big Cat Safety Act — a bill introduced into Congress that would increase regulations on private ownership of lions, tigers, or leopards.

The film has premiered at one film festival and most recently appeared in Washington, D.C. for a private screening for lawmakers and elected officials.

“The Conservation Game” won the Social Justice Award at the World Premiere Santa Barbara Film Festival in April, according to Webber.

Harrison now serves as the director of Outreach for Animals, a nonprofit animal advocacy group. He said his curiosity of where these exotic animals came from began early in his teens when working for a veterinarian.

“When I was 16 working for a zoo vet, I started noticing people having some of these exotic dangerous animals as pets,” Harrison said. “There were only four or five calls a year by the police department, and it would be a bear chained up in the backyard or a python or something.”

Harrison said when shows featuring conservationists like Steve Irwin grew in popularity, he went from receiving five calls a year to more than 100.

“Some of them we had to get a book out to look and see what kind of snake they were because we hadn’t seen anything like that come into this country,” Harrison said. " We were wondering where were these people getting these animals? We started investigating in the ’90s and into the 2000s. We found out there were these auctions where a lot of people would get them.”

In one of their investigations, Harrison and Webber went undercover for an exotic animal auction.

“An auction is an unusual thing where people were bringing in their excess [animals] from different accredited, non-accredited zoos and backyard breeders. All kinds of facilities that would have people come get their pictures taken with cats or the fairs with cubs. We realized they were auctioning them off to anybody from the public,” Harrison said.

Harrison said he made the connections that the animals they were finding in suburban basements and tied up in backyards were coming from these auctions.

For Harrison and Webber, “The Conservation Game” was a “natural next step,” after their first film. “Elephant in the Living Room” — which detailed some of the work Harrison performed while an Oakwood police officer who specialized in exotic animal emergencies.

Harrison said he was motivated to look into these subjects by watching animal-handlers guest star on talk shows and wondering where these animals went after they were on television.

“Sitting on the world-famous conservationists laps on national TV shows like the David Letterman Show, Jimmy Kimmel, what happens to those cats afterward?” Harrison said. “We want to see them in the zoos, and we weren’t seeing them anywhere. We couldn’t find out where they went.”

The film also dives into the efforts of the Big Cat Public Safety Act which is a proposed law to restrict private ownership of exotic cats and also prohibit the public from interacting with them such as feeding, petting and photoshoots.

A few of the advocates behind the legislation include Carole and Howard Baskin, who were featured in the 2020 Netflix documentary “Tiger King.” The documentary features the Baskins and the lobbying work they’re doing in D.C.

In 2020 the proposed legislation passed in the U.S. House but didn’t come to the Senate before the end of the season. The bill was reintroduced in April.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden advocated for the Big Cat Safety Act in December of 2020.

“The Cincinnati Zoo supports the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act and is in agreement with AZA’s [Association of Zoos & Aquariums] position that private individuals should not be permitted to own or breed big cats,” said Michelle Curley, communications director for the Cincinnati Zoo.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in April of this year began to publicly support the bill.

The release of the film also brought to light the need for changes within Columbus Zoo’s vendors and processes.

In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, zoo board Chairman Keith Shumate said, “there are things that the zoo could have done better in terms of our processes.”

Columbus Zoo announced earlier this week it would drop some animal vendors who were associated with Jack Hanna, the zoo’s former director emeritus.

In a story published by the Dispatch, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium says it has been making changes that address allegations raised in the documentary. The zoo also cut ties with wildlife vendors who do not follow certain animal care standards.

“The genesis of the film wasn’t necessarily a focus on the Columbus Zoo and Jack Hanna. The film is more broad than that,” Webber said. “Unfortunately for the Columbus Zoo and for Jack Hanna, he inevitably became a central focus because of where the investigation led.”

Hanna played a large role as the Columbus Zoo’s director until December 2020 when he stepped down. Hanna’s family announced on April 7 that he would be withdrawing him from public life due to a dementia diagnosis that had progressed.

In 2011, a Zanesville man released dozens of exotic animals on his farm and turned a gun on himself. Law enforcement and first responders had to put down escaped animals before they reached residential areas.

Officers killed 49 animals: 18 tigers, 17 lions, eight bears, three mountain lions, one baboon and two wolves.

“We’re hoping no more people will privately have big cats in their homes,” Harrison said. “You won’t be able to endanger the law enforcement officers and first responders because they’re always first ones on the scene.”

The film is not available to be screened locally but the filmmakers are working to bring it to the Dayton area.

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