Seeing The Tiger Next Door
Independent journalist roaming the world
Posted: November 10, 2009 10:11 PM
Afghanistan is a nasty, dangerous place. When a journalist covering the war, I’m hounded by the thought, “I could at any second be torn to shreds.” Several weeks ago at the Woodstock Film Festival when watching The Tiger Next Door, it occurred to me, “I could be torn to shreds any second in America.”
At the center of this excellent documentary is Dennis Hill. Stringy long white beard, open and engaging personality, determined and dedicated to pursue his peculiar life. Peculiar life? Well, Dennis has living in his backyard 24 tigers, 3 bears, 6 leopards, 1 cougar and other assorted wild beasts. A breeder of large felines, he is especially obsessed to breed the rare white tiger, which, not incidentally, could fetch the perpetually impoverished Dennis a hefty $150,000.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources conducts a surprise inspection of his Flat Rock, Indiana backyard operation and slaps Dennis with numerous violations that range from cages not properly locked to stagnant water in bowls. He is ordered to reduce his wild animals to only three — and within one month! Although hopping to get some of his animals back, to keep any he must find homes for nearly all of his almost 60 wild animals.
The Tiger Next Door chronicles Dennis’ desperate attempt to place his animals with other breeders, while also addressing whether Dennis Hill should be allowed to breed these dangerous wild animals in his backyard. By focusing on this particular case in Indiana the film is highlighting the national problem of dangerous wild animals caged on private property. And a national problem that is quickly getting worse. Even in a neighborhood near where I live — in the middle of New York City!
Experts estimate, according to the film, more tigers are now living in cages in the United States than are roaming wild in the world.
Filmmaker Camilla Caloamandrei moves swiftly through a cast of people who support Dennis and who oppose his backyard facility. There are neighbors and government authorities, family members and animal-rights activists. Some of them make sense, some make less sense. Many are remarkable faithful to Dennis, yet one individual appears bent on not only ending Dennis’ operation, but destroying Dennis. This tapestry of opinion moves us inside a community at war over an emotional issue. Caloamandrei expresses her views, without, thankfully, polemics. She’s fair, yet we know where she stands.
So, is Dennis Hill a nut case for raising people-eating cats in his backyard? Is he a threat to the community? Or is Dennis merely a genuine individualist doing his thing? Maybe an eccentric during a time when eccentrics are no longer tolerated?
The issue is not whether Dennis Hill loves his wild animals, since he clearly does — although not necessarily in a healthy way. The issue is can he adequately care for these wild animals and ensure they are not a threat to the community? Or, why should we take the risk with his backyard, underfund operation?
Since half of the fifty States, we are told, allow residents to own tigers without any special qualifications, this Flat Rock, Indiana problem is a national problem. So you might want to check out just who is living next door.
The Tiger Next Door is made beautifully and challenges thinking adults — the cinematography is flawless, the narration is informative without dominating, the narrative is seamless. The Tiger Next Door is what very good documentaries often do: illuminate an important subject currently under the public’s radar screen, deliver solid information and a diversity of opinions, and leave viewers informed and concerned about a serious issue.
And in this case, a serious problem that is quickly becoming a crisis. Recently in Connecticut a bear killed a woman cleaning her cage. Where next?
Where this excellent film ends is where activism needs to begin. Two organizations in the thick of the battle, Born Free and Humane Society of the United States, are pressing states and the federal government to closely monitor and strictly regulate wild animal private ownership. Check them out, before a tiger checks you out.
The Tiger Next Door will be shown this Friday, November 13 at 8:00 PM, in New York City at the 33rd Margret Mead Film and Video Festival, held at the American Museum of Natural History.