At the Indianapolis International Film Festival, I was fortunate to attend the world premiere of "The Tiger Next Door", a documentary film by Camilla Calamandrei, about the keeping and breeding of captive tigers in the United States. The film is an excellent character study on Dennis Hill of Flat Rock, Indiana, whose biker looks and attitude belie his apparently gentle, naive nature.
Big cats are fascinating, and though the film moved steadily and showed its subjects beautifully, I was disappointed during the first half of the movie that Calamandrei chose not to focus on the bigger picture of the plight of endangered big cat species, but rather focused on a few individuals: Hill, his neighbors (pro- and anti- Hill), Exotic Feline Rescue Center founder Joe Taft, and a smattering of other animal-welfare supporters and government officials. I'd earlier hoped for more of a "Sharkwater"-style film, centered around an individual to tell the story of a global concern.
But Hill's battle to keep his exotic tigers, cougars and other big cats amidst impending government intervention proved to be a story worth telling: how many people know it's legal to keep - and breed - such exotic creatures in half of the United States? Or that a dead tiger is worth more than a live one in the U.S.? Or that there are likely more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than exist in the wild? Or that the rules and regulations on keeping these powerful predators aren't enforced, and even if they were, would be far from adequate in guaranteeing the health of these wondrous creatures, or the safety of the communities living around them?
The small community around Hill's Flat Rock home spoke often throughout the film, and at times added much-needed doses of humor to an otherwise somber film. Calamandrei told the story from all sides well, though I was disappointed more information wasn't included regarding a neighbor's claim that a severed tiger head and tail were found on his adjacent land.
After the film's debut, Calamandrei took questions from the crowd, who seemed more than eager to side with Joe Taft, whose Exotic Feline Rescue Center looked like paradise compared to Hill's facilities. The discussion's moderator was wise to diffuse potential arguments in the passionate audience by directing most questions to Calamandrei, who, as in the film, was sufficiently fair to all sides. I asked if she was more or less hopeful for the future of endangered species after making this film; unsurprisingly, she's not optimistic, and feels more confused about what's best for these animals now that she's learned more about their story, at home and abroad.
Hill appears to love his big cats because of their power and the difficulty of controlling them - and somewhat selfishly because of the elusiveness of white tigers - and Taft, in the film, is shown to be compassionate about their well-being and quality of life. Neither of these Hoosiers mentioned the more global issues facing these creatures, but I can't blame them: focusing on the few cats they have is more than full-time work, and attempting to ignite positive change overseas in natural tiger habitat is far beyond their abilities. Even Taft admitted, during the Q&A session, that he hasn't attempted to push change on Indiana's state regulations on captive tigers. But he suggested a start (require a strict minimum cage area to allow them to live in). And judging by one of the audience member's enthusiastic offer to support regulation (she's been involved the past several years in puppy-mill legislation), Taft's suggestion might be all that's needed to kick-start a better future for these animals.
After all, if we don't respect living creatures, especially those as beautiful and as powerful as tigers, how can we respect Earth's top predators - our fellow human beings?
(Calamandrei is currently looking for a distributor for her film. For more information, visit TheTigerNextDoor.com.)