Films Transit International (non-USA DVD)
Did you know that there are more tigers living in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild?
In "The Tiger Next Door," director Camilla Calamandrei compassionately yet mercilessly examines a world that few Americans even realize exists- that of the breeder of the 'big cats," including tigers, leopards, lions and other animals that the vast majority of us associate with another continent or, if we have a local association, it is simply our neighborhood zoo.
Dennis Hill lives in Flat Rock, Indiana. Looking at Hill, it probably won't surprise you to know that he used to be a biker. I doubt it would surprise you that he's got a drug history, having a felony conviction for methamphetamine possession in his past.
It's likely to surprise that no so longer ago, Hill had in his possession 24 tigers, three black bears, six leopards and a cougar that were kept in modestly sized cages on his rural Indiana property that, despite being a decent sized property, still exists squarely within a residential area.
This wasn't an impulsive decision for Hill, in fact he's been raising and breeding tigers for the better part of 20+ years as a Class A licensed breeder by the U.S.D.A. Over time, though, Hill's reputation became increasingly negative and the U.S.D.A. yanked his licensed. This, in turn, triggered a surprise inspection by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), whose standards are notoriously tougher than that of the U.S.D.A.
The result is where this film picks up- Hill is forced to find homes for all but three of his big cats and, in order to keep the three remaining cats, his facility must pass a DNR inspection.
If you're like me, you've always sort of chuckled when reading an account of the "cat lady," an always popular newspaper article in which some do-gooder is found in their ramshackle, nearly uninhabitable home with dozens of cats living in inhumane conditions.
It's not funny, but it is. Do you know what I mean?
The line between compassion and obsession gets blurred in these situations, as the men and women in these homes mean well and yet become overwhelmed by the task itself.
They want to, truly want to, care for the cats correctly. Yet, there's something just a bit skewed inside them and either their obsession with caring for cats takes over or, even worse, the cats become a replacement for an empty place in their own lives. Either way, they lose control and the cats end up suffering. In turn, it becomes front page news and we all either chuckle or are appalled...or both.
It seems, perhaps, the same thing happened to Dennis Hill, a charismatic man who undeniably loves his cats, is filmed repeatedly having an extraordinary gift for handling them and, in over 20 years, has never had a wild cat escape or an injury take place as a result of owning them.
To Calamandrei's credit, she does not convict Hill no matter how tempting it may be and no matter how intense the condemnation becomes around him. It seems that for every person who attacks him as a neglect, irresponsible owner, Hill has just as many advocates who preach his virtues and praise his commitment to his animals.
Rather than play judge and jury, Calamandrei's "The Tiger Next Door" allows the story to unfold in a balanced and just way that only serves to increase the moments that are devastatingly convincing on both sides of the argument.
Rather than simply hang Hill out to dry, Calamandrei's obvious gift for investigative filmmaking paints an entire scenario that is a true recipe for disaster. It begins squarely in the hands of agencies like the DNR and the U.S.D.A, agencies whose regulations are inadequate and who allow the collection and the breeding to occur in the first place. Thus, you get any individual whose smart enough to work their way through the paper becoming a breeder regardless of their actual experience and, of course, this doesn't even begin to address the basic issue "Should wild animals such as tigers even be considered fodder for such practices?" Then, once the licenses are awarded, there are few, if any, regulations surrounding community notification, ongoing training and ongoing practices. What starts out as a cute and potentially "cuddly" animal quickly turns into a wild, difficult to manage animal simply following its instincts and, as a result, animals are abused, neglected, not cared for appropriately, abandoned or sent to any number of rescue centers around the country.
Why would someone breed? The breeding of a white tiger, for example, can bring as much as $75,000-$150,000 for a single tiger.
Poor rules & regulations.
A buyer's market.
Animals taken out of their natural environment and forced to adjusted to a world that is outside their innate instincts.
Again, recipe for disaster.
Stunningly and wondrously photographed, "The Tiger Next Door" is an intelligent and outrageous film in which its subjects, both animals and human, are treated with dignity and respect even when their practices are being fervently questioned. While Hill himself is a delightful man onscreen, as the film progresses it becomes increasingly evident that, for him, this has become as much an act of defiance and independence as it is an act of compassion and love for his animals. Likewise, however, while their arguments are bold and well-spoken, several of those acting more justly on behalf of the animals come off just as arrogantly and, at times, rather abusively in their pursuit of justice.
The end result brings us back to the original question and this is, quite simply, "What's best for these animals?" Thanks to razor sharp exploration and investigative filmmaking, "The Tiger Next Door" may help you decide for yourself...not just about Dennis Hill and others like him, but it's likely to give you pause the next time you're visiting your local zoo.
"The Tiger Next Door" had its U.S. Premiere during the 2009 Indianapolis International Film Festival. For more information on the film, visit its excellent website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic