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THE CON-SERVATION GAME: Documentary film investigating celebrity conservationists and the ‘exotic’ animal industry

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.

SARAH CAVENDER: Documentary filmmaker Mike Webber 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… Harrison now serves as the director of Outreach for Animals, a nonprofit animal advocacy group…

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 in 2019 that would increase regulations on private ownership of lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars or cougars…

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

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 release of the film also brought to light the need for changes within Columbus Zoo’s vendors and processes… 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… Columbus Zoo announced earlier this week it would drop some animal vendors who were associated with Jack Hanna, the zoo’s former director emeritus.

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…

The film has premiered at two film festivals most recently appearing in Washington, D.C. “The Conservation Game” won the Social Justice Award at the World Premiere Santa Barbara Film Festival in April… They were both private screenings… The film is not available to be screened locally but the filmmakers are working to bring it to local areas. SOURCE…

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