“The Conservation Game” will make its Ohio premiere at the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival on Oct. 8. Director and producer Michael Webber follows a retired police officer as he uncovers secret ties between celebrity conservationists and the big cat trade, even implicating Jack Hanna and the Columbus Zoo among others.
The film will be shown at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 8 at the Chagrin Falls Intermediate School and at 12:40 p.m. on Oct. 10 at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre. “The Conservation Game” is one of 97 films to be shown during the 12th Annual Chagrin Documentary Film Festival from Oct. 5-10 in Chagrin Falls.
Mr. Webber, 51, said that he was working on scripted studio films and independent films when a friend gave him books about people who own exotic animals as pets. The books were authored by Tim Harrison, a retired Ohio police officer. He told stories of his encounters, such as removing tigers and cougars from residential basements. In 2010, Mr. Webber released “The Elephant in the Living Room,” which documents exotic animals kept as pets. In recent years, he became known for his contributions to the exotic animal advocacy cause.
“You start to realize we’re missing something. That’s what started an investigation between myself and five other investigators in the film to uncover what’s really happening when the lights go out and the cameras stop rolling,” Mr. Webber said of the celebrity conservationists tied to the big cat trade. “This was a difficult investigation. There were a lot of efforts conspiring against us to prevent the discovery of what’s going on. There are efforts with celebrity conservationists to suppress information.”
In the film, Mr. Harrison notices that big cats went missing after they were used as “ambassadors” on TV shows. Celebrity conservationists appeared on shows like The Today Show with tiger cubs and stated that they lived at a zoo or sanctuary. When investigated further, those facilities did not exist. They were sold at private auctions to regular people through cash transactions, offering no way to trace where the animals ended up. Many of these animals are endangered species.
Mr. Webber said that the public needs to understand what is actually going on. Jack Hanna used to be the director of the Columbus Zoo but was later tied to the big cat trade. It can be disheartening and discouraging to see childhood heroes, such as Mr. Hanna, implicated in such matters, Mr. Webber said. After realizing the truth, he said that advocates must find a way to stop the exotic animal trade. There must be a better way, he said.
“I think the upside is when we uncover things like this in the space of animal advocacy, it means we can find a better way moving forward. But first we need to understand what’s actually going on. The truth is in front of us, then we can actually stop it. I’m fully convinced there is a better way in terms of education and the treatment of animals.”
A sub-plot of the film follows progress of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a bill before Congress that revises requirements governing the trade of big cats, including lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars and cougars. This act would prevent roadside zoos, for example, which feed into the private breeding and auctions. These are small, unaccredited zoos where animals are held in poor conditions. Mr. Webber said that members of the public should call their representatives and senators and advise them to support this bill.
“The public needs to hold our conservationists and our zoos to the standard that they propose to have,” he said. “One problem we’ve had is that the conservationists we entrusted, we gave them a free pass. We did not scrutinize their activities and they pulled the wool over our eyes.”
Mr. Webber said the feedback on his film has been overwhelmingly positive. People have said that they were shocked but not surprised, noting that they had a suspicion that everything was not as it seemed with the celebrity conservationists and their ambassador animals.
“[U.S. Sen. Rob] Portman and the Columbus Zoo are both now supporting the Big Cat Public Safety Act,” Mr. Webber said. “That’s a big win. It shows the power of documentary filmmaking.”