The Conservation Game!

The Conservation Game!

Photo credit: Daniel Swartz
Video credit: Brendan Kownacki

“I first ran into the issue of exotic animals as pets back when I was actually doing a couple of films in Europe for 20th Century Fox and I had read a book on the subject and that book happened to be written by Tim Harrison who’s the public safety officer in Oakwood, Ohio.  I was really just fascinated by the stories that he was telling by the interactions he was having with the public with these exotic animals. It really revealed to me this incredibly bizarre subculture and also just how vast this was in the United States, this practice of bringing these exotic animals in your home, the lack of regulations. So I really just became very interested in it and that actually led to me doing the film The Elephant in The Living Room,” director of The Conservation Game Michael Webber told Hollywood on the Potomac in an exclusive interview prior to the DC Premiere at the Eaton Hotel Theatre followed by a discussion with Webber, Carol Baskin, Tim Harrison and moderator Steve Clemons, Editor-at-Large, The Hill with an intro by Rep. Mike Quiqley.

“That was about 10 years ago – The Elephant in The Room. It was actually my first documentary and at that point I really fell in love with both the genre and also with these animals that I spent all this time with and became at that point I think very much an animal advocate, particularly in the exotic animal space. And then I really felt like we needed to have some change here in this country with regard to the lack of laws and regulations with these apex predators and these dangerous exotics,” he added.

“I have been an animal rights advocate I should say since I was 11 years old,” attorney Carney Anne Nasser told us. “My grandmother told me that once I started wearing makeup, I needed to be careful about making sure I bought products that weren’t tested on animals. I had no idea what she was doing or what she was talking about. I grew up in the San Francisco bay area right by Stanford University. And so I went and I interviewed my 11 year old self, took a legal pad and I marched in and interviewed the director of laboratory research at Stanford University. I found his justification for experiments on animals to be environmentally, economically, scientifically and ethically unsound, even as an 11 year old. And that was the beginning of my foray into animal activism. Over the years it evolved, you know. I did actually go into private animal law practice. It wasn’t a readily available career path for attorneys in 2003. It was still a very kind of burgeoning field with limited opportunities to do work with the major animal nonprofits. But once I realized that it was a viable career option, I quit my job at my large corporate law office and I pivoted and I pursued animal protection and my first animal law job. It just so happens that we needed people to go after circuses that were abusing and exploiting animals. And we had an in-house elephant expert, but needed someone to really dig into tiger issues. And that’s how I got started. And it’s been 11 years and here we are.” Professor Nasser is the big cat expert and animal protection attorney who pitched the wildlife trafficking case against “Tiger King” Joe Exotic that triggered the investigation leading to his conviction for multiple federal crimes and a 22 year prison sentence.

  • Photo credit: Courtesy of Carney Anne Nasser

“I was 16 years old and I needed a job, so I got a job at a local veterinarian which just happened to be the zoo vet for two local zoos,” Tim Harrison told us. “We had the Larkspur Columbus Zoo and the Cincinnati Zoo at that time. Back then I didn’t think anything of it. I grew up on a farm. I was around large animals. I took care of animals. So I ended up working with them but we ran into a lot of situations. That’s back in the seventies, five or six a year. Maybe somebody might have a Python loose or a bear chained up in the backyard. Well, when reality TV hit in 1995 I started working as a law enforcement officer and sort of seeing different changes going on. I was kind of on the dark side here, which I didn’t think was the dark side. I thought it was the right side to be on working with these animals, you know, keeping them in cages and everything else until I realized when reality TV hit, people started imitating what they saw on TV and they were bringing the most dangerous creatures into their homes, just like 101 Dalmatians. Then they’d dump them off at their local humane societies after three months because they weren’t ready for their animals to be that hyper. So I ended up finding out and watching this change in the world because of reality TV, because of people imitating it and how easy it was to get these animals into your homes. I changed my attitude about keeping them, especially dangerous, exotic ones. That’s what my expertise was – to  try to keep venomous snakes, big cats, bears, elephants, things of that nature out of people’s neighborhoods. Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? But common sense isn’t that common anymore.”  Tim is the original Human/Animal Advocate. Master Storyteller, who has traveled to Africa, Australia, India, Nepal, China, Europe, Mexico, Canada, South America, Costa Rica, Middle East and the USA. Tim has had many wildlife adventures around the world such as diving with Great White Sharks at Shark Alley, South Africa and helping to rescue Tiger Snakes in Tasmania.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Tim Harrison

“It is cruelty,” Tim added.  “Anytime you take an animal out of its natural environment and put it in the front of cameras, put them in front of a crowd of people, clapping and screaming like a bunch of maniacs, it [freaks them out]. Think of zoo babies.  You see zoo babies every year at the zoo, cause that’s the biggest money maker for the zoos so people can get their pictures taken with or touch or be around them. And that’s the same with these talk show hosts when it gets ready for the, you know, ratings  month like November. It’s quick entertainment. I remember being part of that when they get into November. I’d bring a Python on a local TV show and I take it on a national show because they needed something to boost their ratings. And this is a big deal. People love it. People love to see that kind of stuff. Little did they know as they find out on Mike’s film – The Conservation Game, you will find out what happens to these animals, where they came from and where they go. And it’s horrible. It’s absolutely horrible. So it’s cruelty both mental abuse and physical.”

Photo credit courtesy of Michael Webber

“I met Tim from my original work 10 years ago with The Elephant in The Living Room,” said Mike of the relationship between them. “And how that led to The Conservation Game actually is that I went undercover at an exotic animal auction with Tim. You saw that in that film, but what happened was we uncovered something that I really didn’t anticipate at that time. And actually it was so controversial in a sense, and it was so sort of hard to process what it was that we saw that I didn’t even include it in that film. Actually, I shelved it for several years.  Tim and I had both experienced then multiple times celebrity conservationists and those who are connected with them that you see on TV actually participating in the exotic animal auctions itself. That was a lot to process and there’s a lot to try to figure out what might be happening. So it was several years later that Tim and I decided to take this on as a full on investigation and ultimately a full film in order to sort of uncover what’s going on with these [ambassador]  animals that we see. And in addition to that, follow the story there in DC, follow the attempt to pass a federal law, which is the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, which would then, you know, seek to shut down these auctions, to shut down the backyard breeding, to shut down what Tim is talking about, which is the private ownership and the private breeding. And so this film, you know, also spends quite a bit of time there in Washington, DC, following the attempt to pass what seems like a common sense federal law to ban this activity. And of course Carney Anne is such a force in that animal advocacy space,  particularly from the law side, but also, we see her on rescues and everything as well. She was a natural fit to come in to the team and to try to help uncover this, particularly when you’re doing such a high level investigation. And so Carney Anne was a perfect fit and she blended very well. She’s also very brave. Like the rest of us, she takes no prisoners and she fits so nicely with us. So it was a great, a great team.”

So, we wanted to know about the Circus.  Should that still be considered family entertainment? Carney Anne weighed in.

“Feld Entertainment was a multi-billion dollar entertainment company. They produce Marvel Live, Disney on Ice, Monster Truck and the Ringling Brothers Circus which operated for decades and really was the biggest circus in the United States. But it wasn’t the only circus and, you know, Ringling Brothers or Feld Entertainment made the decision after many years of animal advocates and animal protection organizations, litigating, bringing complaints to federal agencies about the mistreatment of animals by the circus, violations of the federal endangered species act, that type of thing, and also going to every single local legislative body where Ringling was performing to let them know and urge them to pass animal protection laws like bull hook bands, bands on the use of fire poker, like weapons that are used to be and punish elephants. After all of that legislation started gaining more momentum in these localities, according to Feld, they made the determination that it was no longer feasible to come up with an itinerary. They used to be on the road with these poor animals in box cars and travel trailers, 50 out of 52 weeks in the year. They found it no longer feasible to create a workable schedule given the number of localities that were passing bans on circus’  cause they wouldn’t have anywhere to leave the animals while entering a jurisdiction where there was a ban on bringing them. So all of the legislative advocacy was extremely effective. This has been like a long slog, but there’s no humane way to use animals in circuses. There’s no conservation value. There’s no educational value to seeing exotic animals, complex, exotic animals, forced to perform stupid tricks and wear tutus and ride bicycles. It’s absolutely a throwback to a bygone era and an enlightened public is rejecting the notion that this is suitable kind of family entertainment. There are a few little circus [groups] that are still around that use elephants and exotic animals. We’re going to have to wait and see what the world of circuses looks like post pandemic because of course without the ability to gather, we don’t know what the current situation is with smaller outfits. In fact, the U S Department of Agriculture shut down cub petting during the pandemic to a large extent. So there are a lot of things that are rapidly changing in many industries and use of animals for entertainment is just one of them. So, I’ve high hopes. I think when the biggest domino falls like Ringling Brothers, it’s just a matter of when, not if, the rest of them fall too.”

“So that’s why we’re really trying to push to get this law passed,” added Webber. “It’s before our lawmakers right now. And so when they see the film here in two weeks, they will actually be watching this unfold before their eyes. And they have the ability to sign this bill and kind of put an end to what we’ve been seeing for decades.”

“Thankfully it has gotten vast bipartisan support and that’s something that is such common sense – legislation for public safety, health, and animal welfare and conservation. It’s a win-win all the way around. It’s not a red or a blue issue. It’s a common sense issue. It’s just the doing the right thing issue. So thankfully, we have like a very long list of co-sponsors.” Carney Anne

How do you feel about zoos?  Can we still take our families to zoos with a good conscience?

“Well, first of all, we have to define what a zoo is. From my perspective, the only zoological institutions, the only facilities that may appropriately be called zoos are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums,” Carney Anne replied.  “Anything else that holds itself out as a zoo is nothing more than a roadside menagerie that has a collection of animals and sells tickets for people to come see them. The AZA is the accrediting body for legitimate zoological parks in the United States. On the sanctuary side, the only true sanctuaries are the sanctuaries that are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Is there a number of facilities across the United States that hold themselves out as sanctuaries or rescues? I just got back from rural Nevada where Tim and I both testified against a facility that was holding itself out as a tiger rescue.That was no more than a roadside zoo that had done business with Tiger King, Joe Exotic, but they’re misleading the public and they’re misleading local lawmakers to think that they’re doing something good. They’re fundraising, they’re actually successful in getting donations because people, well-meaning people, think that some of these facilities are actually doing some sort of conservation work when all they’re doing is profiting off of the exploitation of exotic animals. So zoos are accredited by the AZA, sanctuaries are accredited by GFAS and everybody else is just trying to make a quick buck. But you asked me about my opinion about zoos. We all have friends who work in the zoological community. The bonafide zoological community and the bonafide sanctuary community that’s cleaning up after everybody’s mistakes are some wonderful people who are doing great work.”

“The zoo system on its face though is not breeding to reintroduce animals into the wild,” she continued. “It’s not equipped to do that. It doesn’t exist for that purpose. We’re starting to see after zoos buying wild, captured elephants in Africa and importing them, elephants that are in zoos in the United States are dying faster than they’re being born because the fundamental nature of captivity is not conducive to proper welfare for certain complex species. We have to ask ourselves, is it appropriate for us to mass breed animals just for a collection of captive animals for us to look at what is legitimate conservation? And that’s a much longer discussion, but I would say like anything else, there’s a spectrum of views. I have a lot of respect for many of the wonderful experts in the hardworking people we have worked with on animal rescues. We’ve worked with amazing zoos that have rehabs for some of the tigers that you’ll see in The Conservation Game before they were able to be re-homed to a  bonafide sanctuary. So,  like anything, it could be, they can be improved, but I’m happy that  they’ve been part of the work that we’ve done and and trying to help some of these animals that have been found in really horrible situations.”

Photo courtesy of Carney Anne Nasser

Let’s take an example. The National Zoo in Washington, should I feel guilty taking my grandchildren there?

“No, I’ll yell you straight up,” said Tim. “I’ve worked about every zoo on the planet. I go around to other countries quite a bit. It’s one of those situations like Carney says,  you reward the good ones and change the bad ones because they’re just like any other profession – you’re going to have zoos that are doing the pay to play stuff, the VIP parties bringing out an endangered snow leopard and have people wearing evening gowns and stuff, getting their pictures taken with an endangered species. Come on. We don’t do that in the countries they come from, right? It’s against the law. That’s what we have to look at. When your community is not doing that but they’re trying to educate, or they’re treating the animals with respect, I say, go ahead and take your children there and learn something. But if they’re not, change it.  You can change it at your zoo in your community, you can make things better. I also want to throw out real quick; when we talk about the public safety part of it, it is the police officers who are always the first ones on the scene be it Houston, Texas, or Atlanta, Georgia across the country. It’s always the cops and they are not trained for this. These are my fellow police officers, sisters and brothers and we’re not trained for it. They’re not trained to handle these situations. They don’t have the weaponry for it. As we saw the massacre in Ohio, where sometimes they had to shoot animals 20 or 30 times to kill them because they don’t have the proper weapons.”

“We don’t need this anymore,” Tim added. “We’ve got enough problems in law enforcement without having to open the door and walk in somebody’s house and there’s two or three cougars in the front living room areas which we found before in the past. So I’m really big on the Big Cat Public Safety Act. I helped promote that.  I’m telling you right now, we need this public safety for the law enforcement and first responders and also for the public. But if you want to go to the zoo, that’s your call, but it’s also up to you to educate yourself, to find out what’s truly going on. One of the old ways back in the seventies to do that is to walk-up, dip your finger in the sea lion water and just smell it, taste a little.  If it’s salty, they’re doing a pretty good job. If it’s fresh water, you know, those animals, aren’t going to live very long. It’s just that simple and basic.”

“Since we’re on the topic with the zoos, I will kind of help wrap that up a little bit too,” said Webber, “and give you my perspective. You hear from Carney  and Tim and \what you hear is what’s obvious is there’s confusion, confusion with the public. That question actually comes up quite a bit and I think a lot of that confusion is by design. For instance, we get a lot of mixed messages. And so while you watch TV and you see a celebrity conservationists go on TV and go on one of the late night or morning shows and say, ‘these are very protected species,’ they’re critically endangered. We need to not have these as pets. And then what they do is they treat it exactly like a pet it’s literally on a leash, or it’s literally in a basket just like you would do puppies. And so we get this mixed message where we’re told to protect them. We’re told to leave them in the wild. We’re told to be conservationists. We’re told that they’re not pets, and yet they’re treating it exactly like a pet. So that creates a disconnection, some confusion with the public. But we also see that in the zoological world where you have as Carney said, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums who has the highest standards of any other accrediting body with regard to animals. But then confusion is created with the public because there’s also a group called  Z AA. So where you have the AZA, which is the respected zoological world, then you have these Z AA. See how confusing that is?”

“And then you could see how lawmakers would be either very easily bamboozled by this very, very similar acronym,” added Carney Anne. “And it was done by design because the ACA accredited facilities typically have exemptions from whatever the prevailing restrictions are in a state or locality on ownership, on handling of exotic animals. And what the ZAA did is got together to create its own accrediting body, to try to achieve the same type of exemption so that they could go about their cub petting businesses, so that they could get a free pass on all of their exploitative animal uses.”

“So the public is left with that,” added Michael. “They go to a particular zoo and if the optics of it looks really good and it might have a certain acronym on it, they think that it’s accredited and it’s good. And they may not know that that organization or that group is actually promoting private ownership, backyard breeding, and might be doing it themselves there at the zoo. And so it’s back to kind of what Tim said is it’s a matter of educating yourself a little bit and understanding the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. That’s what you want to look for. You want to look for do they have cubs? Are they breeding? Do they have personal interactions? Can you do photos with them and so forth? And then the same with the sanctuaries and what happens is sort of the exploiters adopt all the messaging from the legitimate places too.”

“When you watch the film you start to see what the red flags are,” he concluded. “So when people see the film in the beginning, they’re watching things like we see on TV and they’re enjoying it and they’re loving it but by the end of the film, you will see the exact same activity and you have a completely different perception of it, because what you did is you learned things that Carney and Tim and myself know, and you learn it by going through the process. It’s not intended to do that, but you learn it through osmosis and suddenly you see the red flags, you see what’s going on, and then you go forward much more educated and with much more understanding about what’s going on behind the scenes and an educated public, particularly with conservation efforts, is a much better public when it comes to these ads.”

Needless to say, they don’t need to track me down.  No pet Pythons or cougars in my living room.