Film: 2009: Indianapolis International Film Festival: Summer 2009

The Tiger Next Door

By Madelyn Ritrosky and Jared Winslow

Photo right: Max, who appears in The Tiger Next Door as a cub, now lives comfortably at EFRC. Courtesy of Joe Taft. 

“Dennis Hill breeds and sells tigers from his backyard... Can he win his battle to keep his tigers?  Do we want him to?”  Thus the festival card for The Tiger Next Door promotes this feature documentary that had its U.S. premiere at the Indianapolis International Film Festival.
 
But it’s the image of Dennis Hill – flowing white hair and beard, white tiger on a leash, gray Indiana sky – that grabs your attention.  So does the film.  For more than one reason.  It’s a great documentary.  It’s a pressing problem.  As an animal lover and filmgoer, ten-year-old Jared picked out The Tiger Next Door as the film he wanted to see at the Indy festival.

Filmmaker Camilla Calamandrei, who was at the screening, began this project over five years ago when she saw a news story concerning 24 tigers held privately in New Jersey.  Upon further research, she discovered how widespread the problem was, with too many tigers living in appalling conditions. 

Photo left: Director Camilla Calamandrei in the evidence room at US Fish and Wildlife office, Springfield, Illinois. Pelts, hides, skulls, and other body parts were confiscated during an undercover operation that identified men who were buying unwanted tiger pets and selling their body parts and meat on the black market. Photo by Diane Zander.

She further discovered that too many of those tigers end up needing sanctuary, and the few rescue centers that take them are already full, having to turn many away.  In fact, some estimate there are more tigers in the U.S. than in the wild in their shrinking native habitats in India and Asia. 
 
It sounds strange – tigers are endangered in the wild and yet there is something akin to the pet overpopulation problem here in America.  There’s an overpopulation of pet tigers, where so many go wanting. 
 
After working on the film for several years, Calamandrei came across Hill’s story in an Indiana newspaper.  She followed his battle with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to create a character-driven documentary.  It’s compelling dramatic conflict, revealing the problems through a personal perspective – without overtly judging those involved.

Photo left: Joe Taft, founder and director of the EFRC, has been rescuing big cats since 1991

One of the people involved with Dennis Hill and his tigers over the years is Joe Taft, founder and director of The Exotic Feline Rescue Center (EFRC), in Center Point, Indiana.  He is interviewed in the film, expressing the opinion – shared by the majority of the audience at the screening – that breeding and selling tigers is irresponsible since so many end up living in atrocious conditions. 
 
Taft and Hill get into a shouting match in the film when Calamandrei records Hill’s visit to the EFRC where Taft houses several of Hill’s unwanted tigers.  Both men attended the screening but apparently avoided contact with each other. 
 
Calamandrei’s previous films include the documentaries Prisoners in Paradise, about Italian prisoners of war, and At Arm’s Length, about ballroom dancers.  She is currently working as the live action director/producer of the Jim Henson/PBS children’s series Sid the Science Kid. 
 
She said that a shortened version of The Tiger Next Door is expected to premiere on Animal Planet in early 2010, and a one-hour version of the film has already been licensed for broadcast in Canada, Belgium, Israel, and Japan. 
 
The tigers of the world thank her.  And, of course, Joe Taft.  When you visit the EFRC, you can’t help admiring Taft’s tireless efforts.  His tigers – and lions, cougars, leopards, bobcats, ocelots – are lucky... and grateful. 
 
And so are we. 

Photo above: Joe Taft and Parker, the lion with whom he shares a special bond. Photo credit Madelyn Ritrosky.

Web site links

For more on The Tiger Next Door, go to the website at http://thetigernextdoor.com/
 
For more on The Exotic Feline Rescue Center, go to the website at http://www.exoticfelinerescuecenter.org/home.html

Photo above: Dennis Hill and juvenile tiger in Flat Rock, Indiana. Photo by Harold Lee Miller.

The Tiger Next Door premieres on Animal Planet March 25, 2010 and the DVD will be released April 20, 2010.

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