“The Conservation Game”
Screened at the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival (4/5)
We’ve all no doubt seen (and likely adored) those TV talk show segments and cable programs featuring wild animals with expert handlers promoting the need to protect these magnificent and cuddly creatures, many of which are endangered and dependent on zoos and sanctuaries for safety. But, as director Michael Webber’s damning new documentary reveals, those allegedly well-meaning media appearances by “ambassador animals” are a sham. Indeed, most of them are little more than a front for a clandestine network of deceit in the trade, auctioning, sale, and private ownership and exhibition of exotic wild animals, many of which make their debut on these television shows and then vanish into this murky underworld, where they receive questionable care and protection, jeopardizing their well-being and that of their owners and the public at large. This troubling investigation follows the efforts of animal welfare professional Tim Harrison into the whereabouts of disappeared ambassador animals through a series of probes into and encounters with the likes of well-known handlers and wildlife conservation spokesmen Jack Hanna, Dave Salmoni, Boone Smith and Jarod Miller, all of whom have carefully cultivated glowing reputations far different from the nature of the actions in which they routinely engage. It also follows the efforts of Harrison and colleagues to secure the passage of federal legislation prohibiting the private ownership of exotic wild animals, a campaign in which powerful opponents have fought against its enactment, even by nefarious and illegal means. The result is an eye-opening, revelatory exposé, one that will undoubtedly shatter many cherished illusions held by fans and followers of these supposed animal advocates. While some of the material in the film could have been a little better organized, especially in light of the complicated and disturbing web of deception involved, the message nevertheless comes through loud and clear, one that should positively infuriate anyone who claims to be a committed and concerned animal lover.