SIFF DocFest: The Conservation Game

Photo courtesty of Cargo Film & Releasing

Tiger King was one of my guilty pleasures early in the pandemic, as it was for many people. The cast of characters was outrageous, the plot twists were unbelievable, and it was entertaining as hell. Though The Conservation Game takes place within the same time frame, its focus is more serious, its message more important. And man, is this an infuriating movie, and I mean that as a compliment.

I watched a screener link, in which the image looked a little less robust that what it would look like in theaters (judging from the trailer), but the cinematography looked serviceable if not spectacular, while the moody music by Paul Brill and Michael Leonhart helped with the tension of the underlying investigation that’s at the heart of this documentary.

The main character in this investigation is Tim Harrison, a retired police officer, firefighter, and paramedic who grew up watching shows like Wild Kingdom and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and then in his teen years, seeing people like Jack Hanna bring exotic animals onto talk shows. Since he lived in Dayton, Ohio, and Hanna was from nearby Columbus Zoo, he felt a personal connection to Hanna and wanted to be like him when he grew up.

But then, as a firefighter, he started getting calls about dangerous animals. And when he went with a hidden camera to an exotic animal auction in Mount Hope, Ohio, he realized that the sunny world of celebrity conservationists and the shadowy world of exotic animal auctions were connected. Here at the auction, buying new animals from private breeders, were some of these same conservationists. And if you look closely at their TV appearances, who were the ones handling the animals but many of those same breeders, who often keep the animals in decrepit conditions.

The main focus of the documentary is Harrison trying to find the ambassador animals that appeared on talk shows, animals that are supposed “to serve as…educational ambassador(s) at an accredited zoo.” To help him, he works with other key people, including Carney Anne Nasser (professor of animal law) and her law students at Michigan State University, Wildlife Preservation Officer Keith Gad, and retired wildlife researcher Jeff Kremer. While they’re doing their research, Harrison goes around and interviews celebrity conservationists like Jarod Miller, David Salmoni, Boone Smith, and yes, Jack Hanna, to see if they know where these animals are now (spoiler: they don’t).

A side focus is passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act in Congress, which was also mentioned in Tiger King. Basically, it would regulate who can own, breed, and sell big cats, with huge fines for people who illegally dabble in the big cat trade. Here, Harrison helps support Howard and Carole Baskin by trying to get local zoos in Ohio to support the act (Columbus Zoo won’t support it because that would cut off their pipeline to exotic animal purchases). Stay through the credits for updated information about the Big Cat Public Safety Act, Jack Hanna, Joe Exotic (I told you the timelines overlap), and the initial reception of this movie.

Credit to the editor of this film, Michael Webber (who also directed and produced it), for making the movie flow. I felt as frustrated as Harrison did when these celebrity conservationists were feeding him the same bullshit lies, from Boone Smith telling him all the purchases were above the board and legit to Jack Hanna telling him that all the ambassador animals were sent to the Wilds, a 10,000 acre wildlife preserve connected to Columbus Zoo that doesn’t have any big cats. And even when he’s able to track down these animals, Harrison isn’t able to rescue them before they’re sold off to the next owner.

Watching your heroes destroyed in front of you is hard, but watching these majestic animals vanish because they are bought and sold by people who don’t have their best interests at heart – especially those hypocritical celebrity conservationists – is even harder. I doubt I’ll watch another exotic animal appear on another talk show again. The Conservation Game is one of the best documentaries of the festival, right up there with Storm Lake and In Balanchine’s Classroom.

The Conservation Game is streaming on the SIFF Channel through Thursday and is restricted to Washington State residents only (you can buy tickets here, with passes for the entire festival here). In-person viewings resume on Thursday with the Closing Night Film, the US Premiere of The Sanctity of Space at 6:30pm at the Egyptian Theatre, followed by a live virtual Q&A with one of the climbers/directors, Renan Ozturk, and won’t be available to stream as part of the festival.