The Tiger Next Door (Director: Camilla Calamandrei): Beginning with the rather shocking assertion that there are likely more tigers in private captivity in the US than there are left in the wild, The Tiger Next Door introduces us next to Dennis Hill, a man who keeps 24 of them on his Indiana farm. A former meth addict, the wild-bearded Hill seems to scare and charm his neighbours in almost equal numbers. Like many other obsessive animal lovers, he started with just a few big cats on his property, but his desire to collect and even breed more exotic animals soon leads to a situation that could end in tragedy, either for the animals or for the local populace. In classic libertarian fashion, Hill decries any attempt by the government to regulate his operation, but after more than twenty years, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources finally conducts an inspection and gives him 30 days to get rid of all but three of his tigers.
The bulk of the film follows his efforts to both find homes for his cats and to make the required changes to his cages so that he can keep some of them. Hill seems like a decent enough man, gentle with the animals and content to mind his own business. But he seems to pay little attention to the concerns of his neighbours, and continues to breed tigers to raise money to pay for the upkeep of his menagerie. Throughout the film, Calamandrei weaves news footage of tiger attacks and talking head interviews with both government officials and operators of rescue organizations who are critical of the idea of private ownership of these animals.
The tension between the dangers (and possible cruelty) of keeping tigers as pets and the obvious love Hill has for his animals keeps the film in an interesting balance until near the end, when two conflicts erupt. The first occurs when several of the tigers begin to grow anxious as they’re being taken away by new owners. One paces her cage relentlessly, while another throws himself at the fencing in his cage until it begins to give way. Even the new owners seem a bit spooked, and we’re quickly reminded how wild and powerful these animals really are. The second conflict is between Hill and the owner of a rescue organization who has taken in a number of Hill’s animals over the years. Even after taking in yet another of his tigers, the man clearly dislikes Hill, and a tour of the rescue facility with the two men quickly descends into a bitter argument. Suddenly, Hill’s motives and ethics don’t seem so clear.
Strangely, the film ends on a note that is both uplifting and chilling, as Hill vows to continue pursuing his dream of breeding a stripeless white tiger. His conflicts with people only seem to make him more determined to surround himself with animals. For most people, this would be harmless, but for Dennis Hill, only time will tell.
There is one point in the film where the chronology becomes a little confusing. We observe a public hearing into whether Hill will get his permit, at which his neighbours speak out for or against him, but at the same time the film is intercutting scenes of him preparing to move animals out to new owners. It’s not clear for a while that Hill is present at the hearing, making it appear that the two events might be happening at the same time. Eventually we realize they are not. Apart from that sequence, the film is well-edited and paced. Calamandrei has uncovered a story that not many people have heard before, and tells it well.