I recently had the opportunity to watch the new award-winning documentary “The Conservation Game.” It was directed by Michael Webber, the director of the also award-winning documentary “The Elephant in the Living Room” (which you can watch for free on YouTube).
The official synopsis of the documentary is as follows:
“A retired cop investigates the exotic animal trade and presses lawmakers to enact new legislation, banning the private breeding and exploitation of big cats.”
Production of “The Conservation Game” took place over a period of three years. It documents the investigation of Tim Harrison and his animal welfare warrior colleagues such as Carney Anne Nasser, Carole Baskin and Howard Baskin, and Jeff Kremer as they investigate what happens to so-called “ambassador animals” that appear with celebrity “conservationists” on talk shows once they leave the stage. The short answer, they disappear. Tim tracks down and confronts multiple of those conservationists about what happened to many of the cats they appeared with, including the infamous Jack Hanna and Dave Salmoni. A veterinary exam is performed on a white tiger cub found in a basement by police in Louisiana. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) Snow Leopard program is revealed not to be quite as squeaky clean as it is thought to be. “The Conservation Game” is groundbreaking in what it reveals. The level of investigation alone is unprecedented.
To say this documentary is phenomenal is an understatement. I watched it over a four-hour period, stopping constantly to take notes. By the end, I had thirteen pages of notes, plus a little more during the Tuesday night Q&A sessions. I learned more than I ever could have imagined. I had suspected that those who carted cubs onto television weren’t what they seemed. Jack Hanna always had cubs to bring with him, but how? The Columbus Zoo surely didn’t breed at the rate they would have had to for that to have been possible. Plus, if you look at the ambassador animals used at zoos they are older so they weren’t using the official ambassador animals. Dave Salmoni doesn’t have his own facility, so how did he have his cubs and where did they go? This is something no documentary has ever had the guts to question before.
All of that was only the tip of the iceberg of what “The Conservation Game” reveals. Most animal welfare advocates are afraid to even touch celebrity “conservationists” because of the backlash it can cause. But the team behind this documentary wasn’t. Tim Harrison walked right up to them to get the answers he wanted (though he did not get those answers from them, as you may have expected). He and director Mike Webber went to a football game where they had a live tiger cub mascot named Olive who was provided by exploiter Grant Kemmerer, and the police as well as other employees tried to chase them away in an attempt to keep what was going on hidden. Out of everything in the documentary, her story is what has stuck with me the most (though I’m unsure why). The film even exposed Suzi Rapp as being a major part of Jack Hanna’s ambassador animal deception, despite being on the Animal Welfare Committee for the AZA, as well as (as can be expected given her role with Hanna) the VP of Animal Programs for the Columbus Zoo. Overall, the film was a great success at exposing exactly what it set out to. And it was heartbreaking in doing so.
Unlike many “documentaries” released today (and I put that in quotes because of a certain series that will not be named) “The Conservation Game” manages to be informative, truthful, and exciting without being sensational or making up a single word of what was said. Michael Webber even said he refused to put anything in the documentary unless it could be verified during one of the Q&A sessions. But most importantly, it puts the animals first. It is a film made for the animals by those who actually care about animals.
Some important changes have occurred as a result of “The Conservation Game” exposing what it has. Days after the documentary premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Jack Hanna’s family announced he had dementia and would no longer be participating in public life (something he was recently been seen doing). I personally see the timing as very suspicious given the way he was exposed in “The Conservation Game.” Shortly after that, The Columbus Zoo released a statement in support of the Big Cat Public Safety Act. They, along with Jack Hanna, had always been major opposition to the bill (for reasons made very obvious in the documentary). With Jack gone they were free to do the right thing. A while later, that same zoo would have its re-accreditation denied by the AZA, a decision they are appealing. It was denied as an investigation is ongoing into misuse of funds. There were also reports they were transferring baby animals repeatedly, mainly big cats, between them and unaccredited facilities for entertainment purposes. Sound familiar? That’s because it is exactly what “The Conservation Game” exposed! Has any documentary other than “Blackfish” ever caused this kind of fallout in the animal community? I don’t think so! I’d also like to say that all of this is quite ironic considering they have long been called one of the “top zoos” in the country, while all of this was going on out of the public eye for a long time. The zoo has since cut ties with many of those exposed in the documentary and revised some of its policies. Suzi Rapp, who I mentioned earlier, retired in July. Is this a coincidence? I suspect not. But without knowing how long her retirement has been in the works for I have no way to know for sure. For a more in-depth look at the tough year the Columbus Zoo has had, check out this excellent article from ABC News. I am confident the zoo can do better in the future, though I look forward to a day when wild animals aren’t in cages at all. I also believe that none of these changes would have happened at all and that it would still be business as usual at the Columbus Zoo if not for the exposure by the film. I hope this results in positive changes within the AZA as well, as I am of the belief that they knew about what Hanna and the zoo were up to for decades but turned a blind eye. But now the public knows about the wrongdoings, and action must be taken at that point.
A less talked about exposure when it comes to “The Conservation Game” is the talk shows having wild animals. According to director Michael Webber in a Q&A, they have not seen any big cats on talk shows since the release of the documentary, though that could certainly be due to Covid-19. But hopefully, appearances by wild animals on talk shows by people like Dave Salmoni and Grant Kemmerer do not resume and this can be another victory checked off thanks to the documentary and its team.
Something revealed at the very end of the film was a shot of Grant Kemmerer supplying animals in Jimmy Fallon during an appearance by Robert Irwin (yes, of the famous celebrity “conservationist” family the Irwins of Australia Zoo). Check out this post I recently made on Facebook for more on that.
If you get the opportunity to watch “The Conservation Game” either in person or virtually, DO IT! You will not regret it. In the meantime, go to BigCatAct.com and tell your senators and representatives to cosponsor (or champion of they already have cosponsored) the Big Cat Public Safety Act. Right now we are in a better position than ever to get that important bill passed this year!
In the meantime, I will not stop fighting for the cats and for every other animal experiencing difficulties and threats upon this earth. I know the team from “The Conservation Game” won’t either. Because the animal abusers aren’t stopping unless we stop them. And as Jeff Kremer said in the film, “challenge accepted.”
And for your viewing pleasure, here are two videos. One is the trailer for “The Conservation Game” and the other is a video of Howard Baskin of Big Cat Rescue talking about the Big Cat Public Safety Act for BCR’s recent Wildcat Walkabout conservation fundraiser.
For the Ambassador Animals,
International Animal Welfare