The Conservation Game follows retired police officer Tim Harrison and a team of like-minded animal conservationists. They pull at threads trying to get to the bottom of the largely unregulated trade in exotic animals, especially big cats like lions, tigers, and leopards. They take a few “ambassador animals” — the cute ones trotted out on morning and late-night talk shows, and try to find out what happened to them afterward. What they uncover is shocking and will potentially change the animal entertainment industry forever.
I grew up watching Jack Hanna bring cute and exotic animals on late-night talk shows. While he might have been the first and best-known animal exhibiting celebrity, there’s a new breed making the television circuit. This includes Dave Salmoni, Boone Smith, and Jared Miller, all of whom appear on channels like Animal Planet and National Geographic. It always seemed to me like they brought these animals from a zoo, or at least a sanctuary, and then returned them after showing them off. In fact, they usually repeat some variation on this when asked about what will happen to the animal.
“…trying to get to the bottom of the largely unregulated trade in exotic animals…”
But director Michael Webber’s documentary blows the lid off this scam, exposing the seedy underbelly of TV animal trafficking. The celebrity animal handlers or their associates often buy animals from private breeders when they are babies and then sell them off after they aren’t cute or useful anymore. The animals can then end up in wretched conditions like roadside zoos or cages on private property. Many don’t survive long.
The film also functions as a kind of sober-minded, unauthorized sequel to Tiger King. But if that Netflix show is the tabloid take on the big cat story, The Conservation Game is the Pro Publica version. As fascinating as Tiger King was, the larger-than-life slow-motion train wreck that is Joe Exotic’s murderous feud with Carole Baskin eclipsed the important story underpinning it all — the cruel and inhumane treatment of big cats at the hands of private owners.
"…the farce is good for a few laughs, but the tragedy has more staying power."