Judge Adam Arseneau, burning bright, in the forest of the night!
There are more tigers in private captivity in the United States than there are roaming wild in the world. Twenty-four of them live in this man's backyard.
Imagine A&E's Hoarders by way of Animal Planet, and you'd have a good mental picture of Dennis Hill, an exotic cat lover in rural Indiana. The Tiger Next Door is a complicated and often contradictory examination into the life of one man struggling to keep his collection of big cats secure from government scrutiny.
Facts of the Case
Dennis Hill likes tigers. He likes them so much that he owns twenty-four of them. They live in cages in his backyard in Flat Rock, Indiana. Like many Americans, Dennis owns exotic cats—legal in over half the states, but subject to state laws and regulations. Unfortunately for Dennis, his standing with the Department of Natural Resources is in jeopardy. After an inspection deemed his facility woefully inadequate to care for the amount of cats in his possession, Hill only has a few days to find homes for all his big cats—or else face losing his permits for good.
An exploration into the ethics of animal care, The Tiger Next Door is a tricky little film. Its subject matter, a devoted, down-on-his-luck exotic animal breeder, raises some strong moral issues regarding the ownership of gigantic cats in America. Dennis Hill has a massive collection of tigers and exotic cats in his care, but the care itself is highly questionable; his facility and his fortunes have fallen on hard times. The cats are crammed into tiny cages with practically no space to roam. These are wild cats, jungle creatures who in nature roam thousands of miles in their lifetime. The cats are loved beyond question—Hill is devoted to his animals—but his love for his charges blinds him to the reality of their squalid conditions.
Once you understand that The Tiger Next Door refers to Dennis Hill himself, not his tigers, the documentary starts to fall into place. Hill is a strange and peculiar man, a successful businessman and wildlife aficionado who lost his work due to changing economic realities, got into drugs, and lost all his money. Now he lives hand-to-mouth in a dilapidated shack in small-town Indiana, with every cent spent raising and tending to his tigers. His passion and dedication to his animals is impressive, but he lacks the resources and funds to adequately care for his charges, and has difficulty admitting this. Soft-spoken and freakishly bearded, like a stand-in for ZZ Top, Hill blames his misfortunes on the government and resents the endless permits and bureaucratic loopholes that constantly threaten his dwindling livelihood. Take "exotic tiger breeder" out of the equation, and Hill's story bears many similarities to lots of small-town Americans struggling to make ends meet in a strange and ever-changing world.
As the film progresses, we see Hill attempt to sell his stock of tigers and update his facilities to the acceptable code standards of the Department of Natural Resources, which he struggles to do under a short timeline and limited funding. Failure to comply means he loses everything—all his cats, for good. The community in Flat Rock is divided. Those who support him pick up hammer and saw, pitching in to help him bring his cages up to spec. Those who dislike him speak out at a town hall meeting to the DNR, lambasting his treatment of the animals and his criminal past.
The Tiger Next Door never really passes judgment on Hill. His hoarding tendencies have some pretty destructive side effects on his life; his home is dilapidated and literally falling apart. Others in the exotic cat industry speak out openly and hostilely against Hill, decrying his treatment of his cats as a form of abuse, however well-intentioned it may be. In his mind, Dennis Hill feels no one can care for his cats better than him, no one could possibly love his cats more. The film tells the story from both sides, allowing audiences to come to their own conclusions about Hill and his cats, as well as the more sinister and morally reprehensible elements of the animal trade business.
Hill might be inadvertently mistreating his animals out of misguided affection, but The Tiger Next Door is careful to note that tigers are worth more dead than alive. Tiger farming—the harvesting and selling of skins, skulls, and organs—is drastically more profitable than raising and selling a live tiger. No cages, no vet bills, no food costs. As litmus tests go, tiger farming immediately separates those who are in the trade for profit from those devoted to their cats, and the very idea angers and sicken Hill. In his mind, he'd die before ever hurting his cats. Ironically, the idea that he may be inadvertently harming them simply never occurs to him. Perhaps more to the point, it simply can't occur to him.
Presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, The Tiger Next Door underwhelms in the technical performance department. The transfer is clean, but excessively soft and lacking detail. Compression artifacts and edging issues are immediately apparent, and the whole film has a shot-for-television low fidelity aspect to it. It does the job, but barely. The audio is a simple 2.0 stereo transfer with little frills. Dialogue is clear, and the soft and melodic guitar-drive score matches the tone of the film well.
Extras are slim; we get a few bonus scenes, a resource guide, and a filmmaker biography. All standard fare for this kind of low-profile documentary release, but nothing substantial here worth noting.
A multifaceted and morally complex documentary, The Tiger Next Door strikes a perfect balance between sympathy and skepticism toward its protagonist, a man whom the jury is still out on. Viewers can decide for themselves what to believe about Dennis Hill and the ownership of exotic cats in America—exactly what a good documentary film should leave audiences able to do.
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