THE CONSERVATION GAME – Review by Lois Alter Mark

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It’s so disillusioning to learn that someone you really admired is not only unworthy of that admiration but is actually the opposite of the person they made themself out to be for decades.

That’s why I almost couldn’t bring myself to watch The Conservation Game. And it’s why Tim Harrison, a retired police officer turned animal activist, admits he almost couldn’t bring himself to confront and expose the subjects of his accidental but shocking discovery in this documentary about the seedy underbelly of celebrity “conservationists.”

“These are the people I looked up to,” he despairs along with so many of us.

Jack Hanna, the long-time director of the Columbus Zoo, was a beloved role model to animal lovers, including my kids, who watched every one of his videos dozens of times. He was a constant fixture on TV talk shows, bringing the cutest baby animals with him to supposedly teach people about the importance of protecting them. But it turns out that instead of protecting these vulnerable creatures – many of them endangered big cats – he was actually one of the people putting them in danger. He acquired them at illegal exotic animal auctions and then got rid of them without a care, leaving ENDANGERED big cats to be mistreated and die at places unfit for any animals, let alone wild, ENDANGERED ones.

And he wasn’t the only one. It seems like almost all of the big-name celebrity “conservationists,” including Jarod Miller – who had an ANIMAL PLANET SHOW, for crying out loud – cared little about the animals they purported to be saving.

Harrison gives both Hanna and Miller a chance to prove him wrong, begging each of them to just tell him where the “animal ambassadors” they dragged around from show to show even before their eyes were fully open ended up. Hanna lies. Miller laughs and says no one has anything to gain by revealing their location.

Um, no one but the animals.

“If there’s a hell for animals, this would be it,” says one activist.

The Conservation Game is heartbreaking but riveting, thanks to Michael Webber’s superb direction that keeps you on the edge of your seat as the heroic animal advocates persist despite death threats from the villains they’re chasing.

Those who watched the train wreck that was Tiger King may get a new perspective on Carole Baskin, who’s been working with Harrison to lobby for the Big Cat Public Safety Act – a bill to regulate the exotic pet trade, which passed the House but, unsurprisingly, has yet to be voted on in the Senate.

The day after the movie premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Jack Hanna’s family announced that he was withdrawing from public life due to dementia. At the same time, the Columbus Zoo underwent a number of leadership changes as well as changes to questionable policies raised in the documentary. They now support the Big Cat Public Safety Act – which they shockingly did not before because, as Hanna and his colleague, Suzi Rapp, admit in the film, “We can no longer do our business if the bill is passed.” We now know what business they were actually talking about, and it’s time to put a stop to it once and for all.

The Conservation Game is sobering and eye-opening and, once you see understand what these animals go through, you can never pretend you don’t. And, as Oprah says, “When you know better, you do better.”

The documentary advocates for viewers to:

  • Call your Senators and demand they pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act
  • Write to broadcasters and tell them to stop booking celebrity “conservationists” with animals
  • Don’t patronize places featuring wild animals as entertainment
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Lois Alter Mark

Lois Alter Mark is an award-winning writer who reviews films on Midlife at the Oasis. A former contributing writer for Entertainment Weekly for more than a decade, she also reviewed films for for many years. She is a member of San Diego Film Critics Society and tweets from @loisaltermark. She writes about travel for USA Today and Forbes.