Apollo’s Girl

Film: Animal Kingdom

Scarred by the childhood experience of having to give away a beloved family pet, I’m a sucker for the Animal Planet’s urban animal cop series, and commercials featuring abused and abandoned animals rescued by the ASPCA or Humane Society. So tears really flowed during some new films that explore another problem: not the abused and abandoned, but animals who have been treated royally—almost like family members—from childhood on. They form deep, lifetime bonds with their owners. even if their owners, or their custody, must come to an end. And there’s the rub.

One Lucky Elephant (film forum)

Step right up to the Circus Flora—named after its star attraction—and watch Lisa Leeman’s heartfelt story of Flora the elephant and her owner, David Balding, circus owner and ringmaster. The film’s tagline is “A 10,000-pound love story”, and so it is. Because while Balding fell in love with the baby elephant he rescued, and that love was definitely requited by the burgeoning Flora, the elephant in the room, so to speak, was that Flora’s future (beyond her circus turn) would eventually have to be faced.

This is an elegant and unsparing decade-long look at both the emotions of the star-crossed duo and their consequences; Balding ages, Flora grows, and the issue of what to do becomes increasingly urgent. While Balding is guided by the advice of experts and places Flora in the best circumstance possible, he finds that breaking up is hard to do. So, alas does Flora. You will empathize with both of them, and feel the bittersweet power of the film’s final image and everything it symbolizes.

Project Nim (in theaters July 8; on HBO next year)

I’d have to say that Flora was definitely one lucky elephant compared to Nim Chimsky, the center of James Marsh’s “unflinching and unsentimental” biography of one unlucky chimp whose life was marked by a host of mostly well-meaning, but usually misguided human caretakers. His journey from family member (not a good idea) to shelter resident to experimental subject (unspeakable) and beyond is increasingly disturbing and, although as objective as Marsh is able to make it, really demands long, hard scrutiny of the ethics of everyone involved, from journey’s beginning to end.

As a filmmaker, Marsh is blessed by an abundance of archival footage and photographs of Nim, who was a media sensation for much of his early life, and of his owners—a very mixed bag—over the long years of the chimp’s odyssey. Because March has chosen well, It allows the kind of deep and detailed consideration that would otherwise be unavailable. So you will be drawn into the issues slowly, then just have to face them as the film unspools. Don’t even try to turn away.

While chimps, like elephants, bond intensely and can live in captivity for some 60 years, the results of making them into the pets they cannot remain are devastating. So try cats and dogs, and plan to keep them for their lifetime. It will be shorter than yours, and you’ll never have to figure out how to tell them why it’s time to go.

P.S. (The Future)

Paw Paw, the stray cat who connects Miranda July and Hamish Linklater throughout The Future is another, though fictional, case in point. He spends most of his time waiting for them to pick him up from the vet, musing on the human (and feline) condition, and looking forward to starting his new life as their pet. Voiced convincingly and with pathos by July herself, we will learn from him that life is full of surprises, even when the bonds are brief.

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