Long before Tiger King and Joe Exotic were on the minds and lips of Americans from coast to freaking coast, filmmaker Camilla Calamandrei set out to chronicle the inexplicably seamy underbelly of private tiger sanctuaries in her 2009 documentary The Tiger Next Door. Much like the unlikely sensation that Tiger King would eventually become (thanks in large part to the shelter-in-place malaise wrought by COVID-19) The Tiger Next Door features a bizarre antihero as the linchpin of its narrative, albeit one who is nowhere near as flashy — or as interesting, for that matter — as the aforementioned Exotic One. Tiger aficionado Dennis Hill, who ostensibly serves as the protagonist for The Tiger Next Door, takes center stage in Calamandrei’s project, which chronicles Hill’s efforts to hold on to his faltering tiger sanctuary, facing down legal maneuvers from the government and scrutiny from other animal enthusiasts. (Interestingly enough, Hill has his own claim to hating Tiger King villain Carole Baskin, who has accused Hill of threatening to kill her some years ago.)
Truth be told, while The Tiger Next Door is actually a decent documentary, it’s actually quite challenging to comment on the endeavor as a whole without lapsing into a critique of the life choices of the film’s dramatis personae, particularly with regard to Mr. Hill. Looking like an uncanny mash-up of Rip Van Winkle and the Marlboro Man, Hill has a backstory fit for the worst Randy Travis song you’ve never heard. Once living large as a construction magnate, he fell on hard times, losing everything including the love of his life. At the bottom of his pit of despair, he was convicted on federal drug charges and eventually found salvation in… rescuing tigers, of course. Then again, was Dennis Hill actually rescuing the tigers or was he collecting them for his own enjoyment (and occasional financial benefit, allegedly), while housing them in deplorable conditions and neglecting the needs of these complicated and potentially dangerous creatures?
The answer to the latter question depends on who you ask, as a cavalcade of critics and supporters share their opinions on Hill’s efforts and aspirations. Hill’s admirers, for their part, put forth a healthy amount of American exceptionalism in their support of his private sanctuary, asserting that he has the right to stack and rack apex predators in dirty, ramshackle cages and potentially putting every man, woman, and child in the vicinity in danger because of, well… freedom, bro. And Hill himself seems empowered by both supporters and detractors, declining to take responsibility for every wrong turn in his life, from his years as a meth-slinger to the life-threatening health problems suffered by the big cats in his care. Then again, it’s probably much easier to be a bitter pariah than a trained zookeeper of a licensed veterinarian.
At least Dennis Hill has more freedom than you can shake a stick at. The tigers? Eh, not so much.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to say what exactly The Tiger Next Door aspires to be. At best, it is an eminently watchable documentary. At worst, it’s an episode of Hoarders on steroids, except that the main character hoards giant cats instead of old newspapers and aluminum cans. Either way, it’s an okay enough way to spend about an hour and a half.
Inside Your Head tips our cap to The Tiger Next Door, awarding it three out of five golden tophats.