Moviegoers flocked to Lynwood Theatre for two sold-out screenings of the documentary “Wildcat” Nov. 10-11 based on the real-life story about Samantha Zwicker, a Bainbridge Island ecologist, and Harry Turner, a British war veteran who raise an orphaned ocelot and eventually reintroduce it into the jungle.
The documentary raises awareness about rainforest conservation and animal rewilding research led by Zwicker’s nonprofit Hoja Nueva.
Zwicker said that growing up on BI she was embedded in the wilderness. Her parents were always rescuing animals.
“It wasn’t hard for me to decide to go places in the world where I thought there would be more wildness, more things to see.” But, it was an internship with a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington that dropped her in the middle of a gold mining area where she saw firsthand the destruction of the Amazon Forest for the pursuit of gold. A few months later she visited the pristine rainforest that drew her back to the Amazon and would eventually become her home away from BI.
At times it’s painful to watch this film as Turner struggles with depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s a story of love and friendship, grief and survival, that keeps us rooting for the trio that is confronted with the dangers of poaching, encroachment from loggers and their own personal challenges.
Already generating Oscar buzz, the film documents the years between 2015-19 when Zwicker was founding her nonprofit, which now focuses on protecting the Peruvian Amazon through rewilding programs and research in the Madre de Dios region, where Hoja owns and protects more than 3,000 hectares of land and has rescued and rehabilitated more than 250 animals.
What started as a community center focused on agroforestry changed when Zwicker and Turner found an ocelot cub they named Khan, and they switched their focus to raising him in the hope of reintroducing him back into the jungle because they didn’t want him going to a zoo.
They met two filmmakers, Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost, who heard about their story and used archive video to start the documentary.
For more than a year, Zwicker and Turner raised Khan until he was unexpectedly wounded and died from a gunshot sustained when he disturbed a poacher’s tripwire while walking in the rainforest. That devastating loss sent Turner into a deep depression that lasted almost a year and changed when another ocelot, Keanu, came into their lives.
Keanu was the second chance Turner needed to redeem himself after losing Khan. As Keanu learned to take care of himself, Turner’s depression lifted with his renewed purpose.
After 18 months, Keanu returns to the jungle, and Turner leaves to reunite with his family in England, while Zwicker stays to expand her conservation and rewilding efforts.
Zwicker didn’t start out planning to rewild animals. “We just saw that need and wanted to address it. So, we switched our efforts almost completely to rescuing and rewilding these animals in 2020, because the pandemic was really horrible for wildlife trafficking and trade.”
After the film team left in 2019, Zwicker was inspired to acquire more forest and now owns nearly 7,000 acres of monitored rainforest to release animals safely. The nonprofit is working alongside local communities doing research and has built a rehabilitation center deep in the jungle to rewild carnivores. They have 16 wildcats in their care and have released six others.
Zwicker now has a fully equipped veterinary center with researchers from all over Latin America. “The big enclosures allow the animals to hunt and kill, and they get to experience what life is like in the jungle to learn their wild instincts. This works by having the place remotely located in the rainforest with minimum to no contact with humans.”
Zwicker is happy with the response to the film. Now “I have a voice and can share these experiences and generate awareness to the cause, and to share the emotional side of things that can impact people in a positive way.”
Through the process she learned a lot about herself and learned to talk about her childhood. “It’s not only what you do in your work that can maybe make a difference, it’s also what you feel and what you’ve been through. Sharing those things, even if it impacts one person in the room, then you’ve done something good.”