The new Amazon Prime documentary, Wildcat, follows the work of Samantha Zwicker, an ecologist and Ph.D. candidate who runs Hoja Nueva, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center in Peru.
Wildcat, directed by Melissa Lesh and Trevor Frost, follows Zwicker and her then-love interest, British veteran and naturalist Harry Turner, as they work to rehabilitate and reintroduce two ocelots, Khan and Keanu, to the wild. Ocelots are a small species of jungle cat increasingly facing threats from habitat loss and climate change.
Zwicker and Turner are the first to document the reintroduction of jungle cats to the wild.
“It was never my goal to turn Khan and Keanu’s stories into a film,” Zwicker told Ethos over email.
“Originally I had just been filming to document the rehabilitation process in order to share our experience with other wildlife conservation organizations,” she says.
But after meeting Frost, he became interested in the footage archive; Zwicker had several years of video of living in Peru, and of the first ocelot she rescued, Khan. “It wasn’t until we found Keanu and received permits for his rehabilitation journey that [Lesh] and [Frost] decided to follow the story in real-time.”
The film follows the often emotional journeys of Zwicker and Turner as they bond with the cats and prepare to release them back into the wild while navigating their own relationship. The film focuses largely on Keanu’s journey to release and Turner’s struggles with depression and PTSD as a result of his time in the military.
Zwicker says the way Keanu was raised and his rehabilitation program was anything but perfect. “For the longest time, I was unsure if he would actually choose to be independent,” she says.
“I remember waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of squealing rodents — Keanu would sometimes catch his prey near the platform and show them to me,” she says.
“He had no trouble hunting but had become too dependent upon his caretaker and felt most comfortable staying close by. That was one of the biggest challenges — letting go. But if Keanu could transition into a fully wild, independent ocelot, then I had immense hope for future cat rescues.”
Zwicker says she continued to capture Keanu on camera traps until about six months after his release. She says he chose to disperse and find his own territory elsewhere. But, she says, seeing Keanu successful in the wild months after his release, “was one of the best feelings in the world.”
Zwicker, 31, originally from Bainbridge Island outside of Seattle, has lived in the Amazon for nine years, working to conserve more than 7,400 acres of rainforest from illegal logging operations, animal trafficking, and hunting.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Zwicker became a rotating intern at the Woodland Park Zoo’s Conservation Department in Seattle. She was a bird caretaker at a local laboratory and led a program to restore a local swamp near the University of Washington (UW). “I had also been a lab assistant in the Conservation Ecology Laboratory at the UW, specifically doing research alongside a Ph.D. student who worked in Madre de Dios, Peru,” she says.
“I was able to go with him on one of his trips to the Amazon, assisting with a wildlife camera trap study as part of his dissertation. I was then introduced to a remote, pristine region called Las Piedras. This region became my home, where I would do my master’s research on elusive felids in a jungle that had never been studied,” Zwicker says.
That was an opportunity too good to pass up, and she immersed herself in the region. “I started Hoja Nueva to work in agroforestry and community development efforts — things I knew nothing about but worked hard to learn in order to do my part for a better future in the region,” Zwicker says.
“I built a research and community center in 2016 and started living in Peru more continuously. The work became my life,” she says.
When she and Turner rescued Khan and then Keanu, Zwicker says she saw the growing need for a rewilding center focused on the region’s carnivores. She started the rescue center in 2020, amidst the pandemic. “We built the Khan Rewilding Center in 2021; it is the first registered rescue center in Peru to focus on carnivores and purpose-built to rewild threatened species,” she says.
The Khan Rewilding Center specializes in spotted cats such as jaguars, ocelots, margays, and oncillas, as well as other mesopredators including coatis, tayras, and kinkajous. “Although we specialize in these carnivores, we also work with a range of other threatened species such as peccaries, tapirs, and tortoises,” Zwicker says. “The species we work with is determined by which species are most threatened, are most prevalent in the illegal wildlife trade, and have no other center in the country focused on their reintroduction.”
Zwicker says these factors highlight the ecological importance of rehabilitating these animals and “getting them back into the wild to maintain stable populations.”
Peru’s forests and wildlife
According to the organization Global Forest Watch, from 2001 to 2021, Peru lost 3.62Mha of tree cover, which is the equivalent to a 4.6 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000, and 2.32Gt of CO₂e emissions. Commercial mining, construction, and illegal logging are reducing the country’s forests by about 1,100 square miles per year. Eighty percent of Peru’s forest loss is the result of illegal activity.
The animals Zwicker works to protect face other threats, too. “Animals like spotted cats are most at risk of wildlife trafficking,” she says, whereas species like tapirs and peccaries are most at risk of poaching. But, she says, all animals are at risk from threats that cause habitat loss and degradation such as logging, mining, and deforestation.
Tackling the challenges in Peru and other LATAM regions can bring complications, especially for a white person. The film Avatar has endured scrutiny over promoting a “white savior” narrative.
Zwicker says that narrative is an important one, especially nowadays considering how so many western organizations are operating all throughout the global south. “It oftentimes can be problematic,” she says.
But Zwicker says the big difference between her project and others is the level of integration. Whereas other organizations tend to “swoop in” with a group of westerners for a couple of weeks or months and try to impose changes based on their ideals and world views before returning to their home countries, “I have lived nearly full-time in Peru for almost the last decade while building up Hoja Nueva,” Zwicker says.
“I have had a close relationship with local communities, I’ve learned from them how things work here while living alongside them and have incorporated their ideas and voices throughout the process of growing the organization,” she says.
“From the very beginning, the focus has been on finding holistic solutions that benefit both people and nature with the guidance of local culture,” she says. “And I think that really makes the difference.”
For more information, visit the Hoja Nueva website.
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