In ‘Wildcat’ on Prime Video, WA scientist bonds with nature and humanity

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From the “forest living” she experienced growing up on Bainbridge Island to her current home in the Peruvian Amazon, Samantha Zwicker never anticipated her work would lead to a co-starring role in a feature-length film. But that’s where she finds herself as Amazon’s Prime Video pushes its emotional new documentary “Wildcat” for year-end awards consideration.

Under a blue sky that improves the odds of a stable satellite internet connection, Zwicker chatted via Zoom about how “Wildcat,” streaming on Prime Video Dec. 30, came to be and her work as founder of Hoja Nueva (translated from Spanish, it means “new leaf”), a wildlife rehabilitation and carnivore rewilding center.

Zwicker, 31, is a 2009 graduate of Bainbridge High School and she holds multiple degrees from the University of Washington, where she’s in the final stretch of completing a doctorate in quantitative ecology.

The title “Wildcat” refers to both the ocelots Khan and Keanu featured in the movie and the film’s most prominent human character, former British soldier Harry Turner, who forms a bond with the ocelots and with Zwicker.

When Zwicker got permits from the Peruvian government to raise the ocelot Khan as a research experiment to see if she could rewild an ocelot from a young age, she and Turner began documenting Khan’s life on video and the process of rewilding. At least 50% of the film is taken from videos Zwicker and Turner shot. (Filmmakers were not allowed near ocelots for filming; Turner was the only human who had regular interaction with the ocelots after a certain point in their lives.)

“It was much more this science research perspective of documenting every little thing so that it could potentially be replicated and we could show what worked and the things that we did wrong that people could [learn from] in the future,” Zwicker says.

Zwicker met Trevor Frost, co-director of “Wildcat,” somewhat randomly during a visit to Puerto Maldonado, an hour’s flight from her jungle home. With co-director Melissa Lesh, the original idea was to make a short documentary about Khan.

“We had already gotten some interest from different people who had seen our fundraiser page and seen some of our footage that we had put online to raise money,” Zwicker says. “We really connected with Trevor and Melissa. They had the same vision for this short documentary about Khan’s life that really resonated with us in terms of … raising that type of awareness, all of which changed when Keanu came into the picture and it just became something a lot bigger. Then they really started filming us.”

“Wildcat” details Turner’s background as a soldier in Afghanistan and its impact on his mental health.

“From a pretty early stage, Melissa and Trevor were very intrigued by Harry’s personal story,” Zwicker says. “He’s also one of those people who, the first time you ever meet him, he kind of tells you right away everything that he’s been through and so they knew all these things about his past. I think that they had constructed their idea of a story from the very beginning. I think it took me a little bit longer to realize that it was going to become more of a personal story. I hoped it would be very Khan-and-Keanu-nature-focused and it did kind of go beyond that a bit.”

Zwicker says she feels “great about the fact that [the movie] is impacting people,” but she acknowledged needing time to process it after seeing it for the first time a month before it premiered to positive reviews at the Telluride Film Festival in September.

Since filming wrapped in 2019, Zwicker, 31, has seen Keanu on trail cameras several times and Keanu once came back to the platform where Turner raised him.

“I hadn’t had personal interaction with [Keanu] since he was a baby, but in February 2020 he came back with a pretty big injury that he probably got while hunting,” Zwicker says. “It was an experience to treat a wild, unwieldy, 1½-year-old ocelot that weighs 30 pounds. In the beginning, I was actually quite scared because he’s a full-grown wild cat and people should be afraid of wild animals that are that size.”

Zwicker began working in Peru after making connections through internships. As a young scientist, she was keen to get experience in a biodiversity hot spot. A lack of research coming out of the Las Piedras region of Peru, an unprotected area with no government support, made the location even more intriguing.

Zwicker maintains her ties to the Seattle region. The Hoja Nueva board is made up of mostly residents of Bainbridge Island, where her mother lives. And of course she’s still connected to UW.

“I have a lot of students I worked with from UW who come down to Peru to do their senior projects,” Zwicker says.

Because “Wildcat” is such an emotional film, Zwicker says at film festivals it’s not unusual for audience members to leave in tears.

“I just hope that people harness that emotion and put it toward a cause, maybe improving relationships in their lives,” Zwicker says. “And hopefully people want to reach out and support what our cause is now and what we’ve been able to create at Hoja.”


“Wildcat” streams on Prime Video starting Dec. 30.

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