‘Wildcat’ Review: Rescue and Rewild

This documentary follows a couple’s efforts to reintroduce an ocelot, headed to a zoo or worse, into its home in the Peruvian Amazon.

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By Manohla Dargis

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When the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton described the ocelot in his unfortunately titled encyclopedic tome “Lives of Game Animals” (1925), he understandably waxed poetic. Its beautiful coat, he wrote, “is the most wonderful tangle of stripes, bars, chains, spots, dots and smudges.” He likened some markings to “black sausages” (he was, after all, British), while noting that others looked “as though they were put on as the animal ran by.”

Ocelots are among the smaller wildcats — they average 28 to 35 pounds — and among the most ridiculously cute. Jayne Mansfield had one as a pet, as did Gram Parsons; Salvador Dalí had two. Even with protections, ocelots have it tough and are driven from their territory by deforestation and captured for the pet trade. In 2016, a month-old ball of ocelot adorableness from the Peruvian Amazon was headed to a zoo or worse when he was rescued by a young American ecologist, Samantha Zwicker, and her British partner, Harry Turner. They named the kitten Khan and embarked on a project to reintroduce him back into the wild.

The documentary “Wildcat” tracks Zwicker and Turner’s rewilding endeavors, charting both their peaks and anguished lows. Such reintroduction initiatives are heroic and painstakingly difficult, requiring expertise, resources, enormous patience and a certain amount of basic luck. What made the Khan project more daunting, Zwicker says, is that no one had spent a year or more with a wildcat that was then reintroduced: “It’s just never been done.” Zwicker seemed well-equipped: She has a lifelong interest in animals, several degrees (she’s a Ph.D. candidate in quantitative ecology), and had already founded an environmental nonprofit, Hoja Nueva, in southeast Peru. Yet raising Khan was another order of magnitude.

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“Wildcat” is the first feature movie from Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost, who have backgrounds documenting conservation work: She directed the short movie “Person of the Forest,” about orangutans in Borneo; he is a former photojournalist. As you might expect, “Wildcat” features a lot of handsome imagery of Khan climbing trees, scampering through the forest and chasing after prey that sometimes bites back. Some of the reintroduction techniques are not for the squeamish, as when Turner encourages Khan’s predatory instincts by shaking what looks like a mouse at the kitten, exhorting, “Come on, get it!” (It escapes.)

“I obviously saw something super-special in him,” Zwicker says of Turner shortly after “Wildcat” gets going. It’s easy to see why. A former soldier who fought in Afghanistan, Turner says that he was “medically discharged” with recurrent depression and post-traumatic stress disorder before traveling to the Peruvian Amazon effectively to disappear. He’s a poignant, empathetic soul. The filmmakers obviously saw something in him, too, and soon into “Wildcat” their attention shifts to Turner, his feelings and his mental state while working with Khan and another ocelot kitten, Keanu. “He’s saving me and I’m saving him,” Turner says of Khan early on, voicing a theme of mutual salvation that becomes the overriding subject.

Focusing on a traumatized ex-soldier and ocelot foundlings was presumably more commercially viable than digging into the science, history, politics and stakes (local, global) of the work that Zwicker and her team do. In shaping this narrative, though, Lesh and Frost have left out details that would have deepened and broadened “Wildcat.” At the Jackson Wild Summit in September, for instance, Zwicker said she had obtained a permit to work with Khan and that she flew in veterinarians to check his progress as part of this permitting process. The movie tends to skip over this kind of nuts-and-bolts information, which streamlines the story, yet also regrettably reinforces the stereotype of the heroic white outsider.

“Wildcat” is well-meaning, but it’s very frustrating, particularly as Turner’s mental health begins to erode. When difficulties in the rewilding projects escalate, he grows understandably upset, but when he begins cutting himself (offscreen) and expressing suicidal ideation (onscreen), the idea that wild animals can be (or should be) his salvation disappears. You also worry that no one will save him. Things devolve to the point that a visibly distraught Zwicker calls a suicide hotline. For their part, the filmmakers remain offscreen and silent, a baffling decision given Turner’s deep, palpable distress. Whatever the case, their choices make this would-be redemption narrative feel unfortunately and uncomfortably exploitative.

Rated R for suicidal ideation, physical self-harm, animal-on-animal violence and animal death. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. In theaters and on Amazon Prime Video.

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