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'Wildcat' is a story of healing for its directors, stars and an orphaned ocelot

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When British Army veteran Harry Turner left the service, he was suffering from what he called recurrent depression and PTSD. He had been medically discharged from the army, and he says he traveled to the Amazon jungle at first out of desperation.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WILDCAT")

HARRY TURNER: After Afghanistan, I struggled so badly. I felt that life wasn't worth living and maybe I should just pack up all of my things and just go where no one knows where I am, no one knows if I'm alive, no one knows I'm dead.

CHANG: But what the Amazon presented to Harry was a totally different path. He gets to know a conservationist named Samantha Zwicker. And together, they help each other heal from past traumas while protecting the forest and rescuing wildlife, including an orphaned baby ocelot named Keanu. They filmed their efforts meticulously. And then one day they meet Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost, who helped turn that footage into a documentary called "Wildcat." And as they made it, they realized just how similar Harry and Keanu were.

TREVOR BECK FROST: When it really dawned on us that Harry was going to have to leave at some point, we started thinking about this sort of weird connection between the two of them, where Harry is, you know, trying to take this ocelot and put it back into the wild. He's trying to work with Keanu to put it back into the wild. And then at the same time, when he's done with that, he has to figure out how to reintegrate into society.

CHANG: That moment, I mean, I was watching that inevitable moment when Keanu needs to make that clean break from Harry to go out on his own into the wild, survive by himself. And I could see how Keanu - he wasn't the only one struggling with that separation. Can you talk about that piece of this; like, what the separation meant for both of them?

MELISSA LESH: So at that time, you know, Keanu was reaching the point where naturally, in the wild, he would be going off on his own and his mother would be kind of severing that bond with him.

CHANG: Right.

LESH: So for Harry, it was very much a learning process and figuring out, you know, at what point and in what way do you start to break that bond? And with Samantha as well, it was, you know, a learning process. 'Cause at that point, you know, their relationship was so - they had such a deep connection. And they were so much a part of each other's lives that it was hard for Keanu to really let go. And equally, it was hard for Harry to be able to let go. And their survival and their well-being were in some ways dependent on each other.

And so, you know, learning from that and seeing that reality, Samantha's now figured out with their new reintroductions of the ocelots, how can we start to, you know, have that transition happen a little bit sooner so that it is both, you know, easier for the cats and also for the rehabilitators. So a lot of their process now is a more distant process of reintroduction. They have larger enclosures. They let prey species come underneath to simulate kind of natural hunting environments. And so as kind of as difficult as it is in some ways, they also want to have less interaction...

CHANG: Yeah.

LESH: ...To allow that bond to be broken sooner.

CHANG: But going back to the relationship between Harry and Keanu, I mean, obviously Keanu needed Harry to teach him how to survive as a wildcat, even though Harry was human. But in so many ways, it felt like - it was a codependent relationship, right? Like, Harry needed Keanu to get through or to cope with some of his own mental health struggles in this film.

FROST: Yeah. I mean, Keanu was a sense of purpose, you know? And I think that's something that a lot of people can identify with. I mean, speaking personally, I have struggled with depression and anxiety for 10 years now, and I have a very different relationship with my depression and anxiety than I did before making this film. But one of the things that we did during the process of making this film is we brought home our own cats, cats from a local shelter, domesticated cats. And they completely changed my life because all of a sudden, every day that I woke up, I had something that I needed to take care of, something that relied on me. And that's provided me with this, you know, enormous sense of purpose every single day. And it's really helped me a lot, you know?

And so I think with Harry, that was amplified times 100...

CHANG: Yeah.

FROST: ...Because he had gone through so much trauma so early in his life. And he, you know, is a very sensitive person at his core. And so, yeah, Keanu was really, like, a lifeline for Harry. I mean, this was truly a second chance that he felt, and Samantha felt, could not be messed up. And so we see this true codependency. As unhealthy as codependency is, that was exactly what it was.

CHANG: Yeah. Trevor, you mentioned that you have struggled with depression and anxiety yourself. Did following Harry's story and, frankly, being a part of Harry's story in some ways help you think about your own mental health challenges differently?

FROST: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, I always say that, before making this film, I really only viewed my depression and anxiety as a negative. I thought it was just something that I wanted to go away. And don't get me wrong, if there is a cure, I would be in line for that, no doubt. But I think one of the things that happened to me through the process of making this film and watching Harry and Samantha, I realized that what they accomplished in putting these cats and many other animals back into the wild and building this remarkable, you know, conservation and rescue center in the Amazon was that they accomplished so much of this as a result of everything that they had been through.

And so I guess after making this film, I now, you know, strive to ask myself every single day, what are the positives in having depression and anxiety? Does it allow me to see the world differently? And I think that absolutely it does. You know, I think that if there's somebody that doesn't struggle with depression, they're not going to see the world the same way that I do. And then so now I really start to see the, you know, strengths in that. And I think that that's how I changed through the process of making the film.

CHANG: And tell us, where are Samantha Zwicker and Harry Turner now? What are they up to?

LESH: Yeah. Sam, she is running Hoja Nueva, her nonprofit organization, with a new partner. They have ramped up their operations on the ground incredibly. And now they've actually just rescued their first jaguar. So that's their first big cat and a new challenge, probably their greatest challenge yet.

And Harry, we're excited to say that he's doing really well. You know, I think during the making of this film, we were deeply concerned about him. And now, that's not the case. You know, I think there were things that, you know, he's been dealing with and grappling with that he will probably always be dealing with. But he's got a much stronger foundation now. And it's really - it's powerful to see how this film has contributed to that. He is now engaged and starting a new nonprofit with his fiancee and continuing to do conservation work.

CHANG: Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost - their new film "Wildcat" is in theaters now and will be streaming on Amazon December 30. Thank you both so much.

FROST: Thank you so much, Ailsa.

LESH: Thank you so much for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.