Photos: Samantha Zwicker

Into the Wild with Samantha Zwicker

It’s hard to get from Amazon Prime to the Amazon rainforest, but Samantha Zwicker is making it work. The ecologist is based in Peru, where she’s devoted to restoring tropical biodiversity with the conservation group Hoja Nueva. She’s also starring in Wildcat, the new documentary that follows Zwicker and a former soldier named Harry Turner as they reintroduce injured ocelots back into their natural habitat.

The work is messy, but Samantha’s experience with conservation is difficult, admirable, and fascinating to watch. So we asked the ecologist some questions about the healing power of big cats, the importance of Indigenous collaboration, and what to do if you see a jaguar on your lawn. (Short answer: Walk away slowly!)

Have you always been a cat person? What made you specialize in wild cats as an ecologist?

I’ve always had an inherent interest in wild cats, and in school, I was immediately drawn to researching charismatic cat species like the jaguar. Charismatic megafauna (including large wild cats, and also other big animals like elephants and lions) serve as keystone and umbrella species. By getting people to care about and protect big cats around the globe, we are also conserving the habitat and survival of countless other smaller animal and plant species… [Now] my research is focused more on the smaller cats of the lowland Peruvian Amazon—margays and jaguarundis. There’s still so much we don’t know about them because they’re such an elusive species!

Why is protecting these cats and their habitat so important?

Because the Peruvian Amazon is the largest source of terrestrial carbon sequestration and oxygen production on the planet. Not only does it have regulatory effects on global climate and weather, it’s a source of vast biodiversity and culture.

Samantha Zwicker

In terms of that culture, how do you balance your scientific expertise as a conservationist with the input of Indigenous communities and local leaders?

One of the first things I noticed when I started doing research in Peru is that many people come and go, often without sharing projects or outcomes with the people who live here. I spent years on the ground, living and integrating with communities to learn from them... My aim was to build relationships in order to use a holistic, integrative approach to conservation issues. Because of those relationships, the organization that I started, Hoja Nueva, has always worked alongside local communities and federal governments to rescue wildlife, prevent trafficking, and improve welfare across Peru. We remain integrated—part of the local community of life on this river—instead of separate from it, as so many organizations are.

Most of us don’t get the chance to see our work on camera. Was there anything you learned about your job from watching Wildcat?

In many ways, Wildcat is the origin story of what Hoja Nueva is now. I almost view them as two entirely different organizations. What sticks out to me the most is the level of contact that Harry had with [ocelots] Khan and Keanu. Since this aspect of our rewilding efforts has changed so much—we have very minimal human contact with our animals—this was particularly difficult to watch.

Baby cat

Are you ever scared working with big cats like jaguars? How do you handle any fear?

It’s actually the smaller animals with almost invisible teeth and defenses that scare me most! I feel comfortable with cats—like [Hoja Nueva’s jaguar in rehabilitation] Artemis— even though she’s by far our most dangerous animal. Maybe it’s because I understand them better.

How can we understand the job of an ecologist and conservationist better?

That’s a hard one! Most of what is out there doesn’t accurately describe wildlife rehabilitation, or at least, what it should be! But I’m publishing a memoir later this year that explains a lot of it, so stay tuned.

What should we do (and not do!) if we see an injured cat outdoors?

Unless the cat is gravely injured and clearly incapable of helping itself, don’t do anything. If it's necessary, contact a professional or organization like a credible rescue center. And never interact with babies unless you truly confirm they are abandoned—oftentimes, they aren’t!