May 28, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Emma Tegg talks to Harry Turner, conservationist and subject of Amazon Prime's new documentary Wildcat.

Lying under draped mosquito nets in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I typed, ‘man raised ocelot in the jungle for 18 months’, alongside superfluous details about chickens and black caimans, into the Notes app on my phone. That evening, Gilver Carreño Suárez, the manager and guide of Tucan Lodge in the Cuyabeno Amazon reserve, had shared a story about his “English friend”. A young veteran called Harry Turner, he told us, had entered the jungle suicidal and left with a conservation legacy. As I listened, I didn’t expect that, six months later, I’d be sitting across from Harry Turner in a friend’s London flat turned impromptu interview set.  

Harry’s story piqued Amazon Prime’s interest as well as mine; the streaming service reportedly paid nearly 20 million dollars for the rights to Wildcat. The documentary begins with Harry’s departure from Afghanistan as a veteran suffering from severe depression and PTSD. Harry originally went to the Peruvian Amazon to escape the world and, in his darkest moments, life itself. Instead, his immersion in nature led him to volunteer at wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre Hoja Nueva. There he met Hoja Nueva’s founder, US scientist and conservationist Samantha Zwicker, and together they embarked upon the first rehabilitation of a carnivorous cat in the Amazon. Harry spent 18 months hand-raising the orphaned ocelot Keanu, teaching the ocelot to hunt and become self-sufficient in the jungle. The strong bond between Harry and Keanu forms the thread of Harry’s story. It’s the worthy pursuit of saving Keanu that helps Harry save himself.  

Directors Trevor Beck Frost and Melissa Lesh don’t confine the story to one genre. It’s a documentary about conservation, but it’s also about depression, relationships and healing. Wildcat is a raw, intimate and real portrait of how we exist in nature and find our place in the world. The documentary doesn’t suggest nature is a panacea for pain – it takes audiences on an emotional roller-coaster to show the everyday battles of dealing with depression and PTSD.

We sat down with Harry to discuss his connection to nature, his experiences filming ‘Wildcat’ and where it’s led him today. The full video interview is available to watch here on Imperial’s Youtube channel.  

Wildcat delves into the value and power of connection, whether that’s to ocelot, people or the jungle itself. Harry believes that our modern lives are not conducive to healthy minds. When he  escaped the stimuli of modernity, he was able to reconnect to his life and feel it was worth living. During one sunset viewing on a river boat, he watched the bats leave the trees and asked himself: 

“Why are you doing this to yourself? You have people who love you, you have support, you have everything you want. You’re depressed, you need to figure out your own mental health before you can further your future.” 

This realisation came about after just fourteen days of “being submerged in the jungle, no wifi, no phones, no nothing…surrounded by people, surrounded by jungle…I’d wake up to the sound of monkeys and go to sleep to the sounds of frogs. It was a very natural thing”. 

Harry’s personal epiphany concurs with the field of research known as ‘ecopsychology’, which suggests that nature can offer a wide range of mental health benefits. Ecopsychologists maintain that existing in busy cities, at work, and other stressful environments requires a great deal of exertive attention. In natural environments, however, people pay more attention but in a less effortful way, which leads to a more relaxed body and mind. Harry’s immersive experience in the rainforest was by no means a walk in the park, but it reminded me of the Japanese practice ‘shinrin yoku’, known as Forest Bathing. The practice draws heavily on the intuitive knowledge that people are intrinsically part of nature and benefit from feeling connected to it. 

When Harry met Samantha, their shared goal of protecting nature led to a novel approach to rehabilitation conservation. In contrast to the status quo of unbiased and objective science, it was Harry’s high stakes in the game that made him the perfect candidate for the task. His emotional intelligence and love for the ocelots enabled a long and physically demanding research project to dually become an inspiring story about the human condition and our need for connection.  

One of Wildcat’s greatest strengths is its unflinching depiction of self-harm and depression. In one scene, Harry’s little brother, Jayden, tentatively asks about his scars, to which Harry replies “some were from Keanu (the ocelot) and some were from myself”. This brief conservation bearing such vulnerability, tenderness and quiet discomfort is a rare gem for audiences to witness.  Most importantly, it shows a young man exposing his wounds and running the full gauntlet of human emotions. Facing these inner obstacles was an intrinsic part of Harry’s journey. He said himself that:  

 “If I hadn’t gone to the jungle, where would I be now? The answer is I’d probably be dead.” 

So where is Harry Turner now? His seven-year stint in the jungle allowed him to build expertise in the Amazon’s flora and fauna through an education in situ, and now he is putting his conservation and mental health experience to good use through his new venture Emerald Arch. Harry and his partner Lexie Gray set up the conservation non-profit in 2022. The organisation focuses primarily on protecting land in the Ecuadorian Amazon in order to conduct conservation research alongside community outreach and engagement. In addition, the land will be used to host a Veteran’s Nature Therapy Project, where veterans can immerse themselves in the jungle to meditate, adventure and heal.  Emerald Arch are currently accepting donations for their first plot of land in the Amazon: you can donate here.  

This marriage of nature and mental health seems like a fitting new chapter to Harry’s story. After meeting Harry, it’s clear he’s on a mission to not only improve himself but also the world around him. Ultimately, Wildcat left me impressed by the power of connection – perhaps we all need to feel tethered to something or someone, and that can take the shape of a small spotted wildcat if need be.  

Wildcat is available to watch now on Amazon Prime TV.  Image credit: Imperial College YouTube.