Chat with Richard Thomas about animals, domesticated, wild and all things in-between, and the conversation brings out the beast in him. And that’s a good thing. Thomas, who grew up in a house filled with dogs (especially fawn and brindle Great Danes), narrates the PBS documentary “Nature: Animal Reunions,” airing Wednesday, March 30 on PBS. It is now on DVD.
It’s a fascinating, eye-opening 55:41 minutes, as it candidly and courageously asks (then answers) such questions as . . . what happens when a millionaire conservationist journeys to Gabon to try and reunite with a captive-born gorilla he raised in the U.K. and then released in the wild five years earlier? And can wild animals really experience emotions like joy and devotion? Will they remember their caregivers?
“Animal Reunions” includes the insights of several experts such as noted ethologist Dr. Jane Goodall, who maintains it was crucial for her to establish a trusting relationship with wild chimpanzees or she wouldn’t have been able to observe them. Especially heartwarming and slightly sad is the sequence in which a chimp initiates a long hug with Goodall right before it is being released into the wild, yet Goodall admits she still doesn’t know what motivated the primate.
Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, agrees with Goodall, but believes the chimp’s gesture is clearly “an indication of an incredible bond.” Science writer and author Virginia Morell comments that we humans “want to know what animals think and feel” and the information gleaned from these animal reunions is a step towards trying to answer these questions.
In the special, we first meet Damian Aspinall, a millionaire entrepreneur and conservationist, who now runs Howletts Wildlife Park, the family animal sanctuary in England. Aspinall views the animals in his care as friends and believes he gains a gorilla’s trust in the same way he would a human, by treating it with kindness and as an equal. Despite his attachment, Aspinall believes animals have a right to live in the wild if protected, so the program follows the journey of seven captive-born gorillas to a West African national park. The story is revisited five years later when Aspinall arrives to try and find Kwibi, one of the male gorillas. (Aspinall’s talk of Kwibi’s “love gurgle” is precious).
Wildlife cameraman Kim Wolhuter says he had to establish trust with a cheetah to develop a bond with the fastest mammal on earth. It took 18 months, but his persistence paid off until she disappeared one day prompting Wolhuter to set out to find her. Another segment profiles Dr. Rebeca Atencia, a vet who cares for sick and orphaned chimpanzees with the aim of returning them to the wild. She attempts to reunite with a female chimp named Kudia, with whom she formed a maternal bond, two years after the latter’s release in Congo’s wild forests. The film also covers the reunion of former head keeper Edwin Lusichi, who spent 16 years rehabilitating orphaned elephants, with two of his favorites now in the process of beginning their reintroduction into the wild.
Richard Thomas, who turns 65 on June 13, is our tour guide. Here, he chats about “Animal Reunions.”
Alan W. Petrucelli: I wondered as I watched the special if you wished you were actually out there, in the wild with those creatures and their companions.
Richard Thomas: Not really. When I was in the recording booth doing the narration, the footage transported me . . . the scenes were so profoundly moving that they made me feel like I was truly there.
AWP: Such unconditional love!
RT: Animals lovers have known for a long time about the connection of unconditional love. Animals carry the same emotional charge we do. Watching the show will certainly make people think about the idea that we are fellow travelers, and on some level we are all members of the same population. If there is any question about the existence of human-animal mind connections to the rest of world, these doubts will be laid to rest by the special. This type of connection reinforces that we are all sharing the same world.
AWP: Did you always see or experience that bond personally?
RT: Yes. When our youngest daughter was little, we gave her a very, very tiny kitten. When she moved away, we took the kitten in for her and the kitten, then a fully-grown cat, accepted us once again. She remembered us. She felt safe and comfortable. Sometimes a cat, new to a home, runs under a sofa and stays there for three days. When our daughter took the cat back again, the same thing happened: The cat knew her. The cat knew us. There was a emotional bond on the animal-human level.
AWP: Do you have any pets now?
RT: No. We have one kid at home who’s very allergic.
AWP: When you hear stories about a dentist who pays lots of money to hunt and kill a lion . . .
RT: It was appalling. What went through my mind was that we still think we are the bastards of the universe. It will take a long, long time to move our selfish thoughts. We don’t see wildlife as something standing separate from us, and with that, comes the age-old relics of man looking at wild animals and seeing them as trophies. It’s been that way for millennia and such kills reminds me the transactions between man and animals not complete. People who must have a trophy have the biblical idea that they are above nature. It will take a long time to fix that thinking. Hopefully, with the triumphs seen in the special and the reinforcement from the stories of bonding, there will be an increased sense of compassion and shared consciousness.
AWP: How do you feel about zoos?
RT: I am very conflicted on this issue. I don’t have an actual answer. I love and hate zoos. I am fascinated by looking at the animals; with mammals I search them for connections and compatibility to humans. I visit a zoo and ask myself, ‘How am I like that? Are we so different?’ When I was a kid, zoos looked like entertainment; this is what happens between a child and an animal at a zoo. A child’s eyes and heart opens, especially if the child is from an urban area and only used to dogs and cats and pigeons in a park.