Rescuer Saves and Rehabs Hundreds of Wild Animals in Peru

Samantha Zwicker lives in the Amazon and advocates for wildlife and habitats.

Samantha Zwicker with wildcat

Prime Video

Samantha Zwicker had been involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of 260 wild animals across Peru. She works to protect more than 7,400 acres of rainforest and the animals that live there.

Zwicker is the founder of Hoja Nueva, a wildlife rescue and rehab center in Las Piedras, a remote area in the Peruvian Amazon. The name means “new leaf.” She has spent the past seven years living in the Amazon after realizing when she was very young that she wanted to advocate for animals and their habitats.

She grew up on a small, undeveloped island outside of Seattle in a small log house surrounded by forests, wetlands, and wildflowers. They often had deer, cougars, and black bears visit.

In the new documentary “Wildcat,” Zwicker works with young veteran Harry Turner, caring for an orphaned baby ocelot named Keanu. The documentary premieres in theaters on Dec. 21 and streams on Prime Video beginning Dec. 30.

Zwicker spoke to Treehugger about her work and her mission. This is a slightly edited version of the email conversation.

Treehugger: When did your love of nature and wildlife first start?

Samantha Zwicker: I think I was exposed to different environmental and animal welfare issues from a young age, even if I didn’t understand it at the time. My mom and dad both cared deeply for animals in need that they came across. Whether it be rescued dogs and cats, ducks, owls, raccoons, or crows, you name it and they probably had an overnight stay in my house before being released or taken to a local shelter. Many were affected by the development of new housing units, roads, and overall urban expansion. 

My grandfather had taken in wolf dogs on his property on the peninsula that I became close with over the years. They were protective of him and our family but very gentle beings that just wanted to be outside. Bear, the male wolf, was mistaken for a wild wolf and killed by a farmer. His sister Sonja died of grief two weeks later, and my grandfather followed shortly after. That was my first experience with wildlife conflict. I knew then that I wanted to be a voice for the animals and habitats that increasingly struggle to maintain their rightful place in this world. 

What prompted you to move to the Amazon seven years ago?

I had just graduated from my undergraduate program and received my bachelor’s. I had been a rotating intern at the Woodland Park Zoo’s Conservation Department, a bird caretaker at a local laboratory, and led a program to restore a local swamp near the University of Washington (UW). I had also been a lab assistant in the Conservation Ecology Laboratory at the UW, specifically doing research alongside a Ph.D. student who worked in Madre de Dios, Peru. I was able to go with him on one of his trips to the Amazon, assisting with a wildlife camera trap study as part of his dissertation. 

I was then introduced to a remote, pristine region called Las Piedras. This region became my home, where I would do my master's research on elusive felids in a jungle that had never been studied. I started a nonprofit, Hoja Nueva, to work in agroforestry and community development efforts—things I knew nothing about but worked hard to learn in order to do my part for a better future in the region. I built a research and community center in 2016 and started living in Peru more continuously. The work became my life—I visited home to see family and take initial classes for my Ph.D. It wasn’t until rescuing [an ocelot named] Khan and then Keanu, and seeing the growing need for a rewilding center focused on carnivores, that I decided to start a rescue center in 2020, amidst the pandemic. 

What is the mission of Hoja Nueva?

Hoja Nueva is a strategic conservation organization confronting the multifaceted threats to the biodiversity of the Peruvian Amazon. We preserve Amazonian ecosystems by protecting over 3,000 hectares (approximately 7,400 acres) of primary rainforest, combating wildlife trafficking, rescuing and rewilding key species, and running a first-of-its-kind ecological research station and education center. Hoja Nueva maintains its U.S. headquarters in Washington State with its field operations, rehabilitation facilities, and research center in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon.

Through our Peruvian NGO, we employ a multi-tiered strategy to address both the causes and the effects of short-term and long-term conservation concerns which threaten the astonishing biodiversity of the Las Piedras region of Madre de Dios, Peru, a little-known but massively important area of the Peruvian Amazon. Our goal is to implement strategic actions in the short term to protect threatened wildlife and forests from immediate destruction while simultaneously designing initiatives for long-term conservation. These initiatives are focused on empowering and educating local communities, integrating local government and non-profit organizations into a collaborative conservation effort to protect the most vulnerable populations and habitats, and performing rigorous and novel scientific research to best inform conservation planning and management strategies.

Samantha Zwicker with ocelot

Prime Video

How many animals have you saved so far? 

To date we’ve facilitated the rescue of more than 260 wild animals across the country of Peru. Hoja has joined forces with the Peruvian government to shut down unauthorized establishments and wildlife trafficking operations across the country, facilitating the safe and swift transfer of wild animals after seizure so that they may be rehabilitated and reintroduced. Additionally, we work closely with the government to improve practices of wildlife management, inform revisions of antiquated laws and permitting systems to reflect optimal standards, provide technical and practical support for anti-trafficking operations and education initiatives, and provide training, assistance, and material support to local wildlife departments so that they may operate more effectively

How often are they able to be rehabilitated and returned to the wild?

The majority of wild animals that we take in are able to be rehabilitated for wildlife. Every once in a while, there is too much physical or psychological damage, and these animals end up in our sanctuary. The vast majority of authorized establishments in Peru are zoos with limited funding and poor ethics that often contribute to the illegal wildlife trade, meaning most animals do not get relocated and spend short periods in a government storage facility before dying or being euthanized. While we do receive wild animals from a young age, 95% come from the government after being seized from illegal establishments where they’ve been for months or years. These animals require more intense physical and behavioral rehabilitation and have less of a chance of being rewilded, although that is always the goal. 

In “Wildcat,” you follow the journey of an ocelot cub. Why was this experience so meaningful for you? How was it difficult, yet fulfilling?

I learned so much from the process of rehabilitating Khan and Keanu, but I mostly learned from the mistakes. That’s why the type of rehabilitation we do at Hoja Nueva now doesn’t look anything like it did in “Wildcat.” There is no universal protocol for rewilding and it has rarely been done with individual cats in the neotropics.

Everything we've done we have had to figure out ourselves. Through a process of trial and error over many years with dozens of cats, we have created novel systems for rehabilitating and rewilding animals from different backgrounds. Every individual animal has a unique history, needs, and challenges, so we're always adapting. Although it is stressful figuring out something as life and death as how to rewild cats in the Amazon and doing it on the fly, it has also been a very rewarding process to find what works and see these animals go back to the wild successfully.

Seeing Keanu successful in the wild months after his release was one of the best feelings in the world. The way he was raised and his rehabilitation program was anything but perfect; for the longest time I was unsure if he would actually choose to be independent. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of squealing rodents—Keanu would sometimes catch his prey near the platform and show them to me. He had no trouble hunting but had become too dependent upon his caretaker and felt most comfortable staying close by. That was one of the biggest challenges—letting go. But if Keanu could transition into a fully wild, independent ocelot, then I had immense hope for future cat rescues. 

What are some of your other favorite encounters or rescues?

In August of this year, we rescued our first jaguar cub. She was being kept as a pet in a remote community for days or weeks and was likely heading to a local market to be sold. Her mother had been killed, and she was torn away from her home at only two months old. Now named Artemis, the jaguar cub was sent over 2,000 miles to get to our rewilding center at Hoja Nueva. Although she arrived malnourished and weak, Artemis has grown into a beautiful beast. She is 7.5 months old, has very little contact with our rehabilitation staff, and regularly hunts and kills her own meals inside her enclosure. One day, Artemis will return to the forests of Loreto where she came from. 

This is also the first year that we’ve had two kitten rescues of the same species within a small time frame. We first received a female margay kitten in October at approximately 3 months old, who had been taken from her forest home and was being sold out of a backpack in the local food market of Puerto Maldonado. We then received a young male margay from a similar situation in early November—he was 2.5 months old. Hoja Nueva was the first to successfully reintroduce margays to the wild—Kleo (female) in 2021 and Loki (male) in 2022. 

When wild animals arrive so young, they are in need of more than just the proper foods and medicine to develop physically—they also need comfort/love/attention/care to develop mentally and emotionally—and every individual animal is quite different. Instead of providing the level of parental care we normally would with a kitten, we decided to put the two margays together.  In the past month, we have been overjoyed with their progress. They have given one another the comfort they both needed to move forward and live, and develop their instinct more naturally. They sleep, play, and even eat together. Next week we plan to move them to an outdoor enclosure, now that they are both 4 months old and large enough to leave the nursery. 

What else do you hope to accomplish in the Amazon?

At Hoja Nueva, we are currently raising capital to greatly expand our research and education capabilities, thereby expanding our conservation impacts and establishing our organization as an institution that will endure long into the future. We are constructing a purpose-built, fully sustainable research and education facility featuring a state-of-the-art in-situ laboratory with full cellular, genetic, and biochemical analysis capabilities. This will serve not only as a base for critical research on Amazonian wildlife and ecosystems to guide urgent conservation efforts but will also bolster the local academic community by creating a research institution and opportunities the likes of which have never existed in Madre de Dios. If we meet our fundraising goals, we plan to offer scholarships to aspiring young researchers and conservationists from Latin America, providing funding and full support for research projects at our facilities to provide a platform to better access STEM fields, especially for young women. 

At the moment there are very few opportunities for aspiring Peruvian biologists or wildlife conservationists to study and work in Peru. Through our partnerships, with universities and other academic institutions, we are working on creating pathways for those interested in protecting biodiversity in Peru.  We believe that by creating these pathways and providing these opportunities we can help to inspire and empower the next generation of biodiversity conservation, fostering an increased level of conservation to carry into the future.

My biggest hope for the future of Hoja is that we can start working to address the root causes of wildlife trade and trafficking in Peru. I want to lead an effort that decreases the demand for wild pets and wildlife parts and simultaneously confronts the policies and operations that perpetuate taking animals from the wild. 

Around 5,000 wild animals are seized alive by the government every year, which is a small percentage of those taken from their habitat. About 27% are mammals like cats and monkeys—that’s 1,350 mammals seized a year. Before Hoja Nueva, thousands of wild cats ended up in zoos, euthanized, or otherwise dying in transport or storage facilities. While there was a vital need to create a rewilding center specialized in carnivores, my hope is that one day we are no longer needed.