What happens when people are reunited with the wild animals with which they forged a deep bond years ago? Will these gorillas, elephants, cheetahs and chimpanzees still recognize their human caregivers and how will they react? That is the premise of this program which also raises the question of whether wild creatures can really experience emotions like joy, devotion, and love. It’s a debate that many animal lovers are convinced is true and the scientific community is beginning to accept. Animal Reunions — narrated by actor Richard Thomas — contains interviews with scientists, authors, and caregivers including scenes of their journeys to reconnect with their former wild charges.
The filmmakers introduce Damian Aspinall, a millionaire entrepreneur and conservationist, who now runs the family animal sanctuary in England called Howletts Wildlife Park. 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’s, 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.
Likewise, 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.
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. Her long-term studies led to a new way of thinking about the emotional capacities of animals. In a touching sequence, a chimp initiates a long hug with her when being released into the wild, but Goodall admits she still doesn’t know what motivated the primate. Marc Bekoff Ph.D. (My Bionic Pet, Animal Odd Couples), 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.