'Wild' is the most big-hearted animal documentary of 2020
Filmmakers shine a light on the tireless dedication of staff at the Israeli Wildlife Hospital near Tel Aviv.
The doctors in the ER are frantic in a chaotic dance familiar to hospitals everywhere. A nurse spins around to avoid a doctor as she administers anesthesia to prep the patient for surgery. A physician tiptoes to the sink to sanitize his hands. More medical staff chatter while hovering over the patient lying motionless on the steel table. But what makes this particular operating room unique is that this patient has hooves. And horns, too. The patient lying on the table is a wild goat.
This is the Israeli Wildlife Hospital. You won't find Fido the dog or any other household pets here. These veterinarians are singularly focused on the care of wildlife. A snake with broken ribs. A baby deer with a head wound. A tiger with an infected eye. These often gut-wrenching stories weave together to form the narrative of an emotional and raw new documentary called "Wild: Life, Death and Love at a Wildlife Hospital," which recently screened in New York City.
"The main thing we want is for people to look at how fragile life is, how gentle it is and how hard these questions are," said filmmaker Danel Elpeleg, who co-directed the documentary with Uriel Sinai.
The goat on the operating room table, an ibex to be exact, is here because he was hit by a car. The doctors and nurses are debating whether to amputate his leg. Contemplating if a three-legged ibex would survive back out in the wild is par for the course here, where patients cannot talk or make decisions for themselves. And unlike a dog or cat with a loving owner and an open checkbook, these doctors serve as surrogate parents. It is a Sisyphean task. Just as the ibex is being wheeled out, another emergency presents itself: more than 70 seagulls suffering from swimming in a contaminated lake.
The film is just as much, if not more, about the caretakers than the animals. There is Shmulik, who spends the majority of the movie doing physical therapy with a gazelle, trying to help her walk again. And there's Ariela, who is always trying every last possible treatment to save an animal, even when her colleagues think it's a lost cause. Her emotional attachment to a donkey on life support will bring you to tears.
"It was really fascinating and very special to see the connection between the animals and the vets," said Elpeleg. "After we started filming for a while, it was very obvious that they have unique dilemmas that you don't have in the human medical world. They also don't exist in the regular vet world. Here you have patients that are not supposed to be around people."
Elpeleg recalled filming in the hospital and watching one of the vets covering the animals' eyes. "We asked her why she was doing that. She said these creatures are so not used to being around people – that if you take one wrong look at them, they could die out of stress or fear. So it was very obvious that there was something very special there."
That high-stress environment added a layer of complexity onto the filming process. Asked if she was scared being in the same room as a wild tiger, Elpeleg turned the question around. "The challenge was more for us not to scare the animals. Because we are the extra people with all the equipment." The crew, a team of young Israeli filmmakers, spent three years working on the movie. For Sinai, a Pulitzer nominee in photojournalism, this was his second film. And for Elpeleg, a graduate of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, this was her debut feature.
The movie is less a Disney version of the animal kingdom, and more about the endless devotion the caretakers have for wildlife. "You never know what the right decision is," Elpeleg told us. "Because if you put an animal down, you would never know what would have happened if you released it. You release it back into the wild and you don't necessarily know if it survived."
For her, the film was always more about the people and about the moral dilemmas they have. "We really love these people," she said, "and are very thankful that they let us spend all this time with them."
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