Born to be Wild - Morgan Freeman
Elephants with a baby © 2011 Warner Bros

Born to be Wild IMAX 3D may not be a genre movie, but its stars are two superheroes, Dr Dame Daphne M Sheldrick and Dr Birute Mary Galdikas.

Dame Daphne has cared for infant elephants since the mid-eighties. Since then, The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (named after her late husband) has hand-reared over 130 orphaned elephants.

Dr Birute is one of the three most prominent researchers on primates (along with Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey). Since 1971 she has conducted wild orangutan research, and for 40 years has rehabilitated orphaned orangutans.

Their stories are told in this movie, which spotlights the remarkable bond between humans and animals. I spoke with both women at the press day for the film.

Dr Dame Daphne M Sheldrick

Born to be Wild - Dr Dame Daphne M Sheldrick
Dr Dame Daphne M Sheldrick with some baby Elephants and helpers © 2011 Warner Bros

Where does your love of elephants come from?

Well, I was born in Kenya so I have a love of all animals, not just elephants, it just happens that elephants have been the greatest challenge. But I’ve actually raised most species in Africa. But the elephants are like humans in they are not grown until they are twenty, so it’s a long haul.

What was your first reaction when you heard they wanted to film at your compound?

Born to be Wild - Elephants
Elephants at a watering hole © 2011 Warner Bros

When I heard about the size of the camera I wasn’t sure how it could happen, because nothing can be staged when you’re dealing with the elephants. We don’t train them to do anything, we just care for them until they’re grown and then we return them back to where they rightly belong, which is amongst the wild herds.

Elephants are so big and strong, have you ever had a problem with misbehavior?

Our keepers never even carry a twig, the elephants are never chastised or beaten in any way, the keepers’ control them with a wagging of a finger and the tone of their voice, and because the elephants love their human family they respond to that.

You mustn’t mistreat them because elephants always remember, and that’s why there are so many accidents in zoos and circuses.

You once said these elephants helped you turn a page in your life, how so?

Elephants are very human animals in terms of emotion. They have lifelong friendships, they are very family oriented, just like us. When you lose a close family member as a human you go through tremendous trauma. The elephants do as well.

They know how to turn the page and get on with life, they can put that behind them, they’ve got others to think about, others need their help and they get on with living. So that teaches us to do the same.

One of the most beautiful scenes in the movie is when you take the baby elephants to the ‘halfway house’ and they are greeted by all the other elephants.

Born to be Wild - Helpers feed the elephants
Helpers feed the elephants © 2011 Warner Bros, Photo by Drew Fellman

Our orphans once they are living wild, having been raised through our nursery themselves, have a great empathy for the others that follow in their wake. And when a new batch of elephants are sent to the re-introduction stations in Tsavo [National Park], which we have two, the elephants that used to be orphans in their time always come back to greet them.

How they know that they’re there, I don’t know. That’s one of the great mysteries, but elephants have amazing intuition that defies human explanation. We keep them in the nursery just until they’re stable, for about the first two years, then they go down to Tsavo and the other orphans who are now living wild come to greet them, welcome them.

They’re always welcomed into the wild herds. It’s very important how an orphan is treated during its growing years so that it grows up psychologically stable, because the wild elephants will not want to take on a problem.

Dr Birute Mary Galdikas

Born to be Wild - Dr Birute Mary Galdikas
Dr Birute Mary Galdikas and a orangutan © 2011 Warner Bros

We’ve seen orangutans as performing animals, there were a couple of movies that Clint Eastwood did, how important is it to understand that the performing animal is not the animal in the wild?

It’s very, very important. The Clint Eastwood movies I think probably created awareness for orangutans. I actually went to see one of the movies and the movie ended with a line that Clint Eastwood said, ‘Orangutans are their own people.’ I actually liked that line.

The problem that orangutans have is that they’re not really well known. When many people hear the word orangutan they really are a little bit fuzzy in their knowledge. And I notice that the people who really care about orangutans are the people who have actually interacted with them, particularly in the wild or at rehabilitation stations such as ours.

Are orangutans natural actors?

Born to be Wild - A helper and orangutan
A helper and orangutan friend © 2011 Warner Bros

Many of them are very natural, and the amazing thing to me is many of them have absolutely no fear of the camera. Many of them actually like the camera.

Of course, these are creatures that are free living in the wild, they’re not captive in the sense that they would be in North America. They are all creatures who will go back to the wild, and many of them have no fear of the camera. They will actually come up to the lens and look at themselves.

They’re very smart, their smartness is a little bit different from elephants, elephants are very gregarious, very social, but orangutans are very smart and they live as individuals because they are solitary, or semi-solitary in the wild as adults.

Basically they only have their own intelligence and their own resources to fall back on. And this is why they are almost God-like in the way they behave, because they really can only rely on themselves and nobody else.

This is also one of the reasons why they are such a joy to interact with, because they don’t let their group affiliations or their species interfere with the interaction between you and them.

As they grow up they become very strong, have you had any problems or accidents with them?

Born to be Wild - The big IMAX 3D camera
The big IMAX 3D camera records the orangutans © 2011 Warner Bros

As they grow up they become five to eight times stronger than a man. I have the deepest respect for orangutans, so except for the infants, because you’re taking care of them, I never impose myself on an orangutan. I follow the rules that I ask others to follow, and that is that you do not engage an orangutan first, the orangutan has to engage you.

When I walk past them I always do that Indonesian little dip and say, ‘Excuse me,’ even though I know they don’t speak English, but I try to show the utmost respect. Whenever there’s been a problem, when orangutans have attacked people, it’s because the person was not following the rules.

Is it hard for you to release them back into the wild after becoming so close to them?

When I used to release them in the early days it was with unabashed pride and hope. Now, there’s almost a sense of foreboding, because the forest are disappearing, palm oil plantations are everywhere and, even though they are a protected species, orangutans are still viewed as pests.

They’re trapped between a rock and a hard place; once they become adolescents, they want to roam, so you have to give them that freedom, but it’s like going to the Wild West. There are all sorts of gun slingers out there and they may just take you down because you are an orangutan. No other reason.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.