Interview: Drew Fellman and Jake Owens on the new IMAX Film “Pandas”

Posted on April 1, 2018 at 10:15 pm

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
Pandas are, as someone notes in the adorable new IMAX documentary simply called “Pandas,” “the King Kong of cuteness.” Kristen Bell narrates the story of an ambitious and daunting Chinese project, to take panda babies bred in captivity and release them into the wild, to repopulate the endangered species. The Chinese panda specialists consult with an American from New Hampshire who has a similar program for bears. And we get to watch as a panda named Qian Qian leaves the only home she has ever known. I spoke to director Drew Fellman and American panda expert Jacob Owens, who worked with Qian Qian and appears in the film.

Why are humans so drawn to pandas?

Fellman: I know, it’s a mystery, isn’t it? There is so much about that that really is so unknown, part of it I think is that pandas are still so new to us. Pandas were unknown to the West until about the 1860’s and the first panda showed up in the U.S. in 1920. Once people were introduced to pandas there has been a panda mania of some sort. From the very beginning they just captured the public imagination and I think part of that was because they seemingly came out of nowhere and they’re so big and so adorable and they look so unlike any other animal. The physical answer as to why they’re so adorable is because they have the strongest jaws you can imagine so they can bite through solid bamboo and that gives them these huge jaw muscles which give them a big round head like a giant baby.

Owens: Yes, babies are cute because they have big eyes and they have round heads, they’ve got disproportionate ears; and so you look at the pandas and it’s got big black spots that look like big eyes and big ears and a big round head, also they roll around more than any other animal I’ve ever seen. They love rolling. So not only do they do look really cute, they’re also really silly goofy animals.

In the film you say that the three qualities you were looking for in finding the right panda for the release program were courage, curiosity, and climbing ability. Why were those were the key skills and how do you look for them?

Owens: There is a lot of research that goes into this that we can draw from. It starts off with genetics and health; we want healthy individuals who have the right genetics for the places that we’re looking to release them. The next thing is looking at the behavior. We introduce novel stimuli to see how they respond. If an individual panda sees something new and instantly runs towards it that’s not necessarily the quality we need because we want them to be curious but also careful but you also don’t them to be so wary of everything that they won’t explore. They’ll need to explore their habitat, being able to find food on their own; things like this, so having in moderation being exploratory but also being cautious, being really vigilant; vigilance is a big thing always looking out for new dangers, those are the key features. And they have to climb well because they have to spend a lot of time in trees. They flee predators up trees and so being able to walk around and climb and do that well at a young age is a good indicator.

Did it feel like leaving a child at school to say goodbye that way?

Owens: Yeah, worse. As scientists you try not to get attached to the animals that you’re studying but this is very different than just strict science; this is reintroduction and release of individual animals and so we are doing all this research but then you’re also dealing with an individual and their own personality that’s unique and so you can’t help but personify and you can’t help but get very attached. You really care about them as an individual and also what they represent for the species. As a conservation biologist, I’m focused on making sure that there are individuals of species in the future. But at the same time just like anybody else, just like if you have a human child you want them to go off on their own and be able to be successful. It’s just that how you prepare them is a bit different. I don’t ever refer to it as training because I can’t train a panda to be a panda because I’m not one. So I call it conditioning or preparing, letting their natural instincts come out progressively through increasingly wild conditions and eventually to the point when they are ready to go out. We open the gate and she can make that decision when she wants to go out and when she wants to come back and, when she’s ready, just to be out fully.

What was the most important thing that the project learned from Ben Kilham, the man who has been raising bear cubs and releasing them successfully in New Hampshire?

Owens: Ben has been doing black bear rehabilitation for more than 20 years and so he’s just got a huge amount of knowledge about bears in general and pandas are bears. They are very different bears but they’re still bears. He also knows so much about rehabilitating and releasing animals. I’ve worked on reintroduction programs before with different species. People think that you should avoid all human interactions. Ben takes the opposite approach. He says there’s no real way to do that because these black bears don’t have a mom so you have to hand raise these cubs and you have to give them a safe environment to progress into the wild. Our pandas are born in captive care. Their mothers are also captive-born individuals so they don’t have the wild skills to teach their cubs. So for Ben the biggest thing is that human interaction has a real advantage, because once they trust you that provides us the access to keep on learning more about their biology, to keep on learning more about their conservation and also monitor them. I can change Qian Qian’s GPS collar just as Ben can with Squirty as you see in the film, and that’s a huge advantage because we can monitor her, we can follow her, we can see where she’s at, see how she’s doing. As technology increases we can do a lot more with that technology but if you don’t have access to them and they don’t trust you, then you’ll have to take other measures. You have to capture them in some kind of trap or use sedation and so because they know and trust us it’s a lot easier for us to do those things. Using those human interactions for those advantages is the biggest thing that I have learned from Ben in terms of our project.

Fellman: Also from the panda’s point of view is the positive interaction with the humans as opposed to being trapped or tranquilized which can be dangerous and can frighten them.

Owens: There is also the misconception that I had coming into this that if a panda or black bear gets used to one individual or a handful of individuals then they’re used to people and then they’re going to be a nuisance animal then there’s going to be a real problem and they’re not going to do well when they go out. But pandas and black bears are really smart and they can identify individual people very easily by the sound of their voice, by the smell and also by vision somewhat when you get close. It was a big learning thing for me to learn that we were wrong in thinking that this risk of them trusting a few human individuals is going to lead to touching every human. My dogs don’t do that in the States and most people’s dogs don’t do that in the States. Most animals just don’t do that.

What’s the most important thing that you want families to learn about pandas when they watch this movie?

Owens: I want people, especially families with young kids, that people around the world can work together really successfully and use their own combined strengths to work on an endeavor that’s really challenging. We’re really dedicated and I think that’s the big point — all of us globally working together to achieve a difficult goal.

Fellman: And another important message is that pandas are much more than just adorable animals; they are very smart, occasionally fierce, a bear with a mind of their own and they’re all individuals. It’s going to take a lot to create a better future for them and it’s something that’s really worth fighting for.

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Interview: Dayton Duncan on “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”

Posted on March 11, 2016 at 3:36 pm

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service, PBS and all affiliate stations will rebroadcast The National Parks: America’s Best Idea April 25-30. 2016. The six-episode series was produced by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan and written by Dayton Duncan. It was filmed over the course of more than six years at some of nature’s most spectacular places, from Acadia to Yosemite, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Everglades of Florida to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska. Mr. Duncan is the author of twelve books, including Out West: A Journey Through Lewis & Clark’s America and Grass Roots: One Year in the Life of the New Hampshire Presidential Primary. SSeed of the Future: Yosemite and the Evolution of the National Park Idea is being released with the Yosemite Conservancy to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the park’s initial creation as a federal grant to the state of California. Mr. Duncan generously took time for an interview.

He told me about his unforgettable first trip to a national park.

I was not quite nine and it was the only real vacation my family ever took, back in the late 50s. I grew up in a little town in Iowa. Both of my parents worked so we didn’t really take vacations except that one summer. So it’s such a vivid memory. I can almost give you a day by day rundown of the places we went but they included the Badlands in South Dakota, Devils Tower, which is a national monument in Wyoming, the Little Bighorn Battlefield which is a national historic site in Montana and then we went to Yellowstone to the Grand Teton National Park, both of them in Wyoming, to Dinosaur National Monument. It was a great experience. My mom sort of lead me to believe that I was going to be instrumental in the planning of the trip and had me get out maps and write away write to different states for brochures and stuff and help to map out where we were going to go.

Basically we borrowed my grandmother’s car and some camping equipment from some family friends. We stayed in national parks because they were beautiful, because my mom thought they were important and also because they were affordable. I didn’t come back from that trip saying, “My life has been changed forever,” but as I look back on my life now as someone who has spent much of his adult life traveling the United States in pursuit of getting to know more about it, and someone who has written a lot about the history of United States but particularly the western part of United States, I can say it has. You know I can look back and think that that actually did change my life because at the time I didn’t say, I will end up being a writer, a filmmaker and one of those things that I’m fascinated in now is the land that we call the United States and our history and its interplay with that land. So I can’t help but think that that probably had something to do with it.

My mom wanted to broaden my sisters and my horizons and there is no question that I saw places that I hadn’t conceived of. It was 1959 and our car had broken down in the Black Hills, South Dakota which delayed us for two days otherwise we would have been in Yellowstone in the disastrous earthquake of 1959. In fact we would have been in the campsite outside of the park with the big flood when the dam broke. But while we were in Yellowstone there were still a number of aftershocks and not only did I see these geysers going off but felt the earthquake aftershocks two or three times. I saw my first moose, my first buffalo, all those kind of things. And 40 years later as a parent I took my children to those places and got to watch them see their first bison, their first moose.

The idea of national parks is original to the United States. Duncan says that the tension between those who want to preserve the parks and those who want to sell them over to private interests is not a new one.

The subtitle of our film says it is the best idea we ever had. We are quouting Wallace Stegner, the great writer and historian. At the core of that are two things that come from us as a people as a democracy. We are the first nation to have set aside the most extraordinary magnificent, some would say sacred parts of our landscape not for the exclusive use of kings and royalty or the rich and the well-connected but for everyone and forever.

The Declaration of Independence created our country as a nation. The creation of the national parks which no nation prior to us had ever done is in my belief a direct extension of the Declaration of Independence to the land, that is to say those things, every person is equal, that is what national parks does, too. That we all are owners and have equal access to these extraordinary places for our pursuit of happiness, however you want to define what pursuit of happiness might be. So that’s the thing that should be saved for everyone in the second part is in for all time. And in doing that that obviously like the idea of liberty itself, it’s always being contested, it’s always evolving and so far in our history has broadened. The Declaration of Independence said that all men are created equal, but if you ask the people who wrote that in 1776 they would’ve said, “Well, we mean all white men who owned property and had no debts are created equal.” Fortunately they didn’t write it in this way and our nation’s journey has been to redefine and broaden what that meant so that not just on men white men with property and no debts but then all white men were created equal, then we included African-American men and we included women and we still on that journey of expanding that and bringing true meaning to those inspiring words.

And in the national parks at first we were setting aside these sorts of logical oddities, the tallest waterfalls in North America the biggest trees on earth and the greatest collection of geysers on earth, those sort of things and we continue to broaden that to include important places in our history, both those places that we traced because they speak to the best of us and places now in our history that reminds us of mistakes that we have made. We’ve expanded the state parks not just for the scenery but that there to preserve nature itself. When Yellowstone was created in the 1872 as the world’s first national park, they had no concern about buffalo at the time, well as it turned out it became a refuge for the bison when they were nearly exterminated in our continent, the most magnificent animal that we have ever had I believe was down to about 24 in the national park and even there it took legislation and action by people to fully protect them and it saved them from going to extinction and now there are 7 million bison in the United States.

Slowly we came understand that these places served lots of different roles. The first director of the National Park Service 100 years ago. Stephen Mandel, called them “vast schoolrooms of Americanism,” by which he meant that when people go there they become prouder of their country and therefore better citizens. But what we have also learned in the last hundred years is they are best schoolrooms, period. They are great teaching places. They teach us about nature, they teach us about our interaction as human beings with nature, they teach us about our history and remind us of things that we need to be reminded of at different times. Alexis de Tocqueville said that Americans prefer the useful to the beautiful and we will always demand that the beautiful be made useful. And as John Muir said, “Nothing dollarable is safe.”

Americans are commercial and believe in individualism and all those things to sometimes an excessive degree. But at the same time what the parks remind us is that we are capable of something else, that we were capable in the 19th century which when as a nation we were in a mad dash across the continent trying to privatize everything that we could. In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, Congress’s main duty for 100 years had been to give away or sell away the public domain but in Yosemite in 1864 they said, “No, we’re not going to do that here,” and they entrusted it to the state of California to protect it forever. And then in 1872 when the reports came about Yellowstone they said we’re going to do the same thing that we did in the Yosemite but wait a minute there is no state to give it to as Wyoming was still territory, so they created the world’s first national park and then discovered that that was a better model than the state and then eventually Yosemite became a national park like Yellowstone.

So the Grand Canyon was first proposed as a national park in 1880-something. Had Congress agreed to the proposal it would have been the world’s second national Park. But local interests in Arizona territory didn’t want it to be. They wanted it for commercial use, so they fought and stopped it and so it was proposed again and again turned down again and again. Theodore Roosevelt visited there as a president 1903 and on his very first visit there he said, “My advice of the people of Arizona is leave it as it is. The ages had been at work on it and man can only mar it.” They paid no attention to him.

Then with the tools of the thing called the Antiquities Act in 1908 he was able to set it aside as a national monument against the howls of protest of commercial and private, political interest in Arizona. It wasn’t until 1919 that the Grand Canyon was finally after very long and political fight was finally made into a national park. It’s about the most self-evident place that should be preserved as a national park as you could ever imagine but it took 30 plus years to make it so. So that’s part of the tension that is within us and within society. It has always been that way and it sometimes rises to a higher pitch and sometimes recedes a little bit. Right now we are in one of those higher moments when there seem to be a greater interest and political push to privatize what’s left of the public domain versus both protecting places like parks but also protecting places that might become national parks in the future. That’s just the political situation that we find ourselves in. Luckily and what I feel very profoundly is that that kind of impulse will kind of always be with us. There is always going to be somebody who is going to look down at Grand Canyon and see a river down there and say, “Boy, what a great place for a dam.” There’s going to always be somebody who is going to be looking at a beautiful valley like Yosemite and say, “Boy, what a great place for trophy homes,” and there’s always going to be somebody who will look at the mountainside and wonder if there are minerals inside of there, and see a grove of trees and try to figure out how many board feet of lumber could be gotten out there. That will always be with us.

The challenge for us as Americans is to recognize that we have to inspire each generation to be responsible for taking care of this legacy. Once it’s been ruined, it’s been ruined. So just because you created a national park doesn’t mean that you don’t have to always be vigilant and always be trying to bring forth the next generation who understand that and will treasure it and will have the political will to fight those other impulses that are part of the American character that might just spoil it. The imperative is to reach both young people and diverse populations and say,”This place belongs to you too. You are an equal co-owner of the most jaw-dropping Canyon on earth, you are a co-owner of these ancient and magnificent trees, you are co-owners of these geysers and custodians of these bison. Nothing converts you more to being a park advocate than actually visiting one.

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A Walk in the Woods

Posted on September 1, 2015 at 5:50 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and discussions of substance abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 2, 2015
Date Released to DVD: December 28, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B015YYC4C8

Copyright 2015 Route One Films
Copyright 2015 Route One Films
It isn’t getting to that point where you most often see your friends at funerals. It isn’t feeling stale because instead of promoting a new book, he’s going on some chirpy morning show to promote a reissue of his old ones.

Though both of those things are true. But Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) has a different reason for wanting to try one of the longest hikes in the world, the Appalachian Trail. He quotes the pioneering conservationist John Muir, the man who inspired the National Parks system and urged the preservation of the Grand Canyon. Muir said sometimes you just have to “throw some tea and bread into an old sack and jump over the back fence.” And it is just past Bryson’s own back fence that the AT beckoned.

If mortality was bearing down a bit hard, that just meant more “now or never” urgency. The fact that the lead actors are three decades older than Bryson was when he took the walk that led to his book, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, vastly overshadows the clutter from the superficial other issues raised by the script, often half-heartedly. Will Bryson write again? Will he re-adjust to living in the US after years abroad? Will he recover his mojo? Where is he from? Will he make it to the end of the trail alive and without inflicting some serious and possibly lethal damage on his traveling companion?

Bryson is, as the movie begins, back in the US and feeling unmoored. He decides to hike the private, non-profit, volunteer-managed Appalachian Trail, stretching more than 2000 miles from Maine to Georgia. His wife (Emma Thompson, bringing her luminous intelligence to an underwritten wife-y role) insists that he cannot go alone. Everyone he knows turns him down. And then he gets a call from his old high school friend in Des Moines, Katz (Nick Nolte, a marvel of shambling decay with a voice more growl than verbal), volunteering to come along. These guys are not exactly up to jumping over the back fence. But the longest journey begins with a single step, and so off they go.

No big surprises ahead — encounters with quirky people along the way (Kristen Schaal is a stand-out as a loony solo hiker and Mary Steenburgen is a welcome presence as always as the owner of a hotel along the trail), spectacular scenery, some historical and conservationist information, some highs and lows in the terrain, the temperature, and the reconnecting of the old friends. But it is a pleasure to see these two old pros swing for the fences one more time.

Parents should know that this movie has some very strong and vulgar language with very crude sexual references. Characters drink and discuss substance abuse.

Family discussion: How would you describe the friendship between Katz and Bryson? What adventure do you want to take and who would you take with you?

If you like this, try: the book by Bill Bryson and other walking movies like “Wild” and “Tracks” and more great books about treks like A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

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