The Challenges of an Untamed Soul or Les défis d’une âme sauvage.
Producer: Yves Lafontaine
Director: Simon C. Vaillancourt
Director of Photography: Mario Munger

“Les défis d’une âme sauvage,” or “The Challenges of an Untamed Soul,” is a success. If you are interested in getting a glimpse into the complex world of naturalist Zoe Lucas as she lives and works on Sable Island, you will get that glimpse, and more. Director Vaillancourt and his team present a vivid picture of the wildly beautiful island and its resident naturalist—in just over twenty minutes. It is a remarkable accomplishment.

The show begins with dramatic aerial shots of the island, and the rich voice of narrator Michel Garneau explaining, in elegant French, the familiar vital statistics of Sable—its length, width, composition, distance from shore—and the lesser known relationship to the island of naturalist Zoe Lucas. We meet her, and hear from her in her native English how she came to live on Sable Island. She is at ease, animated, a clear sign that Vaillancourt knows his business.

That impression is reinforced when we meet the other two people who will share their insights about the island and Lucas’s work there. One is Gerry Forbes, the Sable Island Station Manager, who also speaks in English, and anglophone Andrew Hebda, a biologist with the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, who speaks in French. Both are comfortable as they are interviewed, and the different voices and languages add interest to the show. Subtitles are clear and well done in both French and English versions.

Director of Photography Mario Munger allows us to see Sable Island through an artist’s eyes.  Sounds of wind, waves, and calling birds add flavour. Original music by Claude Rivest is not as successful. Its lack of coherence fails to give the sense of wildness he perhaps intended, and often it is intrusive. There are a few minor errors in the show—the platforms off-shore near Sable are natural gas pumping stations, not oil platforms; and Gerry Forbes is “Station Manager,” not “Superintendent.”

Of course, none of these elements would matter if the subject were boring. It isn’t. Lucas’s work is interesting in and of itself:  studies of shark predation on seals, discovering and listing endemic species of flora and fauna, oiled bird surveys, long-term examination of changes in Arctic seal population, and, most fascinating to many, Lucas’s more than twenty years of focused, sustained study of Sable Island’s two to four hundred wild horses. We see her examine the remains of a mare that didn’t survive the winter, hear her explain the importance of long-term monitoring to scientific understanding of horse health and behaviour. We are startled as she opens a door on a room containing dozens of horse skulls which will be archived at the museum and available for future study.

But when we hear from Andrew Hebda that Zoe Lucas is a “super volunteer,” that all her work is largely unpaid, it becomes of even greater interest to hear something of her personal philosophy, of her attitude to the island, to the animals that live there, and to her work. Vaillancourt never films her with other people, only with horses and seals, as she walks or drives her ATV. Is she ever bored? Lonely? Surely she must be.

Not so. Lucas feels profoundly fortunate to live among the horses of Sable Island on their terms, to be part of their environment. She sees herself as equal in value to the creatures she studies, and seems surprised when she is asked about the problem of loneliness. She wakes every morning, she says, to a feeling of “wow!”, adding that there is never enough time to do all the things that interest her. When she was a young girl she dreamed of having her own horse to ride, she says, but her relationship with the wild horses of Sable Island is far more satisfying than anything that young girl could have imagined. Her sincerity and her vivid and unconventional intelligence are evident in her voice and her eyes.

Vaillancourt also shows us Lucas as an activist of sorts. A few years before his film was made, government considered closing the Sable Island Station as a cost-cutting measure. The importance of maintaining a continuous human presence on Sable Island seemed crucial to Lucas, who knows and values the fragility of the island’s ecosystem as thoroughly as anyone on the planet. She began a program of public education by starting the Green Horse Society, and created its Website, which she updates with new information and images.

The scientific community and all of us clearly benefit from Lucas’s passion for Sable Island. Vaillancourt’s excellent work captures the beauty and fascination of the place she loves, and with sensitivity, respect and imagination, pays homage to the contribution to science of a remarkable person—Zoe Lucas.

“Les défis d’une âme sauvage” is available from the National Film Board of Canada for $34.95 (the four-disk set includes 13 episodes of the TV5 documentary television series Humanima, all with either English or French subtitles, a series that “invites you to discover the fascinating men and women who are in touch with animals, nature and the environment.”)

If you would like to see a clip of Les défis d’une âme sauvage, go to <> and select “English Version.” Pass your cursor over the left-hand side of your screen and select “See.” Choose “Series 1,” and then The Challenges of an Untamed Soul.)

Prepared for the Sable Island Green Horse Society
By Janet Barkhouse, September 2009 ©