In the company of wolves
TV host and conservationist Philippa Forrester talks to Hannah Stephenson about swapping city life for the wilds of Wyoming
There’s not much that scares bubbly TV presenter, producer and natural history buff Philippa Forrester.
Since the former Tomorrow’s World host and her family moved to the wilds of Wyoming six years ago, she has encountered grizzly bears on the school run, been charged by moose and eyed up by wolves. But she doesn’t scare easily.
There was one incident when she was outside her vehicle in Yellowstone National Park, unaware that a bear was on the other side of the car.
“But that was just a black bear,” she explains nonchalantly, “very unlikely to attack you. He wasn’t in attack mode, he was in foraging mode.”
She was slightly less calm with a charging moose, she admits.
“If you’re in the woods, it’s hard to see them,” she explains. “Moose can be really dangerous and want to see that you are running away. If you can’t actually get away fast you can hide behind a tree, which is what I did. They’re not very good at working out where you are.”
And wolves? “They are not going to attack you,” she says confidently. “The incidence of human attacks is so small. They’ll look at you. They are not going to run away straight away.”
Today we meet via Zoom, with Forrester at home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she is, like the rest of us, in lockdown but in good spirits – make-up free in a casual fleece, unwashed blonde hair scraped back in a scrunchy.
“I haven’t washed it because it’s covered in jojoba oil,” the former Robot Wars presenter reveals. “There’s a lot of deep cleansing going on in many different ways.”
Being an outdoorsy type, Forrester, 51, is in an ideal spot with plenty of open space for exercise, she observes.
“We are so lucky because I have the town square three blocks away on one side and the mountain one block away on the other. We can walk and still have way beyond safe distances.”
The move to the US was initially sparked by her fascination with wolves, which led her to take on a National Geographic assignment, relocating with her family to the wilds of Wyoming for a year while on the trail of these wild creatures in Yellowstone National Park.
During that time she not only witnessed wolves, but also met larger-than-life characters who spoke both for and against these much maligned creatures, including rangers, conservationists, trophy-hunters and ranch owners to find out why people love them and hate them. Her latest book, On The Trail Of Wolves, charts her adventures.
She and her family – she’s married to wildlife photographer Charlie Hamilton James and they have three sons – initially lived in a remote log cabin. There were only 13 other kids in her children’s school and the nearest pint of milk was almost 90 minutes’ drive away.
“My only issue was missing my friends, particularly at school. I had three kids in the same school in England. I knew everyone from practically every year. But the rest of it? I loved every minute of it.
“I love adventure, always have. I’m not very good with routine. There was also the extra joy of opening your child’s eyes to a new experience. And the people here are very welcoming and warm. It’s been easy to make friends,” she shares.
But how did her three children, Fred, Arthur and Gus – then 13, 10 and seven – cope with the move away from their pals?
“Well, because I brought a suitcase of Lego it was an easy transition,” she says, laughing. “I have travelled the world with Lego.”
They were able to remain in the US after the wolf assignment finished because her husband is considered to be ‘an alien with extraordinary abilities’, she reveals.
The biggest change from life in the UK has been the weather.
“It’s snow not rain. Every time you have a rain shower, we have a snow shower. In summer it’s hot. And we have lakes. It’s so beautiful and you can really get out hiking when the snow’s gone.”
She returns to the UK once a year, to see her parents and brother. And she misses the BBC, she admits.
“I miss the camaraderie we had. When you’re doing a live programme and are part of a
“I love adventure, always have. I’m not very good with routine”
big team, a good production is like a well-oiled machine, it’s so cool, I love it. You are bringing stuff into people’s living rooms and the BBC’S such a great community in that way.”
It’s been well documented how in 2016, her son Fred, then 15, was diagnosed with a brain tumour after he started struggling to concentrate at school and suffering severe exhaustion and blinding headaches.
When his condition deteriorated and their eye doctor recommended an MRI scan, they made the threehour drive from their isolated rural home to the hospital, after which the tumour was discovered. The teenager was flown to a children’s hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he underwent a four-hour operation to remove it.
“It was a slow grower, but when people lose their children it’s because they didn’t know – and that must be horrible. Early diagnosis is so important, which is why I came back to England and did some work with The Brain Tumour
Charity to campaign for early diagnosis of brain tumours,” says Forrester.
“He’s doing great now. He has to return to hospital every year for tests. We had monthly scans for a while, which was a bit more worrying, and it’s always in your head because you never really know, but the rate of recurrence of his type of tumour is really low. So I’m not too worried now. And because it’s a slow grower, we’d find it early.”
She admits she used to worry, though, when any of her children complained of a headache.
“My other son was getting headaches and I just whipped him into the same optician’s. The first thing he checked was his optic nerves and came straight back out and said, ‘You don’t need to worry’.”
It was an extremely traumatic experience, but she says she she feels blessed now.
“You feel really blessed, which is an odd thing to say when your son’s had a brain tumour. But we saw what other people were going through with their children and we got to walk out of the hospital with our boy. There’s something really humbling about that.
“Family is so important and I know it doesn’t last very long and they need their mum. It reinforced that for me. I was so grateful for all the time I’d had with them.”
She’s now working on a novel centred on wolves and hopes to teach presenting skills on a variety of platforms. Would she ever be tempted to return to the UK?
“I’m always open to it, but it’s not something I’ve really thought about,” Forrester reflects. “It would be tough and we often talk about it as a family, and I think we all suspect we’ll end up back in the UK, but when I don’t know.”