"I've had magical moments observing animals"
TV presenter Liz Bonnin ventured into the jungle and rediscovered the love of her life - science. She tells Gabrielle Fagan how a tiger transformed her world and how she ran out of oxygen on a dive off the coast of NI
Few people can claim that coming face-to-face with a tiger changed their life. However, Liz Bonnin credits a big cat with getting her the job as presenter on some wildly popular wildlife and science programmes, including Autumnwatch, Springwatch and Stargazing Live.
Her close encounter in the jungle 12 years ago turned out to be the first of many fascinating experiences for the 39-year-old, who was most recently on screen with Chris Packham, battling it out on BBC show Cats v Dogs: Which Is Best?
"Cats rule," she says with a laugh. "They're far more fascinating than dogs as personalities and when they interact with you, it's more meaningful because it's so much on their terms."
Cat lover she may be - whatever size they are - but she's not confined herself to one species.
In fact, she's been lucky enough to communicate with an ape using sign language, gaze into the eyes of an elephant (which she felt was "intuitively checking me out") and tickle the tummies of grey whales.
"I've had so many magical moments observing animals, which have revealed to me how much we've underestimated the intelligence of many species and that we may have to reconsider whether they should be kept in captivity. Most significant for me personally was seeing my first tiger, Kunkutti, in 2003. She literally changed the course of my life," says Bonnin, the daughter of a Trinidadian mother and French father who grew up in Ireland.
Despite gaining a science degree, she initially followed a love of music and sung in Irish girl group Chill, before going into presenting roles, including Channel Four's morning show RI:SE and Top of the Pops.
"Although I was passionate about science right from being a young child, after university I just travelled a lot and sort of floated through a lot of my twenties, not being serious about getting my career together," she admits with a smile.
"I had faith that things would fall into place and when I saw Kunkutti, while working on a wildlife documentary in India, it all did. She re-ignited my science passion and I went back to school and eventually gained a Masters in Wild Animal Biology, specialising in tigers in Nepal."
Bonnin - who's backing EDF Energy's Pretty Curious programme, which hopes to encourage teenage girls to study science-based subjects at school or beyond - has been involved in science broadcasting for 10 years and, since 2013, presented ITV's Countrywise alongside Paul Heiney and Ben Fogle.
"The series has been so much fun, there's another one coming up this year, and it's given me the opportunity to find out more about wildlife in this country as, embarrassingly, when I joined the team I realised I knew far more about wildlife abroad.
"Wandering around the beautiful British countryside and meeting people who are dedicated to preserving our natural species has been a real privilege."
She's also worked on a wide range of documentaries, including Super Smart Animals, BBC One's Animals In Love and Big Blue Live.
"I've always had wanderlust and I can't believe how lucky I've been to travel the world, looking at nature and helping to show people the incredible things on our planet. Science has opened up so many opportunities for me and I hope I can show young girls that it can do the same for them and that far from being dry or dull, it's endlessly interesting and varied.
"While my real love is big cats, and I'm determined to study one of the most elusive cats on the planet - the snow leopard - I've recently learnt more about elephants and been blown away by their emotional intelligence.
"One female in Botswana is ingrained in my memory forever. She and I locked eyes for what seemed like an eternity and she reacted to my every tiny movement. These animals remember places they've only visited once, sometimes up to 40 years ago, and can find them again. Their mental capacity is awesome," she enthuses.
"Mammals like whales are just as fascinating. On location in Mexico, grey whales came up to our boat and presented their calves to us and supported them out of the water so that we could scratch their bellies - unbelievable! It would be wonderful if we could understand the complex social structure of whales.
"But truly one of the most surreal moments I've had was actually having a two-way conversation with a bonobo ape in America who was aware that as a visitor I could take him out in a car for a picnic. He signed to me requesting that and pointed out he'd need to wear a collar. It showed an incredible power of forward thinking."
Her life's not been without risk, though. She's had a rather too close encounter with a tiger which became enraged by the film crew's presence, on a dive off Northern Ireland in choppy seas a cameraman ran out of oxygen, and she braved a challenging journey plunging to oceanic depths in a tiny submersible craft.
"In exciting but precarious situations, you have to be fatalistic and accept that these sort of adventures involve risk and all you can do is try to minimise it and stay safe. I'm determined to explore as many places and species as I can in my lifetime.
"I know everyone can't do that and I realise it's all too easy for people to get bogged down in daily routines, but it still amazes me how many don't have much interest in the natural miracles that are out there, and the abundance of wildlife, often just on their doorsteps.
"Part of what I do is, I hope, to inspire people to get outside. They don't have to travel miles like I do, it can be just to a park or the countryside. If they do, I think they can regain a sort of wonderful childish curiosity. Out in the open, wherever it is, you find you breathe easier, get a smile on your face, enrich your life and, even better, you'll find out more about this incredible little rock, Earth, which is suspended in the vast universe."
Liz Bonnin is a role model for EDF Energy's Pretty Curious programme (aimed at encouraging teenage girls to study science-based subjects at school and beyond). Visit edfenergy.com/prettycurious/inspire