Back to top

American Wild

To counter extinction, wildlife spokesman Jeff Corwin ’02G invokes a legacy of conservation. 

Even getting to Jeff Corwin’s house is an adventure. The UMass Amherst alum lives on an island on Massachusetts’s South Shore that is reachable only during low tide. When the ocean withdraws, hissing, from the causeway, you may pass, rumbling up to a house replete with treasures from Corwin’s expeditions around the world. His kitchen island, lit by the sun sparkling off the surrounding water, is an ideal place for an inspiring conversation over fresh-pressed coffee.

A world-renowned producer and host of televised nature shows, Corwin always has a new project going in the form of a voyage, foray, or quest. His latest series, Ocean Treks with Jeff Corwin on ABC connects humans with the “wild natural” by inspiring viewers toward conservation-oriented travel. “It’s a new way of pushing yourself to explore,” he says. Corwin seeks to empower his viewers in a way that benefits them as well as the natural world: a theme all his projects share. 

Corwin has a long history as an expedition naturalist. In high school, he participated in the JASON project, founded by storied National Geographic explorer Robert D. “Bob” Ballard, and even raised his own money to accompany a herpetologist to Belize to study snakes. Yet his mission in life began even earlier. Growing up in urban Quincy, Massachusetts, Corwin reveled in his visits to his grandparents’ house in rural Middleborough, where he would “borrow” snakes and frogs and bring them home, building his own nature center of lean-tos out-side his parents’ triple-decker. 

As well as an inquisitive mind, Corwin had an emotional connection to nature. He recalls “being a young kid, six or seven years old, and watching someone kill a snake needlessly and being upset about that.” In fact, he admits, “I do what I do because of snakes. It’s like a lightning bolt that hit me when I was a kid. It was the first wild creature I ever saw. I remember seeing my first garter snake when I was in Middleborough—my hands were shaking and my heart was racing—I still get that way when I see a garter snake now!” 

As he was determining his life’s work, Corwin recognized that he had a talent for communication. Although he earned degrees in biology and anthropology from Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, he sensed that he would never be a “hard-core” field scientist. “However,” he confides, “I was suited to work with that scientist and tell his or her story to a bigger audience and make them as excited about it as I was.” So, Corwin decided to devote himself to bridging the gap of understanding between people and nature. 

Grinding coffee beans, he describes receiving the seeds for his vision, “I was thinking of all the shows that inspired me,” Corwin says. “The models of Marlin Perkins and David Attenborough, but for my time and my culture.” By conceiving viewers as his sidekicks, along with him on the journey, he knew he could engage them emotionally. 

Initially encountering resistance to his pitch for an innovative nature television show, Corwin dug down into his graduate work in fisheries and wildlife conservation at UMass Amherst. Then, finally, the time became ripe for his proposal, and it reached the right ears: the fledgling Disney Channel invited him to create a show. From that point on, his career has been a steady, momentous Land Rover ride to the Animal Planet show that made him a household name and beyond: collaborations with the Food Network (Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin), CNN (Planet in Peril, in which he reported on the black-market wildlife trade), and CBS, where he covered the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a field reporter who was “literally embedded . . . in oil.” With MSNBC and NBC, he produced a personalized view of extinction, Future Earth: 100 Heartbeats. A reliable expert, Corwin is regularly called upon by news outlets to comment on issues concerning wild animals. 

James P. Peterson

Corwin takes overcoming the barriers that separate us from nature as a personal challenge. After all, “You can’t love something if you don’t know what it is,” he says. One of his missions is to get families and kids connected to the outdoors. “The long-term impact of denying our children access to nature, having them imprisoned in technology, is that we are raising potentially a generation of Americans that have no connection to nature,” he says. “So, if you’re not connected to it, why would you care about it? And why would you want to protect it? I want kids out with their families exploring and discovering. Having that awareness builds the conduit of empathy.” 

To Corwin, building conduits and making imaginative connections are key to conservation success. For example: “Humans are unique in our foresight. We know that if we put a lot of pressure on a species that it’s going to pay the ultimate price. We can see that,” he asserts. “Our frailty is that we don’t exercise the muscles of our foresight. “We are cunning, problem-solving primates,” he continues, “and the by-product of that is consciousness. Consciousness also allows us to comprehend something that most animals don’t, which is death—you know that there will be a future and some-day you won’t be in that future—and that very awareness turns out to be our conundrum. We try to logically manage death.” 

Trying to dodge death mentally and culturally “puts us at odds with ourselves,” he says, because we lock ourselves out of fully imagining the consequences of our actions. Humans “don’t think that contemporary modern life forms, exquisitely evolved to meet the challenges of their ecosystems, can fall prey to extinction simply because of our negligence,” Corwin says. “Yet,” he points out, “we lose life all the time.” 

Corwin wants us to bring the fight against extinction home. One key to this fight in Massachusetts has been the timber rattlesnake. Corwin was an active champion of the controversial proposal (put on indefinite hold in the spring) to reintroduce the snake on a protected island in the Quabbin Reservoir. He focused an entire episode of his previous series Ocean Mysteries with JeffCorwin on this endangered, indigenous species. (The episode, “Snake, Rattle, and Roll,” features rattlesnake researcher Anne G. Stengle, a UMass Amherst PhD student in organismic and evolutionary biology.)

“It’s very easy to have a logical concern for tigers and elephants, or orangutans, because they are in trouble and need help,” says the world traveler. “But the timber rattlesnake in Massachusetts is this close to regional extinction. You could be living in western Massachusetts and you’re wringing your hands and you’re heartsick over polar bears, which you should be, but you have in your own backyard, where you are the steward, an iconic creature that was the symbol of freedom: 'Don’t Tread on Me.' It was a symbol of freedom for the movement which liberated our nation from tyranny, and it’s about to go away because of superstition and irrational fear; people won’t protect it. 

“Begin in your backyard,” he urges. His eyes point out the windows to his own backyard, the bay. “Your sense of regional stewardship becomes your stepping-stone to move forward in conservation.” If we want to make a difference, Corwin encourages us to be caretakers of our local wooded area, estuary, or park. 

Beginning at home is, in a way, an American birthright. Corwin invokes figures such as Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, John Muir, and President Theodore Roosevelt as the fathers and mothers of modern conservation. “Remember when I said we have this ability to look into the future, but we don’t always exercise it?” he asks. “Those are folks who exercised their foresight muscles”—by inspiring the creation of national parks, and of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Corwin points to the fact that many public lands were acquired in surprising ways—for instance, as the spoils of gambling matches between titans of industry in the Gilded Age. As unlikely as it may seem, these tycoons were pioneers who secured a future for wildlife. Corwin asserts: “Remember that this was happening during the time of westward expansion, when the bison almost disappeared, elk were crushed, and the wolves were gone. Yet, through the use of science and practicality, we were able to restore these creatures in these wild places. All of these iconic creatures—grizzly bears, elk, wolves—are back. Still controversial, but they’re back. That type of thinking began with those people.” 

James P. Peterson

The archetype of American wild, for Corwin, is Alaska. Since first documenting the northernmost state for the Travel Channel, he now returns as often as he can. For him, Alaska is a “wild nirvana” where he can ride dogsleds with Iditarod racers, search for giant Pacific octopuses in Prince William Sound, and explore jewel-like glacial ice caves dating to the Pleistocene. “It’s one of the last great wild frontiers,” he says. “You could quite literally get off the road, walk in the woods, and get eaten by something. There are few places where that could still happen.” 

Corwin describes the circle of life running in its pure circuit in this wild place: “You can step off the grid into a river system in which you might be the only nonnative person to have ever walked. You can watch a splendid wild phenomenon unfold that has happened there for tens of thousands of years—the fish that have been in the open water for five to seven years smelling their way to the exact stream where they were born, changing from salt water animals to freshwater animals, going home to die to bring new life into the world. As these thousands upon thousands of salmon spawn, the nutrients from their bodies get fed into that river system, and that’s what blows the blueberries up in the trees, what feeds the bears—it gives this incredible energy injection into the ecosystem. You know that what you are seeing would have looked the same a century ago.”

Since Corwin’s high school trip to Belize first ignited his passion for ecosystems—“the moment when I stepped into a rain forest, it all made sense to me. I could look at it, peel it back like an onion, and understand how it worked”— traveling around the world has deepened his insight, granting him a mature awareness of the impact humans are having on wild places and wild species. Corwin speaks of environmental change, such as receding Arctic ice, as an eyewitness; yet vibrant scenes, such as the salmon creek, give him cautious hope for the resilience of nature. “You’re witnessing a time-tested moment that’s still happening, despite the pressure.” 

As long as there is human participation and cooperation, Corwin says, there is cause for optimism. However, his exasperation at partisan deadlock in regard to public lands and wildlife is palpable. “The monster of politics has blinded us to our responsibility for good stewardship. We get so caught up in the entangled understory of our avarice right now that we don’t see nature.” Invoking the history of American conservation, of which he has been an ardent student, Corwin urges us to relate across party lines. “The EPA and the Endangered Species Act were created by Republican politicians!” he exclaims. “Polarization blocks common connections and practicality,” Corwin states bluntly. “We need to listen to our better angels and be human again in how we interact with each other. That’s how we did it historically. 

“We are facing the industrialized slaughter of our natural heritage,” he continues with urgency. “If we don’t sustainably manage that, we are going to be in a lot of trouble. Our children are the ones who are going to rely on this healthy, balanced, robust American wild splendor.”

Photos by James P. Peterson