Growing up and throwing the spotlight on others
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I interviewed Jeff Corwin in 2001 when he was experiencing his first wave of fame, thanks to the Animal Planet program, The Jeff Corwin Experience. In those days, Animal Planet was all about cultivating slightly irreverent hosts who bucked the sober tradition of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Corwin and Steve Irwin among them.
Corwin’s nature show reflected his personality. It was filled with impromptu skits and pop cultural references. But almost two decades later, the TV presenter and conservationist seems like a more serious guy than he was back then.
Corwin will give an Omnibus Lecture titled “Tales from the Field with Jeff Corwin” at Purdue Fort Wayne on April 17.
Building a bridge
While walking in a Massachusetts forest with his dogs, Corwin told me by phone that he has matured a lot in that time.
“What hasn’t changed is my enthusiasm for adventure, my love of exploration, and my passion for wildlife,” he said. “What has changed is that I am probably a little bit more patient. I am more mature in how I look at the world.”
Corwin said his job has always been to “build a bridge from the natural world to the human world” and that mission is more critical than ever.
“Since I began, I have observed profoundly negative changes when it comes to habitat and wildlife,” he said. “But I’ve also evolved because I am a dad to two daughters. As a conservationist and a naturalist, I have morphed from one who has a concern for the future of life on earth to one who has a concern for his children and who wonders if they will have a future with life on their earth.”
Corwin said we live in a world now where each of us is encouraged to stay inside boxes of our own making. We obsess over minutia while catastrophes loom outside our narrow field of vision.
“We are so distracted by these blips on our radar screen,” he said, “that we don’t see the bigger picture, that by not securing a healthier and more vibrant planet — that could be the nail in our extinction coffin.”
Saving the Planet
One of the chief crises on Corwin’s mind these days is plastic. Since 2011, Corwin has hosted ocean shows for ABC, so the health of our waters occupies much of his attention.
“We dump 10 billion pounds of plastic into our oceans every year,” he said. “I think about the 3,000 acres of rainforest that are removed from our planet every hour. I think about the unique species that go extinct every half-hour.”
Prominent scientists agree that roughly half the Earth’s animals have been lost in the last 50 years, Corwin said.
Until recently, our nation has been a leader in sustainability, conservation, and science and technology, he said.
“If you would have told me that in a five-year window we would step backwards from the light and into the dark ages of wildlife conservation and management, I would have been shocked,” Corwin said. “But we have done that as a nation.”
Ignoring the expert advice of scientists about the health of our natural world is like ignoring the advice of an oncology doctor, he said.
“The way we’re reacting to this news is like a lung cancer patient saying to his doctor, ‘OK, so what you’re saying is that I can cut back to a half a pack a day?’”
Conservation keeps going
Corwin doesn’t like to get political. He said both political parties have championed significant conservation legislation over the years.
Though the current administration doesn’t share the urgency that he feels about many of these predicaments, Corwin said non-governmental scientists continue to do amazing work.
“Despite all of this stuff, I am walking in the woods right now surrounded by deer and turkeys,” he said. “There were not deer and turkeys here a century ago. There are so many positive things to look upon. My mission in my shows has always been to inspire people to connect to the outdoors, to connect to nature, and to think about how stewardship fits into their lives.”
Corwin has been a wildlife educator and televised conservationist for roughly 25 years. Every day, he said, “a young woman or a young man comes up to me and says ‘I became a veterinarian,’ or, ‘I am a wildlife biologist because I was inspired by your work.’”
In his younger days, Corwin was not at all reluctant to place himself in physical danger if it would make for compelling television.
His reluctance has since increased.
“I am less eager in doing something that’s going to put me in a spinal injury ward in a hospital,” he said.
These days, he said he prefers to take the focus off himself and put it on people “who are on the frontline of conservation.”