YouTube star Nathaniel Peterson, who has lately parlayed his billions of video views into a hosting gig for Animal Planet, has a simple message about education in the age of coronavirus — or any age, for that matter.
“You never know how you’re going to inspire someone,” said the 38-year-old. “Also, if you lick a poison frog, you better believe people are going to click on it.”
Best known as Coyote Peterson to the 17.1 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, Brave Wilderness, the Westerville, Ohio-based personality is a cross between animal-toting talk show favorite Jack Hanna and a freelance digital influencer. His videos, some of which double as advertisements for various sponsors, combine naturalist, conservationist messages with wild stunts that vividly test his pain tolerance.
He’s been bitten and stung by snapping turtles, “murder hornets,” pythons and bullet ants for the sake of entertainment. But he’s also introduced countless children to the differences between warrior and executioner wasps, for example, while teaching them to be curious and careful outdoors.
In advance of his latest, free Varsity Tutors session at 1:30 p.m. on June 30 (visit bit.ly/2BeGCMf to enroll), as well as a recent trip to Colorado — where he came face-to-face with a gray wolf for the first time — we chatted with Peterson on Zoom last week about the rewards, (minor) backlash and landmarks on his very-21st century road to stardom.
Q: Let’s talk first about Varsity Tutors. The company has about 6,000 kids in the state already signed up for their virtual summer camps, and for the last couple weeks you’re leading its all-ages “Wildlife Creature Camp.” Is your approach for that any different than for YouTube or your Animal Planet show (“Brave the Wild”)?
A: It’s always weird to have to talk to a little camera with no audience or live feedback. Yesterday (June 23, the date of the first Varsity Tutors session) I talked for almost 40 minutes straight. I’m pretty used to talking as part of my job, but it’s a really strange thing to have no back and forth, even with a cameraman. I’m like, “Is this thing landing? Is it coming through?”
Q: What does your celebrity brings to these online classes?
A: Well, I always jump at the opportunity to do anything educational, and (even more) in a time like this when a lot of families are stuck in quarantine and looking for things to help fill the middle of their days. Unfortunately, this year a lot of kids can’t attend their summer camps, so this virtual one was a cool concept.
Q: Do you have kids of your own?
A: I have a 12-year-old daughter and she’s at that weird state where her friends know who I am, so it’s difficult to get her to tune into anything I do! But she secretly loves the outdoor and animals, and we’ve got a family house up in the Erie Islands around Little Bass and North Bass (islands). We were just up there this weekend and spent the whole time exploring for frogs and snakes and turtles.
Q: You often catch wild animals and insects, then stimulate them to bite or sting you for your videos and shows. Have you seen much backlash from that?
A: It’s a great question. I’m very thankful to say we receive very little negative feedback when it comes from the way we enter into environments and get hands-on with animals. We’ll hear, “Do you really have to catch that turtle or pick up the snake?” No, you don’t. But these animals aren’t being injured in any way whatsoever. They might get stressed, but I’m not getting clawed or bitten when I’m handling them.
They usually just sit there and wait for their chance to make an escape. The thing is, those animals are such important ambassadors for their species. Getting up-close with them gives kids a window into nature they’re not getting otherwise.
Q: Where does the educational part come in?
A: In many ways, what we need to teach people is that this isn’t something you need to be afraid of when you see it in the wild. These animals aren’t going out their way to get close to you. So let me get hands-on and tell you what to do, and what not to do, when you come across these things. When it comes to that fine line between education and entertainment — my background is screenwriting, producing and directing — I know how to tell a story. You have to have an entertaining story or else people do not pay attention.
Q: What’s a good, recent example?
A: We have an episode coming up in a couple weeks called “Poison Frog Taste Test,” where I caught a pickerel frog and a leopard frog. These little grass frogs are very fast jumpers, but there’s an old herpetologist’s trick you can use to tell them apart where actually lick the two frogs. The poisonous one has a bitter taste, whereas the other one tastes like slime.
A lot of people will look at this as being completely absurd. But if I were to just out to go make an episode where I talk about the differences, nobody would care. Now, if you’re going to lick it? You’d better believe those views add up. And then when (viewers) walk away, they realize they got an education about two frogs they knew nothing about.
Q: When was the last time you visited Colorado?
A: There’s actually a major initiative I’m involved in right now that took me to Colorado to film an incredibly important series of episodes about the gray wolves there. I worked with the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Divide, which was a beautiful location with phenomenal people running that sanctuary. They’re teaming up with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and spearheading (Colorado ballot proposal 107), which you can vote on in November and which brings gray wolves back to the western slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
Q: What do those episodes involve?
A: We did a really powerful conservation piece on gray wolves where I got to meet a gray wolf face-to-face for the first time. We also got to feed a pack of gray wolves a frozen mule deer carcass. But the episode is centered around the misunderstanding people have with wolves. They’ve been so vilified, so we need to understand and accept where these predators really belong.
Q: Ranchers whose livestock have been eaten by reintroduced wolves may have something to say about that.
A: I totally understand where certain ranchers are coming from. But you have more livestock that are dying every year from malnourishment or stepping in groundhog, badger and prairie dog burrows than are getting killed by any large canid predators.
The solution comes from proper balancing and safe farming because these wolves act as population control for species that may otherwise (overburden) their environments. That and the areas these animals are released in are super distant from most population centers. So I hope these episodes help show how Colorado wolves can get back out into the wild, and how that’s a good thing.
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