Jeff Corwin

Jeff Corwin, the well-known conservation biologist and television personality, visited UT on Monday to present a program called “Tales from the Field.” As a fellow biologist, I had been looking forward to Corwin’s talk. I have a broad admiration for people who promote a conservationist message to a general audience, especially since I believe that the key to the protection of the natural world is to teach people why they should care about a rapidly disappearing wilderness.

But that’s not what Corwin delivered. In fact, he seemed to offer up his thoughts on everything but.

What struck me first was how poor Corwin’s public speaking abilities were. Not only did he engage in meandering, all-encompassing monologues, but he also peppered them with obnoxious jokes and stunts, as when he yanked a marine toad out of a small plastic bin and tossed it into an audience member’s hands.

I quickly realized that instead of an educational program, this was a circus act — a comedy show with live animals.

Of particular importance to me, as a herpetologist, is the public’s image of reptiles and amphibians. Though archaic, the public perception of these fascinating animals is still often relegated to visions of slime, scales and creepy-crawling. In fact, this is a very real issue among conservation biologists: Some animals are perceived by the public as being more important, more relatable or more valuable than others. In other words, why protect a nematode worm when you can protect a giant panda instead? The answer is that all species are vital to ecosystem health, no matter their appearance.

Jeff Corwin has long been a fan of herps — reptiles and amphibians — and features them prominently in his programming; in fact, all the animals he brought that day were herps. A giant alligator snapping turtle was poked in the side repeatedly to display its sizable jaws; an alligator, writhing, was thrust into volunteers’ arms. As audience members held each animal, Corwin spurted a few comments related to the life history of the animals on display. But again, he perpetuated the negative stereotypes against the creatures by emphasizing their power to kill, even going so far as to mention alligators and boas consuming humans if given the opportunity (which happens extraordinarily rarely, if at all). All his points encouraged a fearful mindset of these animals, not exactly what you would expect from someone whose supposed purpose is to convince you of their worthiness for preservation.

Finally, the question period arrived.  About half of the questions were typically ones you would expect a TV host to be asked, questions like, “What is your favorite animal?”  Others were really good. For instance, an audience member asked about Corwin’s opinion on conservation efforts directed at Tasmanian devils. Instead of answering the question, however, Corwin engaged in a rambling discourse about the life history of these animals and how neat they are; he made no mention at all of conservation efforts.

His responses to other questions didn’t make up for this. A colleague of mine asked whether the hands-on approach Corwin employs in these programs is the most effective way to communicate with the public. His response, with no justification whatsoever, was: “I have found that, yes, it is.”

A female first-year graduate student asked if he had any advice for young scientists looking to engage the general public in wildlife conservation. Corwin’s response was a drawn-out argument to support the notion that women in science were rapidly overtaking the field.

Other interesting questions arose, such as, “Why has the Animal Planet network [which supports Corwin’s shows] changed over the years, and begun displaying less educational content?” The response from Corwin was a comment on how helpful an extinction of the Kardashians would be, which led to a listing of his favorite TV shows.

How he thought that his answers were in any way related to the questions asked was beyond me. At best, his responses were tangential and incoherent, constantly avoiding the topic of conservation. At worst, his behavior and treatment of animals seemed to actually damage the preservationist cause.

It eventually became clear that the questions Corwin was most enthusiastic to answer had nothing to do with the conservationist image he promotes on screen. On television, he prides himself on being a champion of the natural world, but nothing he did during those two hours I spent watching him did anything to convince me of this. What’s more, it seems that his talk did not teach much of anything to the audience other than to fear these creatures with reasons that were now justified.

And this, for me, was the most frustrating aspect of all. Most of the people who made up the audience were people who believe the messages Corwin is conveying. These are also the people who care about the fate of the natural world, and can make a difference.

Corwin urged the audience to get children off couches, to stop encouraging a culture disconnected from the natural world. Of course, I agreed. But again, Corwin completely overlooked the most critical element of this entire conversation – he failed to ask why. Why does it matter?  Why should we care? 

Conservation is, ultimately, about respect – a respect for the natural world and the recognition that we have a duty to protect it. If Corwin’s program taught me anything, it’s that there is a need now more than ever for public education on wildlife conservation, but that it cannot keep taking this form. Education programs should not induce fear of the very animals we are trying to protect, and must instead be informative and clear. If we can achieve this while the cameras are rolling, fine – but let us take care not to let it slip when the show’s over.

Chambers is an integrative biology graduate student from Toronto.