Trendsetter Jeff Corwin: TV Host, Animal Advocate, and Author
Emmy winner Jeff Corwin, 42, has crisscrossed the globe for Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, NBC, and the Travel Channel. His recent book, 100 Heartbeats (Rodale, 2009), focuses on species endangered by climate change, habitat loss, and poaching. In his new Food Network series, Extreme Cuisine With Jeff Corwin, he samples sustainable regional delicacies like Moroccan pigeon pie to show how food can bring cultures together. We interviewed him to get his thoughts about endangered species.
Q: How difficult was it to reach the endangered animals in 100 Heartbeats?
A: We had a 40-hour hell ride through a Sumatran jungle to find a home for orphaned orangutans, a treacherous 12-hour hike up a mountain in Panama to find a nearly extinct frog species, and two days of diving in belly-churning waters off South Africa to tag great white sharks. But moments of discovery outshone blisters and seasickness.
Q: Do you think we can save many of these species?
A: I'm optimistic. The American alligator, bald eagle, gray wolf, and California condor were almost driven to extinction, but now they're showing signs of recovery. Both of my favorite survivors, the black-footed ferret and the American red wolf, were declared extinct but are now living in the wild.
Q: How do you tell these stories without making people think it's too late?
A: I try to imagine the audience as my adventure companion and use authentic moments of humor, sadness, failure, success, and discovery to tell the story. If I thought things were hopeless, I'd be in another line of work.
Q: You write about conservationists who are working to save many of these animals. Who inspired you most?
A: It is hard to pick just one, but Edgardo Griffith is a young biologist and the director of Panama’s El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center. He’s fighting to save endangered amphibians – frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts, which have lived on our planet for 350 million years, survived five mass extinctions, are keystone species in the web of life, and are now disappearing at a dizzying rate. Today there are 6,000 species of amphibians, and in just the last two decades, nearly 200 of them have become extinct. Scientists predict that we’re likely to lose 3,000 more species within our lifetimes. Amphibians are canaries in the coal mine, telling us that our planet is in trouble.
Q: You brought home salamanders, snapping turtles, snakes, and other animals when you were growing up. Did your parents ever refuse to let any of them in the house?
A: All the time. My parents were really strict about it. Our family did a lot of wildlife rehabilitation, so they tried to make that the litmus test for keeping critters in the house. Turtles with broken shells, orphaned birds and raccoons, a snake that had been run over by a car – these were all temporary guests in our home. It was a very special time in my life, and those experiences inspire my work today.
Q: Now you’re a parent. What’s the best way to encourage a love of nature in kids and sustain it as they get older?
A: Get them outside! I firmly believe that we are hard-wired to be explorers. We’re suffering today from chronic nature-deficit disorder because there’s less opportunity to get kids outside to explore and discover. We need to cultivate tomorrow’s scientists and conservationists today.
Q: You're a conservationist, but judging from what you eat on your Food Network show, you're also an omnivore. Have you ever considered switching to a vegetarian diet?
A: I think vegetarianism can be a great lifestyle that is both ecologically responsible and healthy. My Food Network series, Extreme Cuisine, explores the role that food serves as the glue that binds culture and community. Many of the foods we feature are harvested through renewable and sustainable methods, and are produced and consumed locally. The show asks viewers to think beyond the refrigerator and supermarket, as if they woke up every day wondering where to get their next meal. As for my family, we do our best to consume and purchase locally produced foods. We’ve started growing our own veggies and harvesting from our shellfish beds. It tastes great, it’s fun for the kids, and it gets them outside in the mud and marsh.
--interview by Jennifer Weeks, via e-mail