With over 17 million subscribers and 3 billion views, YouTuber Coyote Peterson has recaptured the charm of wildlife contemporaries like Steve Irwin and Les Stroud. He’s stepped inside a volcano, gotten his hand stung by painful insects, and swum with giant stingrays.
Back when he studied film in college, Peterson never intended to be in front of the camera. But when a childhood interest and an opportunity to start a YouTube channel came together, that was the beginning of Brave Wilderness.
Recently, I sat down with Peterson. And together, we discussed his journey and how he leverages his channel to educate his audience and forward conservation efforts.
Coyote Peterson found inspiration early on
Growing up in Ohio, Peterson watched a lot of Animal Planet. But more importantly, he watched wetlands near his home dug up by backhoes and bulldozers. He recalls how the city removed animals out of their habitat to make room for construction and housing development.
After seeing the excesses of human encroachment at a young age, Peterson internalized the idea that educational activism should start early; children, after all, will be at the forefront of conservation efforts in the future.
“While a lot of conservation efforts that I am involved in aren’t necessarily frontlines… I believe a big part of conservation is going to happen in the future by influencing the next generation of animal enthusiasts,” Peterson tells me.
“We try to introduce people to animals for the first time, maybe open them up the world to things that they were afraid of or didn’t understand.”
Coyote Peterson and his educational approach to wildlife conservation
But getting people to open up to “things that they were afraid of or didn’t understand” is no easy feat, especially because Peterson wants to make wildlife education accessible to all.
That principle is largely responsible for Peterson’s policy of not swearing during his show—even if he’s being stung by ants or writhing on the ground in pain. He believes environmental change starts with raising awareness—and in order for it to actually be impactful, the program needs to be accessible to all ages.
The flashy titles, the over-the-top thumbnails, are effective in drawing audience members in; his entertaining interactions with animals help bring conservation to casual viewers who do not come from a science background.
A lot of news surrounding conservation and environmental policy can seem intimidating; the hard statistics, the sheer scale of damage, the academic jargon, can debilitate everyday viewer. While Peterson stresses the immense importance of scientific research in his videos, he believes that wildlife edutainment plays a crucial role in making environmental action seem tangible for anyone to accomplish.
“I don’t think you’re ever too young to start learning about environmental science,” Peterson tells me. “I mean, anybody as soon as they’re old enough to walk should be learning about recycling, not stepping on bugs, or killing animals because of the importance that they serve for our environment.”
How the catchy headlines fit into the educational mission
So while it is easy to write off his more extreme stunts as just that, every video has an educational purpose. Peterson sees his stunts as part of a “cycle” of education: you scroll through Youtube, click to see a guy hold a snapping turtle, or swim with manatees, and you end up learning about ocean conservation.
“The earlier we learn about the basics, the better,” Peterson tells me. “That’s why in some instances, our content is so, you know, appropriate for kids because they’re learning those basics. If you want to bring kids that sustainable education at a young age, YouTube is the vehicle for making that happen.”
What can the viewer do at home?
Viewers often ask: “how do I get involved?” As a self-taught wildlife expert, Peterson stresses the importance of hands-on experience.
The pandemic has especially thrown a wrench in conservation efforts, but Peterson believes this should not stop viewers from supporting local environmental organizations.
He states the pandemic has made it hard for rehabilitation organizations to keep up with the necessary resources to take care of their animals; to help, he especially stresses getting (safely) involved with your local park or your local wildlife rehabilitation center, given how important Ohio’s metro parks were for his environmental education.
For example, his video “How to Build a Worm Farm!” in contrast to videos set in far away barrier reefs or remote landmarks; he takes the viewer to a park near his home: Columbus, OH, Prairie Oaks Metro Park. Then, he shows the viewer how to catch their own worms; he also explains how to re-pot the now nutrient-rich soil from the worm farm into their own gardens.
“Your own backyard can be a great adventure onto its own,” Peterson tells me.
“A lot of the local parks and a lot of cities are still open so people getting outside practicing say social distancing is obviously always encouraged but sometimes taking your imagination on an adventure can be enough.
To keep people learning at home, Peterson has also recently partnered with Varsity Tutor. As a part of the partnership, Peterson will create virtual classes on the science behind many of his popular videos. His first video, titled “YEOWW!: The Science of Bites and Stings,” promises a more behind-the-scenes look at the research that goes into his channel.
What does Brave Wilderness have planned?
Currently, Coyote Peterson is working on on a conservation initiative titled the “Rhino Conservation Challenge.” He is teaming with Global Conservation Force to launch a fundraising campaign located in the South-African Kariega Game Reserve.
The person who raises the most funds will join Peterson in an episode of Brave Wilderness. In it, Peterson teaches viewers more about the preserve—and what on-site conservation rangers are doing to protect the habitat.
“It’s all about taking the resources that you have at hand, utilizing that to their fullest extent to bring education to people so they can listen, absorb, and learn,” Peterson says.
“We have the tools to bring that to people. We owe that to people; it’s a responsibility and we’re very proud and happy to do it we enjoy it. That’s what makes our job so satisfying.”
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Jessica is a writer based in NYC, with bylines at Vox and EGMNOW. You can pitch her stories at jessica [at] therising.co