Jeff Corwin has joined the pantheon of wildlife and conservation TV celebrities that over generations has included Jacques Cousteau, Marlin Perkins, Steve Irwin and Jack Hanna by tapping into a passion that goes back to growing up in inner-city Boston during the 1970s.
Corwin’s resume includes Disney Channel’s “Going Wild With Jeff Corwin,” Animal Planet’s “Jeff Corwin Experience,” Food Network’s “Extreme Cuisine” and, currently, ABC’s “Ocean Treks With Jeff Corwin,” airing on Saturday mornings.
His success is remarkable considering that he grew up in a tiny apartment in Boston where, he notes, “There wasn’t a lot of nature around me.”
“The job I have today — the job that allows me to travel around the world to work with top conservationists and have amazing, bucket list moments — began when my dad, a Boston police officer, would drop me off at the Franklin Park Zoo,” recalls Corwin, who will be among the featured presenters Saturday and Sunday at the Gaillard Center for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition.
Corwin described the first time he was left at the zoo as being like “a lightning bolt.”
“If (my Dad) had given me a golf club or guitar, my life may have been different. But it was wildlife. Those experiences at the zoo fired me up to what I have done since then.”
For that reason, Corwin is a big supporter of accredited, well-managed zoos and aquariums, noting specifically the quality work by the South Carolina Aquarium.
“I’ve been to bad zoos, especially in Third World countries. There’s nothing more depressing than a sad zoo, but there’s nothing more magical than a great zoo or aquarium with a great message. There are always controversies. Stuff happens. We need to learn from those mistakes. I think zoos are very, very important places.”
Corwin adds that some of the top urban zoos in the United States, specifically pointing to Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, New York City’s Bronx, Cincinnati and Houston, also serve a major role in conservation among some of the most disenfranchised and disadvantaged people in the nation.
As it was for him living in a big city, urban zoos are a place that help many people connect with nature who otherwise would have little to no chance to do so.
“There are people today who are scientists on the front lines of conservation and their conservation journey began when growing up in the Bronx and going to the Bronx zoo,” says Corwin. He adds that zoos also provide places for scientists to perform research and opportunities to restore endangered animals to the wild.
“Maybe someday we’ll live a world where we don’t need zoos. Maybe someday we’ll live in a world where we won’t need Lipitor or police officers, but we live in a world where zoos are critical in making the nature connection for kids and families,” says Corwin.
That connection is even more important today as biologists say that the Earth is currently experiencing its sixth “mass extinction” event, defined as losing 75 percent or more of its species, over its 500-million-year history.
Among the factors in the extinction event is the impact of climate change, accelerated by human activities.
“I’ve experienced climate change firsthand, from Alaska to the tropics,” says Corwin, noting that Charleston faces challenges from it. “Climate change is not hypothetical. ... This is stuff that is validated by the top scientists on the planet. Our U.S. military recognizes the impact of climate change on global stability.”
And he is concerned that progress on climate change and protection of natural resources may be stalled or rolled back on a federal level.
“I’m going to try to be positive,” says Corwin. “I have reached out to this (President Donald Trump’s) administration directly and I wanted to engage them in a positive manner to find out how I can help them as someone who has a strong comprehension of our country’s natural resources successes, challenges and opportunities.”
Corwin says that natural resources need to be harnessed “in a way that we don’t punish the next generation.”
“We don’t inherit natural resources from our ancestors. We borrow them from our children,” says Corwin, underscoring that not protecting the environment has social consequences.
“As someone who has traveled around the world, I can tell you firsthand that if you go someplace with a broken environment, you’ll also find that social issues — the quality of life for people, the value of women, children, families and animals — is equally broken. Life spans are shorter. Life has little value. You often find that foisted on a place where the environment is compromised.”
Another challenge, Corwin says, is making sure future generations understand this.
He worries that society’s growing addiction to technology, from ever-present cellphones to a nonstop stream of social media, is separating kids from nature.
“We can use social media and this incredible technology. Sometimes it’s a great tool but sometimes it’s a drug. I think it’s incredibly dangerous. A good scientist or member of society often starts with a kid rolling over a log looking for salamanders, or a butterfly net or fishing rod, or climbing a tree and falling from that tree ... bruises, Band-Aids and dirt under your nails.”