Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Animal Planet star speaks at UMass


The first snake Jeff Corwin ever caught bit him.

The naturalist and popular television show host was 6 years old and had spied his first snake, coiled up on a log next to his grandparents’ woodpile. As he watched the startled snake slither into the woodpile, he knew he had to catch it.

He ripped apart the woodpile and as soon as the snake came back into view, reached down and grabbed him.

That was when the snake – later  to be named Billy – bit him.

“I ran into the house and there it was, this big snake hanging onto my arm,” Corwin told a crowded auditorium. “My grandmother looked at me and said get rid of it.”

But at that point, Corwin, a University of Massachusetts alumnus, was hooked.

“I told her ‘no, I’m not going to get rid of it,’” he said. “Dead silence … then my grandmother asked ‘why?’ Because I love it.”

The snake was pried off of his arm, and released back to the woodshed pile, where it lived for the next two years under Corwin’s observation.

“That was the lightning bolt that set me on my journey,” said Corwin, during his lecture “Tales from the Field” yesterday in the Student Union Ballroom.

After spending years watching the snake – learning about predation, mating habits (when the snake’s name changed from Billy to Gladys), and how snakes shed their skin – Corwin watched the snake die.

His neighbor sliced the snake in half using a garden spade.

That snake not only turned Corwin into a naturalist, but also a conservationist.

“I was very, very upset ,” said Corwin. “At that point, I became a conservationist and I realized that good people could make bad decisions because they lack information.”

Corwin has been producing nature television shows for 17 years. His first show, the “JASON Project” sponsored by National Geographic, aired in 1994. He went on to shoot a series for Animal Planet, the Travel Channel, MSNBC and most recently ABC, where he is working on the Saturday morning show “Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin.”

He is most well-known for his show, “The Jeff Corwin Experience,” which he worked on as the host and executive producer.

“For me, it’s always been about sharing nature,” he said.

But during yesterday’s lecture – which was sponsored by the University Programming Council – Corwin expressed concern over the ability for people to share nature in the future.

“I think we live in the age of the perfect extinction storm,” said Corwin. He continued to say we are losing more species than we did during the last great extinction when an asteroid hit the earth, wiping out the dinosaurs.

He cited four causes for the extinction: habitat loss, climate change, pollution and unsustainable exploitation of species.

While Corwin painted a dim picture, saying that he believes white rhino populations will be extinct within a year, it wasn’t a hopeless one.

“We have looked at many examples in nature where literally you saw the flat line and basically someone was going to call the species extinct and we were able, sometimes through herculean efforts, to bring them back,” he said.

Corwin discussed some serious points during his hour and a half lecture, which was so crowded that students sat on the floor and others were turned away.  But he devoted most of his time to stories about some of his best and worst interaction with nature’s creatures, most notably, snakes, elephants and his daughters, Maya and Marina.

“If there is a creature that has been there at my best moments and my worst moments … it was probably an elephant,” said Corwin. “I have covered them in many different ways and they have covered me in many different things.”

The first time Corwin came across an elephant, much like his first snake, it attacked him.

An angry hormonal bull, the elephant chased both Corwin and his camera crew around knocking over trees in its wake. The next time went only slightly better, as the elephants surrounded him and his crew, herding them for over an hour.

But the next time he worked with elephants, he was covering how a community in Indonesia took care of orphan elephants by spending the night sleeping with them, a gesture which caused survival to increase to 90 percent.

“This episode we were going to have the ultimate slumber party, we were going to sleep with this elephant,” said Corwin. “I remember I was so excited.”

“The elephant goes to sleep and an hour later, I am feeling conflicted,” he said. “Half of me is amazed to be being spooned by the elephant and the other half of me had a complete stroke from being spooned from a 350-pound elephant.”

Neither the elephant nor Corwin slept through the night. The elephant had a “nightmare” causing it to kick Corwin waking both of them up. Once the elephant calmed down, it wrapped Corwin’s hair around its trunk, before it fell back asleep.

Years later, his infant daughter Maya, made the exact same motion, wrapping his hair around her fingers. It was in this moment that Corwin’s current environmental policy clicked.

“We don’t inherit the world from our ancestors,” Corwin said. “We borrow it from our children.”

Katie Landeck can be reached at [email protected]


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