The Interview: Coyote Peterson

“The bullet ant felt around with its stinger and, boom! It just nailed my forearm. Its stinger was so long it got lodged into my arm, and we got this all on camera. I dropped to the ground. The amount of venom that went into my arm was easily three times the amount a person would normally take in a sting. It felt like it got smashed by a scalding hot hammer. I was on the ground in agony. I don’t remember a whole lot of it. I just remember, “OK, try to compose yourself so you can give the audience … a description of what’s going on right now.”

If there’s any way to properly introduce Coyote Peterson to the uninitiated, the above description of his latest dance with danger in the Costa Rican jungle should suffice. The OSU alumnus and YouTube sensation has made a name for himself by venturing to exotic locales and getting wildly intimate with toxin-bearing creatures that most of us have never heard of. (614) wanted to catch up with him in the midst of his meteoric rise to Internet fame, and decided I was the right person for the job. With a background in animal behavior, and several years experience working with venomous arthropods (colloquial moniker: “bugs”), I have extensive training in how not to get stung. With Coyote Peterson, that pendulum has swung the other way. As a child, Peterson’s mother took him on lengthy and nomadic vacations across the country, allowing him to independently explore the places they set up camp. He would follow around roadrunners, as he found they would lead him to horned lizards. This tendency earned him his wily, canid title. Those days in the desert cast a mold for Peterson’s fearlessness and desire to interact with the wild. He studied film at Ohio State and wrote screenplays, while never losing his love for the wild. Eventually, he hit a crossroads where his enthusiasm and self-taught animal handling skills would collide with his production team’s collective desire to produce original content. Soon, their YouTube channel was launched. After only two years, Brave Wilderness is one of the all-time fastest growing channels on YouTube. It boasts five million subscribers and gets 2.5 to 5 million daily views. Its most popular video, in which Peterson is stung by a cow killer wasp (widely believed to be the second most painful sting on the planet), has well over 26 million views. He expects the aforementioned footage of the bullet ant (deemed the single most painful sting in the animal kingdom) to blow that out of the water when it’s released this month.

With names like “Wolverine Face Off” and “Yikes! Quilled by a Porcupine!”, the dozens of videos on the channel beg incredulity. As such, I expected this interview to go off the rails, trying to corral what I figured would be a yahoo seeking to shock and dismay, using animals as unwitting participants in his sting shoots. I presented him with my personal list of field-tested “Rules for Working with Wild Animals.” To my utter delight and surprise, the person that spoke to me on a long-distance phone call from a jungle-adjacent hotel in Costa Rica was a genuine and composed animal lover. His childlike excitement burst through the fuzzy phone line in an unmistakable implicit message: he’s fighting the good fight in the name of nature.

Rule No. 1: Roll with the Punches (or Scratches, Bites, Stings…)

You gotta roll with everything, and just hope you can walk away from it. When we were in Arizona, we were shooting and I was jumping boulder to boulder. I slipped and fell 15 feet off the side of a cliff onto my head. I could have killed myself and managed to miraculously stand up and walk away from it.

We’ve covered the bullet ant and the cow killer stings. You have a video where you allowed a Dungeness crab to crush your index finger in its claws. How much of this is for science, and how much of it is sensationalism?

The ultimate goal of the sting videos is not their shock value. Obviously, they draw people to our channel. It’s about getting education out about the animals that a lot of people fear. So, if I’m stung by a scorpion, and you see me walk away—OK, you may be less likely to kill it, and just respect it from a safe distance. Now with something like the [cow killer] or the bullet ant, these are animals that are known for the power of their sting. And our real goal with a lot of this is to give people the opportunity to see how bad the effects can be of taking a sting. The one that actually was the scariest was the Tarantula Hawk. That thing was just wicked looking.

Obviously you are a very adventurous person, you’re willing to put yourself in risky situations. What’s outside your comfort zone?

I’m really not afraid of anything when it comes to animals. My ultimate goal is to one day be able to swim alongside a great white shark. No cage—just free swim along with a great white shark, just to see what happens. There isn’t anything in the natural world that scares me. Honestly, humans scare me more than animals do. Control is a tough one to define. You have to look at it from the animal’s perspective. You come in as an invader and you need to get this scene, but you still need to realize that these animals are very powerful. Take a 300-pound alligator, for example: if it chooses to, it can explode outward. If you’re not prepared to restrain that, you’re going to find yourself in a very bad situation. And sometimes there are more dangerous things about the environment than the animals. We got stuck in a massive rainstorm in the rain forest and we were stuck in a canyon. It went from being a trickle of water to thigh deep water rushing through; trees are falling down in the jungle, rocks are falling down the sides of the canyons. That’s what’s gonna kill you.

The transition from your film studies background to your current field has been well documented. Being that you do not have a scientific background, how do you ensure that you are producing a scientifically literate and accurate show?

I do a lot of research before we go on these trips. [Biologist] Mario [Aldecoa] and I work very closely together. We may target 15 species we have a good chance of coming across. We double-check all of our facts before an episode is released. We always have a biologist that travels with us, and also a ground expert. In Costa Rica, we’re working with both a herpetologist and an entomologist. So, someone who knows about reptiles and amphibians, and someone who know about insects and arachnids. They rattle off (something about a creature), and I’m like, “That’s way too much for people to understand; give me three basic facts,” and that’s how we’ve found a way to bring cool science to a platform like YouTube, where everybody has Attention Deficit Disorder. And we’re keeping them captivated.

I read in a previous interview that your entire team is Columbus based. Is that still true?

Oh yeah. I’m sitting here next to our wildlife biologist right now, Mario Aldecoa, from Florida. We are in the process of relocating Mario to Columbus, so our whole team is Columbus-bound. My business partner, Mark Laivins; my producing team, Chance Ross and Chris Kost; we are all Columbus-based and we’ve all been friends for over a decade now. We love everything the city has to offer, and for us it’s just a really great place to be an artist and an independent filmmaker and content creator. When I first started, people asked “how are you going to make a career out of a city that is not Hollywood?” And sure enough, YouTube came along, and we started developing this animal show and now we receive more views daily than pretty much any television show that’s out there. We’re really proud to know that we’re creating this international phenomenon about the wilderness, and it’s coming from right here at home.

What’s an ideal day for you in Columbus?

I’m from Westerville. I have an eight-year-old daughter, and we love to spend time at Columbus MetroParks. Blendon Woods and Blacklick Woods are my favorite go-to spots for taking media people. I’ve researched the snapping turtles that live there. My ideal day in Columbus is in the spring—the buds are just coming in on the trees, birds are out, weather’s changing, everybody’s excited because Spring in Columbus is absolutely perfect. I’d head out to Blendon Woods, go out in my kayak, catch a couple snapping turtles, get lunch in uptown Westerville, then head into the office for a little bit and do some work on post-production and voice-overs. Then pick up my daughter from school, and up to the Polaris area for dinner.

Tell us a story of a recent shoot where something went unexpectedly.

We were out with HBO’s Vice News crew. We had them for three days on location. We had taken them out to look for frogs, like “oh, this is safe, we can have the reporter hold a little frog.” We were in Costa Rica for three weeks searching for a highly venomous snake called a Fer-de-lance earlier this year, and couldn’t find it. We were back and looking for a frog, and sure enough, there in the leaf litter was a four-foot Fer-de-lance. So, this episode just became about filming this snake. They had a camera man, a producer, and a host. Then we’ve got my team, plus our wildlife specialists from on location, and we had another team that we hired to hold the lights for us. So we’re deep in the rainforest, it’s muddy, dark, there are other creatures who could potentially bite or sting you, and here I am handling the most dangerous viper in the Western hemisphere. And the host was terrified of snakes, so it became a really intense situation for her. Bystanders are the first thing I’m worried about. If someone else is bitten, that’s a major liability. Everybody else’s safety is priority number one, and then your own. With a snake like that, I handle it with what are called snake tongs. A bite from that snake could take my life. We ended up getting a really good episode out of it.

I’m sure you’re aware of the incident that happened a few years back in Zanesville, when an entire private collection of large exotic animals were released from a farm and subsequently destroyed. This was quickly followed by creation of the laws on exotic animal ownership in Ohio (there previously were very few regulations.) What are your thoughts on private ownership of exotic animals?

I think if someone has the means to be able to keep and take care of animals, it works when someone is rescuing them. It amazes me sometimes to think that someone can go and buy a tiger cub. Now, if you are a big cat rescue facility and you are taking in a displaced animal, that’s one thing. But if you are able to go into a shady auction somewhere and purchase a leopard or a tiger—there definitely need to be stronger regulations when it comes to that. I know a lot of people that do have large animals in captivity, and they have them because they saved them from bad situations. What happened in Zanesville was an absolute tragedy, and there are a lot of gray areas regarding what actually happened that day. We don’t work with zoos. We do work with wildlife rehabilitation centers. It’s not that we don’t support the work that zoos do, we just prefer to promote places that animals are naturally wild, or being rehabilitated or rescued. We just did an episode on wolverines in Alaska. The guy that owns the sanctuary has been doing this for 30 years. He’s got a moose in captivity; this moose was hit by a car, and it won’t survive in the wild. This guy has enough land on his property that the animal’s enclosure is absolutely enormous. It has a swamp, it has forest. So keeping an animal in captivity like that is one thing. But keeping, you know, a Siberian tiger inside a chain link fence, is something else.

A lot of people fantasize about being the next Crocodile Hunter or Bear Grylls. What do you think sets you apart from them?

I grew up being influenced by Jack Hanna. He’s a hometown hero; I’ve watched his show since the ’90s when I was a kid. Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin came after that. I loved Steve’s presentation style. Excitement and really getting those animals close to the camera. Corwin was kinda comedic and quirky, and people loved his personality. When I got a bit older and started watching Man Vs. Wild, I realized Bear Grylls is one of the most influential entertainers and precursors to our series because he just really made you feel like you were right there on his adventure. We said, “OK, how do we emulate what all these people have done and combine it into our own thing?” I think we’ve done a pretty good job of learning from people that have come before us, mixing it with today’s technology and camera equipment, and really just taking it to the next level.

Coyote Peterson’s Brave Wilderness channel debuts the video footage of the bullet ant sting just before Christmas, and he’s hoping to rack up record views. Check out this and other videos at youtube.com/bravewilderness.

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