Beastmaster

With exploding ratings and a new book—not to mention a wardrobe makeover!—can anything stop wildlife-show host Jeff Corwin?

SVELTE ON THE VELDT: international critter-show superstar Jeff Corwin     Photo: Sacha Waldman

.outsideq { color : #330099; text-decoration : none; border-bottom-style : solid; border-bottom-color : Blue; border-bottom-width : 1; } NATURE SHOWS HAVE COME A LONG WAY since the days of Marlin Perkins—gone are the stilted voice-overs a thousand miles removed from the action. Today's naturalist hosts directly engage their fauna, and no one does it better than 36-year-old Jeff Corwin. More than 13 million Americans tune in to his weekly one-hour show, The Jeff Corwin Experience, on Animal Planet, a Discovery Channel spin-off. The prime-time Wednesday program, which premiered in the fall of 2000, is now seen in 90 countries. At autograph signings from New York to Warsaw, Corwin is mobbed by his animalistic fans. In October, he hosts the premiere of King of the Jungle, a series in which contestants vie to become Animal Planet's next safari star, and in November, his new book, Living on the Edge, hits stores. Recently, Outside contributing editor Hampton Sides caught up with Corwin in Mexico City, where he'd just returned from a traditional Aztec dinner of grubs...

OUTSIDE: On the show, you're always dining with the locals in exotic destinations. What's the grossest thing you've ever eaten?
CORWIN: The worst would be sago worms, definitely. They're huge white maggots with transparent membranous skin. They're sort of spiny, and they undulate. In Borneo, we were with some Iban people who served me a whole plate of these things. I'll never forget it. It was like a mouthful of snot.

As with your show, your new book elevates vilified critters over the more charismatic megafauna.
I want to erase that whole idea of one creature being more valuable than another because we think it's cute. I love the creepy-crawly critters, the ones with the fangs and the stingers and the claws. I like the animals that are hated and reviled.

Like hyenas. You're something of a hyena evangelist.
They're amazing, unappreciated creatures. They get this bad rap as the trickster scoundrels of Africa. In fact, some scientists say hyenas have primate-level intelligence.

But they aren't exactly picky eaters, are they?
Hyenas will eat anything. I've seen hyenas come across a mummified corpse of some unidentifiable antelope and just devour it, from hooves to teeth. They can pick up a leg bone of a water buffalo and chew it up like Cap'n Crunch.

Are there any animals that Jeff Corwin truly doesn't like?
Gigantic, 12-inch-long centipedes. The way they move quickly, the way those mandibles tweeze back and forth—it just gives me a chill. I was bit by one in Central America, and oh, my gosh! It was like someone put a cattle prod to my gonads and then plunged them in ice water.

Speaking of gonads, the Experience isn't the least bit squeamishabout delving into sex.
Look, your average human male thinks about sex every 15 seconds. Sex sells. It certainly does in the animal kingdom. How animals try to attract each other, or engage in copulation—it's a very important part of the story.

Your show is also full of scat.
We certainly talk about scat a lot on our show, because it's very, very fascinating to me. It tells you so much about an animal. Like when you see the scat of a hyena and it's just white as chalk from all the calcium in the bones he's been eating. Because it has that taboo element, scat is kind of an ooky conversation motif. It gets people watching.

You once stuck your arm inside a constipated elephant. What was that about?
This animal was wandering the streets of Phuket, Thailand, living on the margins, eating out of garbage cans. It needed a vet terribly. We had to give it an enema. And the thing is, an enema for an elephant is a garden hose. Well, I got up inside there with the hose and I pulled out... a whole stalk of corn. It was like harvest season in there.

You've taken your share of knocks in the name of television.
My body has paid its dues. I got the bends once, diving in Palau. I've had tons of leeches, foot rot, botflies, and a bite from a coral snake that nearly killed me. In Cambodia, I had my shoulder separated by this really fresh elephant, just a real persnickety guy. We were in the water and I was trying to scrub him down.

I take it he wasn't keen on your ministrations?
He grabbed me by my arm and popped it out. Then he pushed me underwater and put his knee on my chest. Just when I was about to drown, he would let me come up and then push me under again. He was a real rat.

.outsideq { color : #330099; text-decoration : none; border-bottom-style : solid; border-bottom-color : Blue; border-bottom-width : 1; } BREEDING IN CAPTIVITY

What do you do when you're not shooting?
I go home and relax and stay cool, go fishing with my buddies. The very last thing I do is watch nature shows. My wife, Natasha, and I live in a restored 150-year-old house on a very private little 22-acre island off the coast of Massachusetts. She's a Ph.D. candidate in literature, and we live with two cats.

This past summer you and Natasha had a baby daughter. Congratulations on attracting a mate and pulling off a successful copulation.
Her name is Maya Rose, and she was born on July 6. All I can say is I'm glad I don't have an aversion to shit. 'Cause I'm seeing a lot of it these days.

Did you get life insurance when she was born?
I have a healthy heart. I'm smoke-free. I have a great constitution. But it's almost impossible for me to get coverage. I had this guy come to the house and say, "So, what do you do?" I said, "I'm a biologist." He goes, "Where do you... Hey, wait a minute, you're Jeff Corwin! We dig your show. I love that episode when you... Wait a minute! We can't insure you!"

If you have a competitor, it's Steve Irwin, the host of Animal Planet's The Crocodile Hunter. What do you think of him?
I'm not in a position to criticize him. Frankly, I've maybe watched ten minutes of his show.

Aside from his ridiculous accent, what's the biggest difference between the two of you?
I'm not a pouncer. I never pounce on anything.

But isn't pouncing a time-honored tradition among naturalists? In the old days, people like John Audubon were always shooting birds in the name of science.
In The Voyage of the Beagle, there are accounts of Charles Darwin's crew grabbing a marine iguana by the tail, hurtling it into the ocean, and holding it down in the water. Darwin describes it as this morose, prehistoric, stupid, clunky, ugly-looking thing, and he abuses it to see if it's a marine animal or not. Basically, it's an if-you-drown-then-you're-not-a-witch sort of thing. If I did that today, well, I'd spend two weeks in a Quito prison.

You're on the road for ten months out of the year, usually traveling with the same crew. You all must be pretty tight.
We're relentlessly cruel to each other. There's nothing sacred. Your mother is not sacred. Your mother's reproductive organs are not sacred. We've been in some very tough situations. One time, we were flying over the Andes and the plane started experiencing mechanical difficulties. I remember looking down at these snowcapped mountains. We all had nervous smiles and everyone was making Alive jokes. I started thinking, Which of you guys am I going to eat first? What were you like as a kid?
I was always doing stupid things. When I was four years old, I had this weird habit where I'd shove a branch of pussy willow way up my nose. I mean way, way up there! I didn't just do it once; I did it, like, over and over again. If I was an animal, I'd be out of the gene pool pretty quick.

If you could be any animal on earth, what would you be?
Bonobos have a great sex life. They're primates, and these guys can't get enough of it. There's no walk of shame if you're a bonobo. No guilt, no judging. And lions have it pretty good, too. They can have up to 60 copulations in a day. When they're having sex, their lips are all curled up and they're like, "Owy, owy, owy!" They're in pain. But they're liking it.

.outsideq { color : #330099; text-decoration : none; border-bottom-style : solid; border-bottom-color : Blue; border-bottom-width : 1; } THE NIPPLE CRISIS

What creative licenses do you take while filming?
My last show, with Disney, was called Going Wild with Jeff Corwin. Disney executives would actually say, "Pretend to be hurt! Fall down a cliff! Be more this! Be more that!" I'm very lucky now—I don't get that from Animal Planet.

I understand the Experience has a significant gay following.
Yes, there's a gay magazine called Instinct, and recently I made its "men we'd love to convert" list. I have no problems with it. I think it's great. It would be terrific if we could get the Queer Eye guys to come on the show and do a Jeff Corwin makeover.

You have a signature shirt that, if I may say so, is rather tight.
Not anymore. It's true, I used to wear a shirt on the show that was this sheer, skin-tight wicking thing. It was awesome. The problem was there was too much criticism about my nipples. Apparently, they were sticking out through the shirt. We had a little market-testing meeting with the Animal Planet executives. They were doing it as a PowerPoint presentation, and the title of one slide was "Is it cold in here, or is it just me?" They said, "Jeff, we're getting some provocative inquiries about your nipples. Some people find it distracting." Whoa! How did you handle it?
I pretended to be really, really hurt. I went, "OK, um, I'll work on that. It's just that I suffer from this medical condition called gynecomastia. I've had this surgery to reduce my man-breasts." It was dead silence in the room. I think one of the executives actually started to cry. Finally I laughed and said, "All right, let's switch to a different shirt!"

So there's been an official Jeff Corwin uniform upgrade?
The tight little number is out, and I now wear an Ex Officio button-down shirt. I look like the colonel in Bridge on the River Kwai.

You have a special snake stick you always carry around with you. Will that change, too?
No, that will never change. It's nothing special, really. It's just a modified golf club, a 9-iron, but it's a very useful tool. It tells everybody who I am and what I do. Everybody recognizes me when I carry my stick.

Do you have a name for it—like B. B. King has his Lucille?
No, but I did have a favorite one that I lost in Belize, tragically. I was standing on a cliff and I accidentally kicked it into a water-filled cavern, thousands of feet deep. Someday an archaeological diver will be studying the flooded Mayan ruins and he'll say, "Look at this—they were so advanced! They played golf!"

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