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Running with the pack: a journey to the center of Coyote Peterson

Coyote Peterson has built up a millions-strong following for his YouTube channel Brave Wilderness — but can he bring them to Animal Planet?

Nathaniel Peterson is good at tromping through mud — like, really good. I learn this as I’m following him through Prairie Oaks Metro Park on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, because he’d suggested it might be a good place for an adventure. But it had been unseasonably warm that week, and the snow that would have otherwise covered the ground had been transmuted into gloppy sludge. The mud at Prairie Oaks, by the way, is perfect. It stuck to my boots and held me fast to the ground, even as I was struggling to stay upright. It was as though I was standing on an ice floe in the Arctic somewhere, not on solid earth. Things, I’ve learned, become unpredictable where humans meet nature.

Peterson — better known as the YouTuber Coyote Peterson to his fans, who call themselves the Coyote Pack — has made a career out of that uncertainty. On camera, he handles the world’s wildest animals, everything from stinging insects to giant lizards to bear cubs. The point, he says, is education. On his YouTube channel, Brave Wilderness, Peterson and his collaborators have amassed more than 14 million subscribers in almost five years. The videos routinely go viral, and in them, Peterson radiates an unmistakable enthusiasm for the creatures he’s presenting to his audience. It’s what’s brought him to the latest peak in his career: a show on Animal Planet, the channel that broadcasts animals and their exploits to around 400 million households around the world. Animal Planet is the network that made Steve Irwin into the Crocodile Hunter and the place that turned Jeff Corwin into a household name. For Coyote and his two cameramen — Brave Wilderness co-founder Mark Vins and wildlife biologist Mario Aldecoa — it’s the biggest stage they’ve ever been on, one that could turn them into global stars.

Or will it? A number of YouTube celebrities have gotten traditional TV deals, and nearly all of them have either petered out or failed outright because the audiences they’ve found online don’t necessarily translate into traditional television viewers.

That day at the park, in the mud, a week before leaving for Australia for their first seven-week Animal Planet shoot, Peterson doesn’t seem perturbed by the challenges ahead of him. He’s humming with enthusiasm, bounding through the mire, looking for any sign of animal life because we are there to find mink — “Minking,” he calls it. “I just made up the term this morning, but we recently filmed an episode at this location about tracking mammals in the snow and realized that looking for mink is kind of a cool thing.” He extols the animal’s particular virtues. They’re members of the weasel family, related to wolverines and badgers. “It just dawned on me that we probably won’t see a mink today,” he says, before we start our adventure. (So we’re walking through that perfect mud for… what reason, exactly?) But if we wanted pictures of Coyote Peterson with a mink, he says, the Brave Wilderness team has some available.

Nathaniel “Coyote” Peterson is the author of three books and has 14,193,355 followers on YouTube and counting. An upcoming Animal Planet series will introduce his brand of nature exploration to a new audience.

To understand Peterson, you have to understand the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). It’s large and generally non-violent. It looks prehistoric, and the jury’s still out on whether it bites hard enough to take off a finger.

“I wish you guys were here in the spring to actually see a snapping turtle. You’d be like, ‘Man, as like an eight-to-ten-year-old kid, you were catching this?’” Peterson says. “This turtle’s big enough, if you got your arm in its mouth, it could feasibly pull you under and drown you. Not that it would, but... yeah, it was a dangerous animal to be working with.” The snapping turtle features in his personal mythology as prominently as the crocodile did for Steve Irwin. The turtle is where Coyote Peterson began. (He got the nickname “Coyote” from his mother because he’d chase roadrunners like the coyote from the cartoons while the roadrunners were hunting for horned lizards.) His well-rehearsed origin myth goes something like this:

In the spring of 2009, when he was 27 or 28, Nathaniel Peterson went to the arboretum in Cleveland to hike with his one-year-old daughter. He was catching frogs and showing them to her when he ran into a group of kids around a pond who were also looking for frogs. And then he saw it: a snapping turtle hunting along the bottom. He dove in, he came back up, and he explained to the gathering crowd the specific beauty of these turtles. His girlfriend at the time happened to be taking pictures. “I brought them back and showed them to my producers I was working with at the time on some movie projects. Their minds were blown,” he says. (Some of those narrative film projects, Peterson tells me, are still in development 15 years later.)

Peterson on familiar ground walks through Prairie Oaks Metro Park at the edge of his hometown of Columbus, Ohio where he is still based.

That was the beginning of The Reptile Show, which then became Breaking Trail, which eventually became Brave Wilderness. Peterson and his producers thought the time was ripe for a new animal adventurer in the mold of people who’d been on Animal Planet before. “Steve Irwin had already passed away. Jeff Corwin was making a cooking show at the time, I think. There was nobody else catching and presenting animals,” Peterson says. There was Man vs. Wild, but that was it. Brave Wilderness launched in 2014, which means Peterson and his producers spent five years developing and shooting the show before anyone ever saw what they’d made. They sent sizzle reels to people in the entertainment industry because the plan was never to be on YouTube. But nothing really happened until Discovery Digital Networks got in touch with the gang about a now-defunct online network the company was starting called Animalist — which is where Breaking Trail premiered — that would digitally distribute original web videos for Discovery.

“We raised all of the funding to launch the original Breaking Trail episodes on our own,” Peterson says. “We had a couple of partners of ours that are still involved that gave us just a small amount of seed money to get started, and we turned that seed money into what was supposed to be 12 episodes into 52 episodes.” They ended up releasing between two and three videos a week, and they have been on that schedule for nearly four and a half years.

Naturally, their first video featured the common snapping turtle. It has nearly all of the hallmarks of Peterson’s later, more successful videos: there’s the dramatic voice-over, the action cuts, the epic soundtrack, and the classic end tag: “Be brave, stay wild, and we’ll see you on the next adventure.” (If you have autoplay turned on, after the sign-off, you’ll see the familiar timer counting down to the next video — because, in the Brave Wilderness universe, there is always another video.) Peterson doesn’t take vacations because that would be the same thing as doing the show but without any of the material benefits. He does say, however, that any time he’s away from the cameras, it feels like a vacation.

Here’s where I tell you about danger. We’re attracted to it because the possibility of violence is just the potential for sudden, transformative change; futures are rarely so clearly delineated or so predictable. The other part is biochemical: fear intensifies emotion, which is another way to say that it activates the sympathetic nervous system and floods your body with adrenaline. That’s when you can lift cars or feel time slow down enough to make a split-second decision. Fear heightens. It drives. Out in the wild, the only border between you and the rest of the universe is the place where your skin meets the air, and that is a terrifying place to be. Most of us want our personal encounters with nature to be at least somewhat tamed — zoos, camping, hiking, climbing — and more controlled than unreconstructed. But in the popularity of series like Planet Earth, it’s easy to discern that other human urge to see nature as it really is, an encounter with the world as it is when we’re not paying attention.

In their videos, Peterson and his team access that particular feeling of being in nature and also strangers there. They manage the double trick of bringing the wild to your doorstep without seeming to disturb the creatures that live there. The crew has gone looking for toads, kissed moose in Alaska, chased crocodiles in Costa Rica, and hung out with stingrays in Arizona (which, as you may recall, is what killed Steve Irwin). It made them well-known on YouTube. What made them go viral, though, was The Sting Zone, an ongoing challenge where Peterson worked his way through entomologist Justin Schmidt’s Sting Pain Index, a ranking of the most painful stings in the insect world. (Schmidt won his ranking the hard way: by being the first guy to intentionally get stung.) Peterson filmed himself working his way through the list, and nearly every single entry has gone massively viral.

“For somebody in my field, usually, the goal is to not be bitten and stung,” he says. (He makes sure to tell me he’s generally very good at not being bitten and stung.) “We found that people were really fascinated with the effects of venom or pain on the human body, and it’s always sort of been celebrated in that Coyote Peterson doesn’t really say curse words, so we can keep it totally family-friendly while I’m also being able to endure that pain and deliver educational tidbits as to what my body’s going through, or this and that about the creepy crawly that was biting me or stinging me,” he says. “I couldn’t tell you why people love it as much as they do, but they do.” (It seems obvious to me that people like the sting videos for the same reason that sites like Liveleak and the defunct Rotten.com are continually popular: people like seeing others in pain.)

Mario Aldecoa, the wildlife biologist and camera operator, says people just find it amusing. “They love it,” he continues, but Peterson’s real mission is education, “which is going out featuring a species and a conservation group, and so on.” Aldecoa’s never been anxious about Peterson’s well-being; they are professionals, after all.

Aldecoa’s co-camera operator and director, Mark Vins, has a slightly different view. “I have been nervous a couple of times on the more extreme end of things, namely the bullet ant, the tarantula hawk, and certainly some of the bite tests, specifically the alligator bite and the centipede,” Vins says. After the centipede bite — the giant desert centipede, which hunts insects and small vertebrates at night — Peterson had to seek medical attention. That prompted Vins, Aldecoa, and Peterson to have a meeting and take stock of what exactly they were doing. “There has to be a limit for the science and education coming out of this,” Vins says. “We’re kind of getting on that edge of it not being safe.” They knew they needed to get back to their animal adventure roots. “We knew we had to draw a line because otherwise it just keeps going, and then that takes you to places that you don’t want to go.”

Even so, the sting zone has helped kids across the country, Peterson says. It’s given them permission to be strong. “We have lots of people that will write to us and be like, ‘My kid got stung by a hornet, and he or she would say, ‘What would Coyote do in this instance? Be brave, be brave!’”

It was overcast when Peterson picked me up from my hotel in his limited-edition Jeep. We stopped for snacks at a gas station — because, in Peterson’s words, “every good adventure is about snacks” — before we headed out to the park, Bigfoot rearview mirror ornament swaying at every turn. Though I didn’t see anyone eat any of the snacks, having them near felt comforting, as though we were loaded for bear, even though we would only be looking for mink. Tycho was on the stereo — he called it his video game music — and Peterson began to tell me about his die-hard Sonic the Hedgehog fandom. He’s been playing since he was a kid, but now, it’s what he does to relax. “I play Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or 3 or Sonic and Knuckles,” he told me, noting that he’s not a fan just because Sonic happens to be a hedgehog. (It’s not the only thing he plays. He’s also had a few brief dalliances with Jurassic Park.)

Later, after our adventure had concluded and we are safely seated in a local sandwich shop, Peterson goes into more detail. “I set a personal best the other night playing Sonic 2. Thirty-nine extra guys, nine continues, which each continue is three extra guys,” Peterson says. That’s 66 chances to beat the final boss, Dr. Robotnik, an evil scientist who was created by accidentally fusing a rotten egg with the Chaos Emeralds (reservoirs of the bad in man, according to the original story). “I can beat it, but I… don’t,” he says. In Sonic 2, you don’t get any extra points for beating the final boss, Peterson notes. “You’ve got to beat Robotnik without getting hit by anything, which is pretty tough to do. So I play it, at this point, just to get the points and the extra guys,” he says, which is as good a way as any to describe Peterson’s fame and presence on YouTube.

Online, Brave Wilderness is ubiquitous, and Peterson has appeared on everything from First We Feast’s “Hot Ones,” where he revealed he’s not so great with chicken wings, to Conan O’Brien’s late night show, where he met his childhood idol, Jeff Goldblum. Getting more guys has made him a legitimate star. But when we’re together, I have the distinct sense that Peterson feels like he’s finally getting what he’s always wanted: real fame, the kind that isn’t constrained to being well-known online. “I don’t consider YouTubers famous people,” he says, though he adds that a lot of other people would. “I don’t consider that fame in the way I think some people would?”

Assorted ephemera on the walls of Peterson’s office includes the Executioner Wasp figure available for sale on the Brave Wilderness website.

For Peterson, Animal Planet is the big leagues, and it’s where he’s hoping to make his mark on the world. To prepare the Coyote Pack — the millions of animal-loving “3-to-93”-year-olds across the world — for the transition, the Brave Wilderness team made a 30-minute highlight reel of their previous exploits called “Coyote Peterson: Return to the Wilderness,” which is also meant to introduce Animal Planet’s audience to Coyote. “We really focus on age five to 15 because that’s, at least for me when I was growing up, the most influential point in my life where I felt like animals were a big focus,” he says.

The Brave Wilderness team has decided to change their formula a little for Animal Planet: Both Vins and Aldecoa are going to be on-camera personalities along with Peterson as a kind of ensemble cast, departing from the formula set by Steve Irwin and company. “We didn’t get a TV show in the conventional sense that they were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to make a show, and Coyote’s going to star in it,’” Peterson says. “We formed a partnership with the network.” But even though Brave Wilderness is running the production for Animal Planet, Peterson feels that the fans might be a little hesitant to follow them to a new home. Eventually, he says, “they will realize this is Coyote, Mark, and Mario’s vision. This is Coyote still writing the voice-over scripts. This is these guys producing the show for Animal Planet, and it’s Animal Planet using their muscle as a network to help us get it to as big an audience as we can.” Brave Wilderness will still be producing original content for its YouTube channel, which will act as an online companion to the as-yet-unnamed television show. “YouTube is arguably the largest microphone on the face of the planet when it comes to reaching a younger audience demographic,” he says. “So we will be able to greatly promote the Animal Planet series through YouTube.”

As Peterson notes later in our conversation, there aren’t that many YouTubers who get television deals, and when they do, they sometimes lose their way. (“I know Dude Perfect has a relationship with Nickelodeon,” Peterson says. “Colleen Ballinger, who is Miranda Sings, did Netflix for a couple of seasons. Then there’s a handful of other creators that have done the world of YouTube Red and stuff like that.”) There aren’t many who have successfully branched out into linear programming because it is fundamentally a different medium than the internet. TV’s incentives seem similar — getting more people watching is generally the goal — but on YouTube, viewer engagement trumps views. Because of that, YouTube videos are generally less structured and more superficially shocking (and less, ahem, stinging) than their linear counterparts. There’s more opportunity for viewer feedback, which is generally incorporated into the next episode. Television doesn’t have that built-in feedback mechanism, and, to Peterson, it feels like growth. “When it comes to partnering with Animal Planet, the way that I sometimes phrase it to people is if YouTube was like us playing college sports, going to Animal Planet is like getting drafted to the pros for us.”

Let me tell you more about that day at the park. In the parking lot, standing outside his Jeep, Peterson checks his reflection in another car’s mirror. “I loved action figures as a kid,” he says. “If I was going to be an on-camera talent, I wanted to be like an action figure.”

The sky seems a lot closer than it had been before in the more urban part of Columbus, where we’re staying. Outside the Jeep’s metal embrace, the wind picked up, and the park suddenly seemed unfriendly — an uncaring place less than tamed by people, far redder in tooth and claw. A coyote calls in the distance. “We’re going to track these coyotes. They’re on the other side of the river,” Peterson says confidently. It’s then that it hits me what his job at Brave Wilderness really is: to run toward the obvious danger and to be prepared enough to pick it up for the cameras and teach people about it. He makes a tentative plan for us to find them, which we abandon later. Even though there’s no danger, for the briefest instant, I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into, and I think again about what kind of person you have to be to pick up venomous creatures in the wild.

We eventually leave the trail. Peterson takes us through fields that were recently disturbed by deer — he sniffs the scat — and helps me cross ground that was too flooded or muddy to pass through without difficulty. He has a real familiarity with the park; it’s obvious he’s hunted animals here before. A quarter of the way through our walk, I ask him about a particularly spiny tree. “It’s a go-fuck-yourself tree,” Peterson replies instantly, hilariously, before asking me to strike the curse from the record because Coyote Peterson doesn’t say “fuck.”

But maybe he should. It was a genuinely unscripted moment, probably the first time I feel he’s telling me something interesting instead of something heavily rehearsed, with its edges (or spines) sanded off. Later, we find beer cans, a tackle box, a whitened beaver tooth, an earthworm, a small fish, and, finally, beautifully, mink poop on a log. It isn’t the prize that we came for, but it was really there.

Later in the day, over a sandwich, I ask Coyote how he’d describe our adventure. We hadn’t found anything, after all, and now we’re muddy and cold and tired.

“What’s going on, guys? Today, we’re at Prairie Oaks Metro Park, one of the coolest places in Columbus to explore. We’re on the far western side of the city. This environment is incredibly diverse. It’s a place you can find X, Y, and Z animal, but today specifically, we’re going after mink,” he begins without a warm-up, as though he were delivering a voice-over to camera and not to me at a booth in a sandwich shop.

“Mink are oftentimes hunting near rivers. What we’re going to do is we’re going to press through the park, get ourselves to the edge of the water, and look for some environmental signs — could be droppings, could be tracks, could be just the smell of these mustelids because they have a very pungent scent to them, just like a skunk. And if you guys don’t know, they’re a cousin of the skunk. These are the signs we’re looking for.” I’ve just come from this adventure, and yet I’m still engrossed. Next, Peterson says, boom. We’re heading into the environment, he says, where we find deer droppings — “squish a deer turd between your fingers and smell it, be like, it doesn’t really smell like anything, but for the audience, they’re like, ‘Holy cow, did he just squish a deer turd and smell it?’”

“We would have found that fish. We would have found the worm. Those would have just been little tidbits. But the payoff would have been getting to this epic log: ‘Holy cow, this is where a mink lives. Let’s spread out and look for it.’” Ideally, we would have found something in the log, he allows. “We would have gotten a glimpse of the mink and caught it on camera, and then, of course, that would have given us a wrap-up to be like, ‘Such a cool adventure. We crossed through this, this, and this. Your boots are still dry. We saw a mink. Be brave, stay wild, we’ll see you on the next adventure.’”

But, of course, we didn’t find any mink. That’s not how it happened.