Like Steve Irwin, Jeff Corwin, and Jack Hanna before him, Coyote Peterson will do just about whatever it takes to teach his millions of YouTube followers—nicknamed the “Coyote Pack”—all about the animal kingdom. Clad in a brown leather fedora and armed with peppy catchprases (“Be brave! Stay wild!”), the 36-year-old has plucked warty sea cucumbers and prickly urchins from tide pools, hugged friendly baby reindeer, introduced viewers to the rare hellbender (the only American giant salamander species), and caught beautiful but deadly poison dart frogs.
But what catapulted him into certified YouTube stardom are the dozens of videos where he is voluntarily bitten, stung, or pinched by various animals. A video posted in January 2016 of Peterson purposefully sticking his hands into a pile of harvester ants in the Arizona desert unexpectedly took off like wildfire and changed the game for the channel, Brave Wilderness—catapulting it from 1 million subscribers to the more than 8 million it has now.
Videos of Peterson tackling the “insect sting pain index”—a ranking of the world’s most painful jabs created by entomologist Justin O. Schmidt—quickly became Brave Wilderness’s biggest hits. The channel’s three most-watched videos feature Peterson enduring stings from a velvet ant, a tarantula hawk, and a bullet ant, a creature found in the Costa Rican rainforest that kept Peterson’s arm swollen and in pain for more than 24 hours. But the clips aren’t all shock factor—and even the most sensational ones have substance—Peterson uses his sting and bite videos to teach viewers to respect and keep their distance from dangerous animals and demonstrate how the creatures’ defense mechanisms work. Less titillating videos show Peterson exploring tide pools in the San Juan Islands and discovering a “gumboot” chiton, a creature that resembles a giant Pac-Man, or feeding a cute kinkajou.
Peterson and his team are embarking on their first national tour this month, including a stop at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse on September 24, to meet fans and promote his recently released book Coyote Peterson’s Brave Adventures. We chatted with the host about his roots in film, what to expect on the tour, and why his famous “bite and sting” videos are about to end.
You studied film at Ohio State University. How did you become the host of a YouTube-based wildlife series?
When I was at Ohio State, I connected with my now business partner Mark Lavins (the show’s director and producer), as well as a bunch of people involved in the Brave Wilderness brand. We started making independent films. It was a bit of a struggle, especially coming from Columbus, Ohio. At one point, we got pretty close to getting a picture funded, but it ended up falling through at the last minute. I’d recently caught a very large snapping turtle and shared the pictures with my producers. They were flabbergasted that A, snapping turtles even lived in Ohio, and B, that I knew anything about animals. So just kind of on a whim we made this pivot and started developing an animal adventure series.
We looked at the marketplace and knew there had been success with [shows like this] in the past, but no one had really done it recently since Steve Irwin passed away. We thought, Well, TV’s gotta be easier than making movies—and sure enough it was just as difficult of a road. We were pretty much told “no” by every network out there, all telling us that single-hosted animal series just don’t work anymore. We refused to believe that. We knew that people loved animals, especially the younger generation who was thirsting for an education about creatures they’d never heard of before. So we continued to pursue it and eventually landed on YouTube in September 2014.
Now that Brave Wilderness has such a large YouTube audience, have you ever thought about trying again to get on TV?
It’s funny, now that our shows have done well, we’ve had a lot of TV networks reapproach us. But unfortunately at this point, conventional television as we know it is not really the direction we want to go in. We love the fact that we can reach our audience at any point just by hopping on to the YouTube comments section and on social media. And the creative freedom YouTube provides is far more valuable.
Have you always been a big animal lover?
Animals have always been a passion of mine, but I never really did anything with that [until Brave Wilderness]. I grew up in the country, in a small town called Newbury, Ohio, and spent my summers playing in the woods behind my house and in creeks and swamps and ponds, catching snapping turtles. Once I got a bit older, my mom took my sister and I across the country in an old Chevy Suburban with a tiny trailer, and we traveled all through Wyoming, South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, stopping at little campsites every night. Every day was a new adventure. It gave me the chance to explore and be fascinated with all sorts of animals across the country.
You’re well-known for the videos where you are willingly bitten, stung, and pinched by various creatures. Why did you decide to let animals hurt you voluntarily?
When you grow up catching animals and learning how to work with animals, the number one goal is to never be bitten. I’m really good at interacting with animals without ever taking a chomp or a pinch or a sting, and it wasn’t until we did the episode with the harvester ants in Arizona that we started this experimentation where I put myself as the guinea pig in worst-case scenarios such as “What happens if you’re bitten by an alligator?” or “What happens if you’re bitten by a snapping turtle?” We are always working to educate people on why you want to admire these animals from a safe distance and not try to catch them or get bitten. But YouTube just happened to be a platform where people loved seeing that extreme nature.
When we did the harvester ant video, we thought, Man, that was pretty intense, and we knew if we were going to release the episode, it had to be chock full of education because we didn’t want people to just think we were being ridiculous and doing crazy stunts. When people watch these episodes, we always get an amazing amount of support from viewers saying, Wow, I came here to see the craziness, but I actually walked away with an education and a new respect for this animal. What these videos became and how they helped launch our channel is pretty phenomenal, and we’re so incredibly lucky to have an audience that loves seeing these episodes, but at the same time supports us and congratulates us for giving them an education at the end of the day.
What creature are you going to let sting you next?
[We’re finishing] the sting pain index this year. We filmed the warrior wasp, and there are a couple of big bites coming. The worst one is a giant desert centipede that we just filmed about a week ago, and it’s actually the first bite that has ever sent me to the hospital. It was the worst bite I’ve ever taken, worse than the Gila monster [previously the most painful bite I’ve ever endured]. It’s the worst bite in the United States. There was so much unknown about this centipede, almost zero reported cases of people being bitten and then documenting what that process was like. That’s why we went through with it. That video, which is coming out in November, is going to be like Stranger Things meets a really good horror film.
All exciting things must come to an end, and the bites and the sting pain index all will culminate by the end of this December. After that, there will be no more intentional bites and stings. We’ve pretty much done all we can safely do at this point. And when I say safely, I mean there isn’t really a chance [the bite or sting] could kill me. A lot of people are like, “Are you gonna be bitten by a rattlesnake? Are you gonna be bitten by a shark?” There are certain things that are just too extreme for us, and we feel we’ve grown our audience to the point where we’re getting incredible support on episodes that have nothing to do with bites or stings, and that was our ultimate goal.
Does it make you nervous to lose the bite and sting videos, since they were such big hits?
No, because of videos such as the one we did about a giant salamander called a hellbender, an incredibly rare, beautiful, critically threatened species. That video was very much a passion project for us. It could have gotten 100 views and reached one single kid who was inspired to go out and research hellbenders and it would have been a success. But the hellbender got a massive number of views and did wonderful things for the conversation of that species—and it had absolutely nothing to do with a bite or a sting or anything dangerous. So the fact that our audience is really beginning to gravitate toward these bizarre creatures, these creatures that need help with conservation and support, that’s really what’s always been our driving goal.
What can your Atlanta fans expect to see at your show?
I love Atlanta—I’ve been there several times, and I’m so excited to come in. The show is based around our Brave Adventures book, the first I’ve ever written. (And I’m proud to say I did write this book myself, no ghost writer!) Each chapter of the book is its own unique story, so you don’t have to read the book cover-to-cover for it to make sense, and each chapter is based on actual adventures the Brave Wilderness team has been on. The book starts with how I caught my first snapping turtle when I was eight, and the show is structured to follow the direction of the book. People always want to know some of the same questions—where did my love of animals come from? What’s my favorite animal? How did this get started? [The book answers these things.]
We won’t have any live animals with us this time—for our first tour, we felt it was better to start small. But we will have all sorts of exclusive video clips that go with each chapter of the book about the encounters we had with each animal. And there’s an [education component] to each portion of the show, ultimately culminating in the last chapter of the book, which is the story of the greatest animal encounter I’ve ever had. Then we’ll have a 15-20 minute Q&A session with the audience. We’re really excited to see how it all comes together, because it’ll have a mix of animal education, adventure, comedy, you name it. It’ll be a whirlwind of a show.
We’ll also have “golden adventure tickets” hidden in the books we sell on tour. If you find one, you get an opportunity to come to an exclusive adventure with me and the crew next spring. I was a huge fan of Willy Wonka when I was a kid, so to be in the position where I can put a “golden ticket” like that out there for members of the Coyote Pack is pretty special.
Which animals and locations are you planning to feature next?
We really haven’t even come close to scratching the surface when it comes to traveling the world and getting bizarre and interesting creatures up close for the cameras. Our focus has really been the United States and Central America. Our first major international trip will be in November when we go to Australia. We’ve started to dabble in ocean creatures—we just got dive certified, so we’ll have more scuba-diving episodes. We haven’t even touched sharks yet. There’s such an incredible world out there that we have to explore.