In our January issue, we asked: Who will carry the city's torch forward for the next generations? Here, the next wildlife-wrangling media darling
The camera zooms in on the last porcupine quill protruding from Coyote Peterson's knuckle. He pulls it free with a pair of pliers and lets out an exclamation of pain. “That is a serious quill in my Coyote paw,” he quips afterward, displaying the needle-like prize for the world to see. And the world is watching: “YIKES! Quilled by a Porcupine!” has been viewed more than 22 million times on YouTube. It's not even the Westerville resident's most popular clip—that would be the sting from the cow killer ant, at 34 million strong.
Peterson's close encounters with wildlife have earned his Brave Wilderness YouTube channel nearly 1.5 billion views and 9 million subscribers for his four online series: Dragon Tails, Coyote's Backyard, Beyond the Tide and the Emmy Award-winning Breaking Trail. The Ohio State grad's successful forays into the animal-entertainment kingdom, along with his signature outback hat, recall the Columbus Zoo's “Jungle Jack” Hanna, a local icon and one of Peterson's early inspirations while he was catching snapping turtles as a youth in Newbury, Ohio, east of Cleveland. He says his online shows reflect these influencers—Hanna, “The Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, TV host Jeff Corwin and filmmaker Marty Stouffer of Wild America.
Though many Brave Wilderness videos don't feature Peterson in pain, the porcupine episode was met with an especially enthusiastic response. He's since been intentionally bitten or stung by a warrior wasp, a tarantula hawk, a lionfish and the “reigning king of sting,” a bullet ant, among others. These viral videos are clickable lures so Peterson can teach viewers about different species—“edutainment” he calls it. Who better to explain the American alligator to the masses than a man with an American alligator chomping into his forearm?
The strategy appears to be working, and Peterson hopes the Brave Wilderness network will one day feature the next generation of adventurous environmental hosts. As for his forebears, he doesn't aim to replicate either Irwin or Hanna, he just wants to spread the message of education and conservation.
Not that he's above borrowing Jungle Jack's tricks. In January 2017, he made his first appearance on Conan and was inspired by Hanna's penchant for delivering the unexpected to late-night audiences. Peterson brought out enormous sea slugs and cajoled Conan O'Brien, Andy Richter and guest Jeff Goldblum to hold them. “That is a black sea hare,” he told a repulsed O'Brien, while placing the slimy creature in his outstretched hands. “Go ahead, it's not going to bite you.” Peterson would know.