Finding Purpose In A ‘Wild Life’

17:31 minutes

A Black woman wearing a beanie sits amidst rocks in a natural outdoor setting. She looks up at the sky with a gentle smile.
Dr. Rae Wynn Grant. Credit: Celeste Slowman and Zando.

Wildlife ecologist Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant has tracked bears through the mountains, lived with lions, been chased by elephants, and trekked after lemurs in a rainforest. Now, she co-hosts the renowned nature television show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild.”

Dr. Wynn-Grant’s new memoir, Wild Life: Finding My Purpose in an Untamed World, documents her many adventures as well as her experience navigating conservation as a Black woman and landing her dream job as a nature television host.

Read an excerpt from Wild Life here.

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Segment Guests

Rae Wynn-Grant

Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant is a wildlife ecologist, the co-host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom: Protecting the Wild, and the author of Wild Life. She’s based in Santa Barbara, California.

Segment Transcript

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is Science Friday. I’m Sophie Bushwick. So far in her career, wildlife ecologist Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant has tracked bears through the mountains, observed lemurs in a rainforests, been chased by elephants, and even lived with lions.

Now, she’s on a new adventure, co-hosting the iconic nature television show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom– Protecting the Wild. Her new memoir is out now. It’s called Wildlife– Finding my Purpose in an Untamed World. In it, she brings readers along from her childhood watching nature documentaries on TV to her work in the field seeing some of those same animals in person.

Along the way, she reflects on her career in conservation and navigating the field as a Black woman. Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant joins me now, from Santa Barbara California. Rae, welcome to Science Friday.

RAE WYNN-GRANT: Ooh, thank you. This is exactly where I want to be.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Let’s go back to the beginning. Were you one of those kids who was just chasing lizards and frogs outside or showing up at home with a jar of caterpillars?

RAE WYNN-GRANT: You know what, I– gosh, I was one of those kids at heart, I believe, but a lot of my upbringing was very urban. I come from a pretty urban, working-class, Black family, and we lived in a lot of big cities, a lot of the time. So I did not explore nature, necessarily, as a kid. I didn’t fall in love with nature by being in it. I actually fell in love with nature by watching it on TV.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Tell me more about that.

RAE WYNN-GRANT: So my parents were super strict, when I was a kid, and I was a kid in the like early ’90s. And they would not let my brother and I just watch anything, even like cartoons and stuff that were popular. We could only watch educational programming, and nature programs fit into that. Right?

So everything that was David Attenborough or like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, a lot of the iconic nature shows of that era I was allowed to watch, and thank goodness, because I loved them. It was better than a cartoon to me. It was like where I belonged, and unfortunately, it caused me to think that, one, nature is very far away. It is not anywhere near me, and two, that the only people who belong in nature or experience nature are these nature show hosts, which at the time, were middle-aged, White men, often from Australia or the UK, and people who were very, very different from me as a young, Black, American girl.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Did that make you feel that you didn’t have a place doing that kind of work?

RAE WYNN-GRANT: It did. Yeah, it did. It made me feel that I wanted it, but I didn’t believe I could become that person. One thing that doesn’t often show up in nature shows is the path that that host took to get to that career, and for me, was just such a dream job that I figured, like, they must have been born into it. Maybe, it’s a monarchy.


In the nature show world, you just are born, and your dad just talks about ecology around the dinner table, and it’s just your future.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And you inherit it.

RAE WYNN-GRANT: And you inherit it, because it was not clear to me, like, how. How do you become a nature show host? How do you become an expert in these things, as a little kid, and I don’t think it’s so dissimilar from other little, American kids. If you told me to name a scientist, I’d probably say Albert Einstein, but if you ask me to name like a living scientist, I would– I don’t know, my dentist?


I don’t know. Does that count? And so I went to kindergarten saying I want to be a nature show host when I grow up. I don’t know how, but that’s really what I want. And I went to my freshman year of college saying to my advisor, I want to be a nature show host when I grow up. Like help me get there.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah. Let’s talk about how you got there, specifically your college experience, starting as an undergrad, when you spent a semester doing field work in Kenya. You were totally new to hiking and camping, so this must have been really jumping into the deep end.

RAE WYNN-GRANT: It’s true. Yeah, it absolutely was. So I went to college in Atlanta, so urban upbringing, went to college in a really awesome, awesome, big city. I signed up for a really intense– I looked for the most intense like environmental wildlife study abroad program, and they had one. It was through The School for Field Studies, and I signed up for a semester in Kenya, living in the bush, in southern Kenya, outside of Amboseli National Park and in a Maasai community, studying local east African wildlife.

And at that point, I had not been on a hike. I had not pitched a tent. I had not lived in the outdoors. I had not seen a wild animal. And I was 20 years old when I traveled over to Kenya on that study abroad program, and just mere hours after landing in Nairobi, I was in the bush. And I was lacing up those hiking boots and seeing wild animals.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: How did you spend your days on that program?

RAE WYNN-GRANT: It was– [LAUGHTER] I’m smiling right now– you can’t tell– because it was just a magical, magical time for everybody, not just me. But for me, I was in this immersion space. Right? Like going from just dreaming this to, oh my gosh, I’m living a nature show. There’s no cameras, but I think this is it.

So the days were filled with pretty rigorous field training. So we went on game drives. We went on lots of walks in the bush, with armed guards to protect us from lions. We went on camping trips to national parks.

We met with communities. We’d sit and just listen to Maasai community members talk about their history, their culture, their relationship with the land, what they would like to see in the future how conservation has affected them in negative and positive ways, and it made me feel at the time like, well, this is also where I belong. I just should just be a wildlife ecologist in Kenya for the rest of my life.

So much so that I actually wrote my parents a letter, because we had to use snail mail back then. There was no electricity, so we couldn’t you know send emails or anything. And I told them, hey, please change my flight. I’m just going to stay here forever. I’m going to drop out of school, and I’m just going to–


RAE WYNN-GRANT: –live in Kenya.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: How did they react to that?


RAE WYNN-GRANT: Leave it to say, they did not change my flight.


You’re coming home, and we know you’re having the time of your life, but you can’t stay. You can just return. How about that?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: But you did go back to fieldwork during grad school. You told the story about how you went to Tanzania. And there was this incident where a giraffe had been killed by poachers, and then afterward, the community shows up to collect the giraffe’s meat. And you were just a student at the time, but what do you feel like you learned from that? Did it make you think about conservation differently?

RAE WYNN-GRANT: It did. I spent a couple summers living in central Tanzania and working with some research teams and thinking that I like knew it all. And then this one day, I was with my team. We were studying lions, like we did every day, and we got a call that poachers were afoot, and they had killed a big giraffe. And I write about this in my memoir, and I write about it kind of poetically, because that’s how I remember it, actually, as just this huge awakening for me.

Because I was afraid of the poachers. Right? I knew they had guns, and they were criminals. And I was so devastated by the death of this big female giraffe, and yet when we showed up to the giraffe, nobody was really sad, like not the Tanzanian researchers, not the park service. What happened was that everyone got to work. The community, the local Maasai community, came from miles away with baskets and buckets, and everyone took giraffe meat, even my research team.

And I was very much guided by them, because they both represented the local Tanzanian population, and like highly educated ecologists. They cooked giraffe meat for dinner, and I ate it. And what it taught me was that I had been miseducated about really complex topics like poaching. It was seen as just very straightforward, very black and white even.

Like this is bad. Anyone who kills an animal is a criminal. The reasons that they do it don’t matter. We have to stop it and lock them up. And by being a part of this community that didn’t celebrate– they did not at all celebrate this tragedy– but they made use of this meat, and it helped people, I realized, oh, I need to really question what kind of miseducation I’m receiving in my traditional Western science education.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And let’s pivot to your work in the US. You study large carnivores, and a lot of your work has been on black bears. So what is a day of tracking and collaring bears look like?

RAE WYNN-GRANT: Oh my gosh, so bears are the best.


I started studying black bears with this team, in Nevada. We would be out in the arid wilderness of Nevada. And we would have this big pickup truck, and we’d drive the truck as far as we could up these mountains. And we’d jump off and jump onto an ATV and buzz up the rest of these mountains or canyons, as far as we could go. Then, we’d jump off the ATV and hike into these very wild areas to set camera traps, to see if we could find bears.

And if we did find evidence of a black bear, if a bear walked past our camera trap one of those days, we’d then set a cage trap for it. So that we could trap the bear for just a few hours, sedate it, and attach a GPS collar to that bear. Let it go again, and then track its movements for a couple of years. And all of that data, if we did it across several bears in an ecosystem, it would tell us about the patterns of these bears, the habitats that they choose, which means the habitats are very important to them, the habitats that they avoid, and how frequently they might get in trouble with people.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And I wanted to ask you about one particular bear that you tell the story of. You found it, it was no longer alive, and it had this ketchupy surprise in its stomach. Can you tell that story and what you learned from it, about our human existence with bears?

RAE WYNN-GRANT: Yeah, and I’m realizing I have all of these stories of dead animals.


Which has not been defining my life. Most of them are alive. But one day, my research partner and I were out and about, doing our work, and we got a call that someone had found a dead bear. And that was just very suspicious, and my research partner, who had been doing bear work for 20 years, thought probably was shot. And it’s not hunting season right now, so this might be a crime.

We decided to go out there to investigate we got a GPS point from this hiker, and we found the bear. And it was very mysterious what was going on. This bear was in this stream, and we hauled the bear out. And we checked its body for a bullet wound, and we couldn’t find anything.

And so my research partner said, we’re going to take it into the lab to be necropsied, but we can do a little of the field necropsy here. So we ended up getting our little knives out and, essentially, dissecting this bear to try to figure out what was wrong with it. And we were mostly looking for a bullet on the inside, some evidence that it had been shot.

And we couldn’t find anything, until we got to the stomach. And we opened up the stomach, which was just like bulging. It was so full, and as we pierced to the stomach, just hundreds of ketchup packets spilled out of this little bear stomach.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Like the little packets you get for free at the restaurant?

RAE WYNN-GRANT: The little aluminum packets that you get at any fast food restaurant.


RAE WYNN-GRANT: And we realized this bear that was fairly young had traveled close enough to a town, gotten into a dumpster that was not locked up properly, probably pierced through one ketchup packet, and said, oh, this is delicious. Ate so many of them, I mean hundreds of them. Went back into the forest, probably found this little stream to get some water, being so uncomfortable, and eventually died from the blockage in its system.

And it was a tragic story, I sometimes even cry when I just recount it. And it made me feel furious, because as triumphant as bear conservation has been in the United States, there are these human-caused problems that just constantly show up, and it’s so unfair to these animals. So in some ways, it reinvigorated me in the conservation space, that we have so much human education to do. But it also reminded me of these very, very nuanced ways that we’re impacting wildlife everywhere.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m talking with wildlife ecologist Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant about her new memoir. You are now a nature TV host yourself. You co-host Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom– Protecting the Wild. Congratulations.

RAE WYNN-GRANT: Oh, thank you. Thank you. It is so awesome and also completely surreal.

Even when I wrote my memoir, I wrote all about my dream to host a nature show and where that came from. And I turned in my book, and a couple of months later, I got the call from Wild Kingdom, that they were revamping the show. They were bringing it back to NBC, on Saturday mornings, where it debuted 60 plus years ago, and they asked if I’d be interested in hosting. And I called my editor for my book, and said you will never believe this.


The thing that I wrote about throughout every chapter of my book, it’s actually finally happening. And spoiler, there is now an epilogue in my book where I talk about getting that call and how this new chapter of my life is unfolding.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That must have been particularly sweet, because you say there was a point where you were explicitly told by TV folks that, no, you can’t host a show. Right?

RAE WYNN-GRANT: That’s right. I didn’t just hold this desire in my heart and stay quiet about it. Once I emerged from graduate school, having lived around the world, studied wild animals for decades, just really gotten all the chops, I started trying to shoot my shot, and I pitched myself.

The furthest I ever got I was speaking to a real executive at a network, and this man said to me, hey, you are the real deal. You’re so impressive. It’s pretty amazing, but you’ll never host a nature show. You’re not a White guy with a beard.

Just look around. Those are the only people who host shows. That’s what America wants to see, and you’ll never have it. So I suggest you give up.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Do you have any advice for other people who’ve been made to feel like nature and conservation or being a TV host just isn’t for them?

RAE WYNN-GRANT: Yeah. It’s a lie.


But I would also say, when it comes to a job or a career that you really want that maybe you’ve been told isn’t for you, I have to say, push on, but also really, really make sure that your mental health comes first, your self-worth, your dignity. You don’t need to beg for a job, and sometimes, there are real barriers that you need society to break for you. Like I don’t think that I’m the first Black woman to host a wildlife show on network TV, because Black women have never wanted to do that until now. I think that there are real societal barriers that have just now changed.

And then when it comes to nature and the outdoors, again, society needs to step up and make this change. There’s been so much violence, genocide, just absolute horrors that have taken place in American nature spaces. Even our national park system was largely based on the removal of people from those lands. So there are historic reasons why some people, mostly people of color or from other target groups, have been excluded from nature, nature conversations, the conservation movement, but that’s changing. And I think that having representation on TV is one way to make that change, but there are movements being led by all different intersectional groups, and it gives me so much hope for the future.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thank you so much for joining me.

RAE WYNN-GRANT: Thank you so much for having me. This was awesome.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant is a wildlife ecologist and co-host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom– Protecting the Wild. She’s also the author of Wild Life– Finding My Purpose in an Untamed World. To read an excerpt, head to sciencefriday.com/wildlife.

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About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

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Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

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