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How Rae Wynn-Grant defied expectations and became an ecologist and host of a nature show

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

So our next guest - let's have her make the introductions.

RAE WYNN-GRANT: I'm Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, and I'm a wildlife ecologist. So get this - in 2017, I had a major network executive say to my face, Rae, you will never host a nature show. You're not a white guy with a beard.

RASCOE: She's no white guy with a beard. But Wynn-Grant now hosts the show that pretty much made nature shows famous - the one Marlin Perkins was on back in the day - "Wild Kingdom" on NBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WILD KINGDOM")

WYNN-GRANT: Today, we're visiting Edwards Air Force Base to explore a groundbreaking head-start program that's helping to save desert tortoises.

RASCOE: Rae Wynn-Grant is now exploring her own journey in a memoir, "Wild Life: Finding My Purpose In An Untamed World." Welcome to the program.

WYNN-GRANT: Thank you. It's amazing to be here.

RASCOE: So talk to me about when and how this dream of working in nature and with animals really took root in your life, because you weren't someone who grew up camping and all of that stuff, right?

WYNN-GRANT: It's exactly right. I come from a Black American family, very urban upbringing, and although there are plenty of Black folks that, you know, spend time in the outdoors, that's not what we did. So my access to nature as a kid, as an adolescent, as a teenager, was always through nature shows. And that would take me to Africa, to Asia, to South America, to Australia, you know, all over the world, to learn about and fall in love with wild animals and their conservation.

RASCOE: Part of you wanted to do it, but you didn't see anyone that looked like yourself doing it, so you didn't really think it was possible.

WYNN-GRANT: Oh, yeah. The only thing I knew is that, like, these British and Australian white guys on TV - I want to be just like them. I literally went to college, and in my first week of college, I went to my adviser, and I said, what do I have to major in to be a nature show host? But I never quite believed that I could. I mean, there wasn't a woman, there wasn't a Black person, let alone a Black woman leading in this space that was at least visible to me as I was coming up. You know, I heard the little clip you guys played. I even had people say to me, it's impossible - right? - because of your identity.

RASCOE: I mean, I do have to ask you about what made you think it was possible or what made you keep going. It seems like you did have this experience where you studied abroad during undergrad. You were in Kenya. And it seems like that experience was really transformative.

WYNN-GRANT: What made me keep going was a bit more education. And this all really clicked to me my junior year of college when I decided to sign up for a study abroad program. And I was 20 years old, and I had never been hiking, camping, fishing, hunting. I'd never pitched a tent. I'd never put on hiking boots. And there are 12 students. We were living at a campsite on the outskirts of Amboseli National Park, and my instructors for the program were Black Kenyan men. And it was this wonderful, incredibly important moment for me where first I was getting my first experience in the outdoors. I was seeing my first wild animals. And I was being taught by Black experts who really saw me. And I honestly think that that really changed everything in terms of my career path.

RASCOE: You write often about how understanding animal behavior and habitats helps inform your understanding of humans, and this happened in a really striking way when you were presenting a paper on bear mortality.

WYNN-GRANT: I was studying black bears in North America, and I found myself, right after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., at the biggest ecology conference, presenting research on the mortality risk of black bears in America. And the idea is, I had spent years trying to figure out which areas of the landscape are really dangerous? Where are they more likely to be killed by people? And I bombed that presentation because I remember feeling on that stage that I didn't care about that right now, what I cared about was the mortality risk of Black boys and men in America at that moment. And I felt so sure that the research community I was presenting to would not want to talk about that. And it helped me to realize that I needed my science community to recognize that if you care about science, you have to care about scientists. And scientists are Black and brown, and immigrants and Muslim and from the LGBTQ+ community, and that, although science may be neutral, the identities of scientists aren't always neutral. Sometimes they can be political.

RASCOE: Why do you keep seem to always come back to bears?

WYNN-GRANT: I got real hooked real fast. Studying black bears allowed me to be very hands-on with wildlife. I wasn't just studying them in theory or watching them from a distance. Every so often I was touching their fur, measuring their bodies, and really learning about them very up close. And that was really special for me to kind of do the opposite of what all of those nature shows taught me when I was a little kid. You know, for so long I thought that, gosh, you know, nature is an ocean and a continent away. I'm from San Francisco, and nature is just a couple hours away. There's bears, and there's mountain lions, and there's bobcats, and there's forests, and there's mountains, and there's adventure, and there's finding myself. And I don't necessarily have to go really far.

RASCOE: And you have realized that childhood dream of hosting a nature show. So what is that like for you?

WYNN-GRANT: This is a radio show, right? So you can't see that I'm smiling. It is an absolutely surreal feeling that I have, completely full circle, and I feel that I'm now serving in a different way. Before it was research and now it's education.

RASCOE: That's Rae Wynn-Grant, host of "Wild Kingdom" and author of the memoir "Wild Life." Thank you so much for joining us.

WYNN-GRANT: This was such a pleasure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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