By Jeanna Packard
When he was 6 years old, Animal Planet host Jeff Corwin met a snake that became his ambassador to the animal world.
He discovered the creature in a stack of wood at his grandparents' house. Watching it slither deeper into the pile, Corwin -- impassioned by the hunger of discovery -- began casting logs aside. Finally, surrounded by scattered wood, the snake lay coiled before him. Drawn in by its majesty, he reached out. The snake did likewise, latching onto Corwin's arm.
When he entered his grandparents' house, snake attached, his grandmother demanded he get rid of his reptile friend. "But I love it!" he replied.
Wednesday night, Corwin shared his passion for wildlife, the environment and conservation in a Kennedy Lecture Series event at Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium.
"When I was little I'd come home and ... get frisked by my mom. I was always bringing in frogs, bugs, etc.," he said. "One day I heard the toilet flush, and I ran upstairs screaming, almost knocking over Grandma, because I had been keeping salamanders in the toilet."
Students, faculty, staff and community members listened as the conservationist-turned-TV star-turned author recounted his adventures and shared his mission to leave a diverse environment for the next generation.
"He discussed making a 5 to 10 percent difference, which struck me," said sophomore Sandi Combs, a special projects coordinator with University Events who assisted with Corwin's visit. "I can recycle my newspaper and take baby steps toward conserving the planet's resources. ... I watched his show when I was little, but my opinion (of him and his causes) is better informed now."
Corwin was nothing if not informative.
One of the more serious issues he discussed was the tumultuous relationship between economic profits and sustainable practices. Rather than being at odds, the two can work in harmony, he said. Don't chop down a rainforest; find a way to make money from its life, such as ecotourism or sap extraction, he challenged.
Corwin pointed out that wildlife exploitation is an $11 billion industry, behind narcotics and arms trafficking. To reduce it, people need know the value of conservation and have help finding alternate sources of income.
"I went to Cambodia and found the parts of five tiger bodies for sale. There are only 12 tigers left in all of Cambodia, and this woman could have had 20 percent of the tiger population of the country in her one shop," Corwin said.
Conservation is a complex matter. Many influences contribute to animal extinction, including growing populations, increased demand for resources and environmental changes. And one problem can't be fixed without addressing others, he said.
Corwin asserted that professors can act as catalysts for environmental movements by developing courses that address man's impact on the environment and pursuing interdisciplinary solutions to these complex topics. Information is an avenue to promote change, he said.
Taylor Randall, a senior journalism major and member of the university's Sustainable Living Organization, was encouraged by Wednesday's packed house. (Director of University Events Gretchen Stephens said more than 2,000 people attended -- and close to 250 had to be turned away.)
"I'm excited to see the student body listening to a speech about saving the environment," Randall said. "Access to information is the first step in bringing people toward environmental conscientiousness. … I agree with Jeff. If you appreciate nature, then you instinctively want to protect it and be around it."
Prior to Wednesday's lecture, President Roderick J. McDavis and First Lady Deborah McDavis hosted a discussion involving Corwin and students in the university's scholars programs.
"Meeting prominent public faces in person humanizes them and removes the pedestal," said Mark Skillings, who oversees the Appalachian Scholars Program. "Students can take away inspiration to explore their role in life and what they can do for the world.
"For Corwin it started when he was 6, but didn't completely click until he was going into grad school," he said. "The scholars -- who are 18,19, 20 years old -- are discovering their paths and understanding that it is a process. They don't need all the answers today."