How a Snapping Turtle Sparked the Adventure of a Lifetime
Emmy Award-winning adventurer and animal expert Coyote Peterson spent much of his childhood exploring the woods behind his home in the small town of Newbury, Ohio. It was here he first discovered a love of the wild, and it was here that he took his first big risk. On a warm summer evening, muck boots up to his knees, he came face to face with a creature he nicknamed “The Dragon”—an enormous snapping turtle.
In a moment of adrenaline-fueled curiosity, Peterson plunged his arms into the water and wrapped his body around the reptile’s shell. Turtle versus boy, Peterson emerged victorious. He gloated as the oversized beast waded unharmed back into the murky brush and disappeared. The turtle was one of hundreds of species Peterson encountered throughout his early years.
When he wasn’t immersed in a creek or exploring the forest, Peterson was glued to animal adventure TV shows, including Steve Irwin’s Crocodile Hunter. He also spent a great deal of time at the local library, captivated by books such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Misty of Chincoteague. Together, these simple childhood experiences changed the young explorer’s life forever.
In his new book Brave Adventures: Wild Animals in a Wild World, Peterson says, “There are moments in your life where time becomes divided into two parts… ‘before this’ and ‘after this.’” After his encounter with “The Dragon,” Peterson knew his future included some combination of animals and adventure.
Today, Peterson hosts Brave Wilderness, a network of shows that has accumulated more than 1.1 billion views and 7.4 million subscribers on YouTube. Each episode features up-close animal encounters, in which Peterson often endures stings, pinches, kicks, bites and barbs from an endless array of creatures. But Brave Wilderness hasn’t been a solo journey. It’s a team effort that began when Peterson and his business partner, Mark Laivins, director and producer of Brave Wilderness, met during college.
The partners share what has made their journey successful.
At school, the creatives honed their screenwriting and filmmaking skills, learning all they could about the craft, including the narrative and theatrical cinematic aspects that have since become synonymous with the Brave Wilderness brand. They spent six years perfecting the concept, shooting and editing hours of footage, before launching their YouTube channel in 2014. They did this while holding down full-time jobs.
“We both had day jobs that were amazing in that our respective bosses gave us a lot of leeway when it came to using our vacation time to go on trips to film, or taking meetings or interviews during the day to pitch projects,” Laivins says, who refers to these years as “Plan B to get to Plan A.”
As any entrepreneur knows, business plans often change. The partners had initially planned to create an independent film. When the economy took a downturn in 2008, market opportunities withered, especially for two guys from Ohio. TV became their next best option, yet before anything materialized, they were introduced to digital media.
“[Digital media] was something that happened out of coincidence. And we’re so glad it did, because it’s the reason we’re as successful as we are today,” Peterson says. According to him, kids today don’t know what cable is, “[b]ut if you ask them if they have an iPad or a smart device, and what they watch, they’re going to tell you, YouTube.”
Peterson never intended to be in front of the camera. “When you start developing an animal show,” he explains, “you think to yourself, Wow, it would be great to cast somebody in the role of an animal adventure host, yet that’s not something just anybody can do.” Since Peterson could catch and present animals, the team built the concept around his unique skillset, while also leveraging his signature strengths: a charismatic personality and an engaging narrative voice.
Mark stayed behind the camera filming, while also directing and producing episodes. Mario Aldecoa, a wildlife biologist and photographer, who has also become a familiar face on Brave Wilderness, was brought on as the company’s first full-time employee. The team continues to grow as each member leaves their Plan B for Plan A, bringing with them a variety of strengths and skillsets.
To keep their audience—known as the Coyote Pack—hungry and engaged, the team batch produces and releases two new episodes a week. On their last trip to Costa Rica, they filmed 18 videos in the span of 10 days. “These aren’t just your standard vlog videos,” Laivins says. “These are narrative stories with a beginning, a middle and an end.”
But quality is never sacrificed for quantity. Using a well-refined, streamlined process the team has perfected over the years, each episode includes music, voiceover narration, sound effects and color correction. “We put into every single episode what a director may put into an entire feature film,” Laivins says.
“We come from a generation of people who grew up on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas,” Peterson says. They watched what these filmmakers did with their movie franchises and how they captivated their audiences, and replicated their techniques to reach a new generation of kids in the digital space.
“What people like Steven Spielberg did really effectively, outside of creating amazing products with amazing quality, was they were able to create a culture around their projects,” Laivins says. YouTube allows the team to easily communicate and engage with their fans, creating a similar culture.
Although experts often warn against starting a business with friends and family members, the gamble has paid off for the Brave Wilderness team. “We were all friends before we went down this path,” says Peterson. Even though they were told that it’s a dangerous thing to do in the world of business, then and now, they all share a common vision and dream: being able to travel the world and educate people about animals and promote conservation.
Passion can separate a great business from a mediocre one. Peterson also attributes perseverance and commitment for the success of Brave Wilderness. “The biggest lesson is just to always know that even when people tell you no, that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible.” When something feels right, he says with familiar enthusiasm, keep at it. “Eventually, it will lead somewhere good.”
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Photos courtesy of Wilderness Productions