Battle for Survival
Is the wildlife journalist facing the same fate as the whooping crane and the bowhead whale?
Blissfully sleeping for about five hours in a tent pitched on snow as hard as concrete, Jerry Kobalenko isn’t disturbed by the 24 hours of daylight and -15?C air of the polar desert. The writer, drawn to Arctic exploration, has travelled all night and is halfway through a 500-kilometre trek, camping on Ellesmere Island, the most northern point of land in the world, engrossed in field research he will later incorporate into a book and an article for Outdoor Canada. What does wake him on this May morning in 1989 is an unfamiliar noise that he cannot describe but knows can only be one thing.
In long underwear, Kobalenko peeks out his tent. His sled, which he purposely parked 15 metres away in the hope that any passing critters would play with it instead of him, is gone. Kobalenko peers to the left. About 40 metres away, he spots his overturned sled and, scattered across the snow, all his provisions. Beside it is the culprit licking frozen cocoa dregs from his mug: a huge, hungry polar bear.
Alone, with no radio, Kobalenko thinks methodically. He pulls on wind pants, a parka, fluffy camp booties, and grabs a 12-gauge shotgun, flicks off the safety, and goes outside. Hearing Kobalenko, the polar bear looks up, leaves the sled in an instant, and jogs toward Kobalenko as if to say: “It’s my grub now and I’m not giving it up!” The bear closes in to about 15 metres when Kobalenko raises the shotgun and fires a one-ounce slug. He misses. The gun, which has no shoulder rest, recoils, slamming Kobalenko in the mouth. Still, the blast causes the bear to veer off. Kobalenko, bleeding, stumbles to retrieve what’s left of his equipment. The grey duffel bag containing his food, his means to survival, is missing, but the damage to his sled, a six-inch crack, is more of a love-tap.
Survival in the wild-la survivance-is a traditional theme in Canadian wildlife writing that dates back more than a century and continues to manifest itself in contemporary wildlife journalism, as it did in Kobalenko’s story. Established by pioneering narratives of men and women persevering in the harsh Canadian bush and tales of animals suffering from human encroachment, the genre still evokes notions of Canadian victimization, both animal and human.
But today’s wildlife writers face additional challenges to their survival. Even though Canada possesses one of the largest areas of uninhabited land in the world and wildlife is part of our national consciousness-a fingerprint of our identity-there are only a few venues that publish wildlife journalism in Canada and these cater to a fairly small readership. The limited resources of most magazines make it difficult to fund time-consuming excursions into the field, such as Kobalenko’s. The results are lower market profiles, diminished recognition, and a paltry payback. In addition to financial challenges, bringing wildlife stories to the public remains a monumental task. Working with nonhuman subjects and trying to attract readers who crave a link to their own lives forces wildlife journalists to employ unique narrative strategies and to play up an animal’s appeal. In this age of doom-and-gloom environmental reportage, writing about “pure” nature and the wonders of animals is even more difficult. Despite the hardy tradition and the importance of nature to Canadian identity, the genre is still in a delicate, unstable situation, perhaps more in its infancy than its grandeur. Survival, for Canadian wildlife journalism, remains an ultimate goal; the outcome is uncertain.
Canadian wildlife journalism is rooted in a strong literary practice that began more than 300 years ago. “It’s a very peculiar literary tradition,” says Rick Boychuk, editor of Canadian Geographic. In journals and letters home, explorers and settlers wrote about their fascination for and fear of nature. The Canadian attitude toward nature was split: it was both monstrous and beautiful. Human survival in the wild and death by nature were staple themes before the turn of the century. But as our exploitation of nature increased, writing about the threats and the harshness of the Canadian bush started to wane. Nature and its wild inhabitants were coming to be seen as victims.
In the late 19th century, two forefathers of the genre, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton, began writing factual accounts of animals poisoned, caught in traps, snares, and cages. They developed a new and novel approach-telling the story from an individual creature’s point of view, creating sympathy for the animal and vilifying man. The stories in Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known went even further, relating the inner emotions of the suffering creature. Projecting human emotion onto animals may not be an objective representation, journalistically speaking, but the technique provided an entry into the animals’ psyche that provoked readers to take a stronger interest in the well-being of something other than themselves.
Canada’s first major conservationist, Grey Owl, of English decent but living as an Apache, continued this tradition, writing four books about his “beaver people” to save the creature from overtrapping in the 1930s. He gave the beavers names-McGinty, McGinnis, and Jelly Roll-and wrote about their emotions and social interaction in an attempt to give them value beyond their pelts.
Contemporary animal scribes-even while deciphering complex behaviour, population cycles, and ecosystems-still employ narrative strategies developed by Grey Owl, Seton, and Roberts. Journalists often zoom in on one creature, which offers the reader a closer, more personal link to the larger group and issues. Vancouver writer Daniel Wood introduces us to “Lola” the wolverine in his Equinox article “Glutton for Punishment,” and to “Bean” in the Beautiful B.C. piece “Cougars on the Rebound.” Alberta writer Sid Marty begins his Canadian Geographic grizzly bear story “Homeless on the Range” with the tale of “Four Toes.” The choice to use what are essentially biologists’ tag names-naming nonetheless-works to create a subject readers can relate to.
Although writing in the animal’s voice is rare today, practitioners do speak on behalf of their nonhuman subjects, creating sympathy for them by vilifying their opponents. In contemporary wildlife writing, human interference, diminished habitats, and overhunting are common antagonists that threaten the “animal hero.” Wayne Grady, one of Canada’s best nature writers and science editor of Equinox, provides a concerned voice for coyotes in his article “The Haunting Powers of God’s Dog.” And like his predecessors, Grady enforces the theme of animal victimization. He writes: “After World War I, we threw cyanide canisters into coyote dens, as if the dens were bunkers. We’ve run them down with snowmobiles until their hearts burst. We’ve sawed off their lower jaws and then let them go so that they would starve to death. We’ve wrapped them in burlap bags soaked in gasoline, set torches to them, and turned them loose in the desert. After World War II, we used new poisons.”
While concern for the environment has spurred much current work, wildlife writers-who, like Jerry Kobalenko, plead boredom with the typical issue-as-villain narrative structure-are also writing stories in which the “pure” natural world figures. “A few years ago, when the environment was the hot subject, everyone was doing environmental smoke stack stories,” says Kobalenko, “and the problem is virtually every environmental story is boring. It’s so hard to make all those political machinations and sorry details interesting. These stories were originally presented a little bit like CBC radio-it’s supposed to be good for you, so, like cod liver oil, you swallow it. But magazines and newspapers, being businesses, quickly realized that people weren’t reading these environmental stories very much so they’re not quite that popular anymore.” Alan Morantz, editor ofEquinox until late January, says it doesn’t depend on us “screwing up” animals’ lives. “It’s just accepting them, accepting their really wondrous natural history. As far as I’m concerned, that’s good enough. It doesn’t need any more storyline than that.”
But stories without conflict or antagonists are difficult to make interesting, as is featuring nonhuman subjects as central characters. Stripped of the usual tool of interviewing their subjects, wildlife writers have developed other techniques to get the story. Simply interviewing an expert biologist is not enough. Wildlife reporters are driven to get close to their subjects, observe them, and experience them, rather than rely on background material or what researchers say. Morantz says the best wildlife journalists write about what they see in the purest sense and tend to notice subtleties. He says mainstream journalists get the facts right but miss many of the small details that good wildlife writers catch.
This, along with traditional research, renders an authenticity that is characteristic of wildlife writing. But readers, as much as they may be fascinated by wildlife, still crave a human connection in these stories. Wayne Lynch, a Calgary-based science writer and photographer who specializes in animal behaviour, says the success of wildlife writing depends on building a sturdy bridge between animals and humans. “People love to read about themselves,” he says. “This is what people want, this is what makes animals more interesting. Boy, are we self-centred.”
Fulfilling this desire for a link between readers’ lives and an animal’s often comes in the form of first-person narration. Daniel Wood’s article “Cougars on the Rebound,” in the Winter 1996 issue of Beautiful B.C.magazine, is a prime example. Wood, who has worked in the media for nearly 25 years, spends much of his time in the bush trying to recreate his experiences in writing for armchair naturalists to enjoy. In this article, he describes creeping through a near-impenetrable forest on Vancouver Island in search of the province’s largest wildcat. By inserting himself into the story, he allows readers access to his emotions and senses, to the point where they can almost feel the blood drain from his body when confronted by a brawny puma: “I’m frozen-motionless-in the ankle deep snow, listening to the eerie ffft ffft ffft sound of footsteps. Wildlife biologist Apryl Hahn is standing beside me, the earphones of her radio receiver now collaring her neck, her eyes peering as intently as mine into the dense and dripping second-growth Douglas-fir forest just ahead. We see nothing. … I can hear the electronic bip bip bipping, crisp and insistent, issuing from Hahn’s earphones. … And then it happens. From behind a rotten, snow-covered cedar stump-astoundingly close-a cougar suddenly appears: orange-brown, massive, its tail swishing, its head turned in our direction, its eyes staring at the two wilderness intruders. The cat is less than 10 metres away. We freeze.”
Wood says he “earned his stripe” to appear in the article. He believes in buying his way into a story, not simply including himself as a way of making it more appealing to readers. “It’s best if the writer is in the bush, in the woods, on the water, where the wild animals are,” says Wood.
To lure readers, some practitioners also write in an elevated style, employing poetic and lyrical devices often not characteristic of journalism. Poet and writer Sid Marty, who has worked as a park warden in the Canadian Rockies for 13 years, is a master of this narrative strategy. In an article that appeared in the September/October 1995 issue of Canadian Geographic titled “The Lynx and the Hare,” Marty details his sub-Arctic adventure tracking down Noda-a mysterious male lynx who’s managed to outwit a high-tech radio tracking system designed by the Pentagon. The conclusion to the story is a remarkable example of the literary prowess of this wildlife writer: “Two dark beings towered up through a swirl of falling powder on the white surface of Wolverine Lake, horned and watchful. They turned suddenly into bison, bison a prairie boy had never imagined seeing among black spruce and tamarack. Just as suddenly, they set off at a gallop and vanished into the far shadows of the black spruce where, doubtless, Noda’s great luminous eyes watched, noted, and then blinked shut, willing the night to come on, come on, and make a warm white creature run once more.”
While wildlife journalists have continued to push the boundaries of their genre with such inventive narrative strategies, the public is still a reluctant consumer of wildlife journalism. Lynch says just because we’re surrounded by nature or interested in wildlife doesn’t mean we want to read about it. There remain only two big Canadian publications for such stories: Canadian Geographic and Equinox. Smaller magazines, such asNature Canada and Seasons, cater to a specialized market made up of Canadian Nature Federation and Federation of Ontario Naturalists members, respectively, with little newsstand presence.
With a small market, limited readership, and few outlets, wildlife writing is anything but a lucrative business. The smaller nature magazines pay writers in the range of $500 to $1,200 for a feature story, depending on the author and the length. Nature Canada, for instance, pays a meager 25 cents per word, while Canadian Geographic offers $1 per word. Many of the magazines that publish wildlife articles have limited funds to send writers into the field. Many writers think there aren’t enough magazines to support the amount of time, research, and money required to produce wildlife stories. Still, they take the poor returns because the job fuels their passions if not their pocketbooks.
Kobalenko, who finds much urban journalism dull, says he’s not interested in who’s repairing the sidewalk cracks in Brampton or some political scandal. “I and a lot of outdoor professionals live and breathe what we do, and it’s not a great living. People at The Toronto Star bring in a nice, fat paycheck, whereas here you’re not making a living, you’re supporting a lifestyle.”
The magazines, as well, have faced turbulent times. Outdoor Canada, bought by Camar Publications Ltd. last summer, is undergoing an editorial shift from a general outdoors publication to one that covers more “traditional” activities such as hunting and fishing-because apparently that’s what readers want. In 1996,Equinox was sold by Telemedia Communications Inc. to the smallish Malcolm Publishing Inc. in Montreal, which also houses Canadian Wildlife and would buy Harrowsmith Country Life a month later. Malcolm proceeded to replace the entire editorial staff, except for Morantz, who was appointed editor and the only full-time staff member. Malcolm has since tried to return Equinox to its “roots” by doing longer, more heavily researched wildlife stories. But with a fairly minuscule budget over the last couple of years, the magazine has been forced to find alternatives to expensive field stories that require travel.
In comparison, American outdoor and nature magazines, such as Outside, are flourishing. Outside‘s success is perhaps partially due to its consumption of nature perspective. Articles offer readers information on how to “use” nature, with stories about extreme outdoor adventures and wildlife excursions, revealing of the way Americans have traditionally viewed nature. Historically, American wildlife writing featured the hunter as protagonist as opposed to the animal. The stories were about challenging and ultimately conquering nature. Animal deaths were not projected as tragic but rather as successful. Although this hunter/hunted relationship is less obvious in contemporary writing, the split between humans and animals is still apparent. Writing about nature as an “otherness” to be conquered or consumed lends itself nicely to a “consumer” editorial format. Even the American magazine Wildlife Conservation has departments and stories that focus on what animals can give humans, such as “Star Attractions,” “At the Zoo,” “Where Things Are Hopping,” and information on other wildlife hot spots.
The uncertainty of the Canadian market for wildlife journalism makes for differing opinions on editorial direction and, sometimes, testy relations between writers and editors. Insufficient budgets for field research and low fees mean a lot of writers are punching out fast, easy stories. Lynch believes the quality of wildlife writing is failing as a result. “There are so many magazines with superficial stories and quick and dirty 1,100 words on all you ever wanted to know about the walrus.” Such stories, says Lynch, are mediocre at best because they lack personal observation and new insight, simply regurgitating already published research. Lynch believes it’s crucial for wildlife writers to “get out and get dirty,” as he puts it. “They sit in their little house in front of their computer and they say, ‘I think I’ll do a book on eagles,’ or ‘I think I’ll do a book on bears. I’ve never seen a bear, but I’ll read the literature and I’ll talk about it anyway.'”
Barbara Stevenson, editor of Nature Canada, agrees that financial constraints (like her $5,000 per issue writer budget) not only make it tough for writers to do original research, but also difficult for editors to attract quality writers with specialized knowledge. She believes some writers may depend too much on the personal and poetic song and dance, rendering articles saccharine. Victoria Foote, associate editor of Seasons, says nature magazines, including the Federation of Ontario Naturalists’, are straying too much into the entertainment zone. They are not as challenging as they should be, leaving difficult issues untackled because they want to present the feel-good version of things. Stevenson agrees but acknowledges that readers also need a lift from the constant dose of heavy issues.
The kind of animals magazines feature sparks discord as well. For magazines such as Canadian Geographic,Equinox, and Outdoor Canada, stories about the bigger, more ferocious animals seem to be the key to intriguing readers. But in smaller nature mags, with a committed member reader, lightweight critters such as birds, rodents, frogs, and insects make the cut. Daniel Wood says we are losing sight of the real web of nature, which includes small animals, plants, and microbes. Shrews, he says, have a lot less sex appeal than bears and therefore don’t get the play they deserve. Wood believes readers should be exposed to it all, not just the big, mean or cute and romantic parts, so he takes a more provocative stance in his work: “I’ve always made sure that there are animals eating other animals, and I write about their sex life, and I show pictures of their dung.”
But the ultimate decision over which animals are profiled and how they are presented in a magazine is the editor’s. Lynch says what readers are getting is often an urban editor’s version of the story, not the writer’s, who has likely just spent a lengthy amount of time in the field. “They edit extremely heavily,” says Lynch. “I deal with publishing houses all over the world, and I’m constantly astounded by editors from Paris, editors from Tokyo, editors from Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, trying to tell me how to portray a walrus, and they’ve never seen a walrus!”
Beyond the squabbles, the future of the genre may be looking up. In 1987, 1991, and 1996, government surveys showed that more than 80 per cent of the Canadian population participates in wildlife activities such as reading wildlife books and magazines or watching wildlife films. The Print Measurement Bureau survey, which measures total readers of magazines, indicates that Equinox and Canadian Geographic are gaining readers, with Equinox up from 525,000 in 1997 to 573,000 in 1998, and Canadian Geographic up from 798,000 to 818,000 in the same period.
And if this is any indication of consumer appeal, putting a critter on the cover (and a big one at that) usually results in good sales for magazines. Equinox, which tries to run at least one animal story every issue, has animal covers on half of its six yearly publications. The editor of Canadian Geographic, Rick Boychuk, says issues that display animals on the front do very well on newsstands. Animal stories are also appearing in general-interest magazines and online publications as the outdoors grow in popularity among urban dwellers. Ten years ago, the only animal you would have found in Toronto Life would have been served up between two slices of rye. But over the last five years, the city lifestyle magazine has published several stories on nature and wildlife-about urban raccoons, termites eating the city, and an exploration of the forests along the sides of the Don Valley Parkway. Even the story of Grey Owl is getting exposure-Hollywood style. The movie is scheduled to appear on the big screen in spring 1999 with Pierce Brosnan cast as the Canadian legend.
There is also hope that popularity for the genre will come from a younger generation. Seasons‘ Victoria Foote believes that while aging boomers are saying, “Don’t clutter our lives with another issue, we just want to know where we can go for a good hike,” younger people are more savvy when it comes to environment issues. “In high school, kids are much more educated about the environment than I ever was,” says Foote. “We didn’t talk about the environment at all. Now, a lot of kids are vegetarians for political reasons. It never would have occurred to me to do that.”
A new generation of readers who view nature as something more than a retreat for human use may liberate writers and editors to present a greater range of subjects without putting the story teller or techniques front and centre. As Morantz says, “We have to eat, we have to make love, and we have to know who we’re a part of and what we’re a part of. It seems so basic to me.” As Jerry Kobalenko’s experience suggests, there is wonder in that. Scared but determined, Kobalenko followed the polar bear’s tracks to a ravine about 75 metres away and recovered what was left of his food. Interestingly, the polar bear had not ripped open the duffel bag with bestial force, but had hooked one of its claws through a loop of fabric and opened the zipper daintily. The bear also passed up two kilograms of smelly kielbasa sausage in favour of chocolate and, with connoisseur know-how, ignored the Swiss and went for the Belgian.
The wondrous details made Kobalenko recall an episode he experienced as a three year old living in Montreal, when he developed his fascination with nature. Kobalenko was watching his mother scrub the balcony when he spotted a black caterpillar about to be squished beneath the mop. He shouted, “Mom, don’t!” and tenderly rescued the caterpillar from the dangly strands and let it crawl away in the garden below. Weeks later, Kobalenko and his mother were in the garden when suddenly a black butterfly appeared. She said, “Look! It’s the caterpillar come back to thank you.”
Tanya Coulthard was a Managing Editor, Production for the Spring 1999 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.