The story usually goes like this: A kid grows up in a small, rural town with nothing better to do than explore the surrounding fields and forests, leading them onto a nature-related career path.
For Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, though, the concrete jungle was home, and practically all she knew.
Wynn-Grant is a large-carnivore ecologist, meaning she works with lions, tigers and bears (Oh my!). However, nature wasn't exactly accessible to her while growing up in San Francisco. Wynn-Grant got her fix of the outdoors in the form of nature shows on television — telling people she was going to be a nature show host when she grew up, despite never having experienced the natural world for herself.
"I lived in a ton of big cities growing up," Wynn-Grant says. "There was very little natural land around, and I think that sets me apart from most of my colleagues who are also wildlife professionals. I knew what career I wanted without even having the experience, but that's how I realized I was passionate about it."
Wynn-Grant is kicking off the 2022 National Geographic Live series on Jan. 26 with a discussion about her lifelong passion for large carnivores, specifically bears, and the secret lives they lead. It's the first National Geographic Live at the Fox Theater after being held at the First Interstate Center for the Arts.
For Wynn-Grant, life and education are completely intertwined. College allowed her to put a name to and practice her passion for nature. It was Emory University where her path became clear.
"Once I got to college I realized there was a science to the life that I had always dreamed of having," she recalls. "I always thought of science as like, you know, lab coats and beakers, never like what I now know it to be."
She had dreamed her whole life about traveling to faraway places like Asia, Europe and South America and studying the carnivores that inhabit those regions.
"By the time I saw my first bear in the wild, I had no idea what to expect," she says. "It was 2011, and I remember it so clearly. My mentor and I were in western Nevada, and we had set a trap for a black bear. We wanted to attach a GPS device to it and collect various data about that specific bear. My mentor got notified that the trap had been triggered, and that's when I realized I was about to see a bear for the first time."
Wynn-Grant and her mentor hiked up the mountain in anticipation. She recalls her thoughts racing.
"I was hoping I wasn't going to make a mistake mostly," she says. "My mentor let me be completely involved. I'll absolutely never forget it."
Though Wynn-Grant is set apart from her colleagues in terms of experience, she also stands out due to the intersection of racial and social justice and protecting the environment.
"As a Black woman traveling to numerous rural North American towns, the reactions are variable," she says. "All of it has been directly shaped and impacted by my identity as a Black woman. My experiences have been made harder, but not always. I definitely have gotten a lot of positive attention for being a Black woman who studies large carnivores as there are so few of us, and sometimes it is just me. It's a complicated situation to be in, but being unique in these spaces has allowed me to have a platform that I wouldn't have otherwise, which is important.
"It's hard to show up and be a free, innovative and creative thinker who is poised to solve the problem of the environment when the Black community is under fire. Being able to have a relaxed and focused mind really requires knowing that your community is safe and protected. And when that's not the case, it makes it tougher to show up and do my best work."
On her podcast Going Wild, Wynn-Grant recalls racially charged experiences in her past professional life that only added to the feeling of not belonging in the world of wildlife ecology, but she also explains how she perseveres and continues her work despite the challenges that she faces in her professional life.
Her main goal is to teach others about large carnivores, and specifically she wants to inform audiences about misconceptions and information that they definitely don't know about the wildlife that surrounds them.
"What I love about this show with National Geographic is that it's not a lecture," she says. "It's giving the audience visuals and immersing them in things that they never knew about these animals. I'm basically taking the audience on a trip around the world with me where we'll learn about the eight different types of bears out there and what it is about them that most people don't know. It's just a really different and unique and fun way to learn." ♦
National Geographic Live: The Secret Life of Bears • Wed, Jan. 26 at 7 pm • $25-$31 • All ages • Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox • 1001 W. Sprague Ave. • foxtheatrespokane.org • 509-624-1200