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Megan McCubbin on 20 species we need to save, including humans

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

When I arrive here, everything about the scene is eccentric: the place looks like Fort Knox, surrounded by large, thick wood fencing, made necessary by the obsessive hatred, culminating in death threats and arson attacks, directed at Packham for his advocacy of the natural world. He’s tramping about with a wheelbarrow, and stops to say hello; or rather, what he actually says is: “Yoko Ono said that neurotics build fortresses, and psychotics live in them. I’m neither neurotic nor psychotic and I have to live like this!” Then he tramps off.

McCubbin is indoors with two crazy miniature poodles, and she looks so normal, with her calm, symmetrical face that lights up a TV screen, that you assume she’s thinking about normal things – lunch, weather, mascara. In fact, she’s thinking about glow-worms and tarantulas, the great expanse of the universe and frogs.

In her new book, An Atlas of Endangered Species, which is illustrated by Emily Robertson, McCubbin alights on 20 species (10 from each hemisphere) that are in danger of extinction, ending with humans. If this sounds stark – and, yes, it is stark – the message is more practical. If the small army of scientists, rangers and conservationists dedicating their lives to the species in her book can make the gains she describes, well, the rest of us might actually achieve something if we would just get a move on.

Part of what enables her to engage as meaningfully with a freshwater pearl mussel as with an African wild dog is that she doesn’t require animals to be cute, or emotionally responsive, to pique her interest. A lot of things about her – the teenage years volunteering in a big cat sanctuary on the Isle of Wight, her months spent in China rescuing bears, which turned into her first TV break with an investigative piece – sound pretty understandable. What teenage girl wouldn’t want to play with tigers? Which of us wouldn’t rescue a bear? But her fascination is much more dispassionate and respectful than “animal lover” really captures. “Nothing repels me,” she says, “because I understand everything’s got a place and I’ve got a real curiosity about how things are connected to one another.” We were talking about why she had a praying mantis, a tortoise and some cockroaches as a child, when she could have had, I don’t know, a cat. “I remember seeing hissing cockroaches for the first time, listening to them; it’s such a loud sound and they’re feeling so vulnerable.” She also had a “lovely tarantula, such a lovely spider. They all have individual characteristics, of course they do, just like we do. She was so calm.” Her mother was terrified and couldn’t go into the utility room, so she had to go and live with the grandparents. “Wait, your mother, or the spider?” “The lovely spider.”

This life of snakes and rodents and a barn owl named Marmite started when McCubbin’s mother, Jo, began a relationship with Packham when Megan was two. They ran a production company together, and Jo – “a very selfless human being,” Megan says – was always happy for her daughter to go off on far-flung research trips with Packham. Before she had left school, Megan had been to really remote places – such as South Georgia, Antarctica. She remembers one trip, when she was 11, “looking over this king penguin colony as the sun was setting, streams coming down from the glacier. The king penguins were loud and smelly, as they are, but beautiful and funny and entertaining and charismatic. The meltwater was glistening, the seawater was sparkling. It was one of those moments you remember like a postcard. I went back six or seven years later and that glacier had retreated. I’ve seen the frontline of the climate crisis. I’m only 28 years old.”

Before her second glacier trip, though, there was the trip to the big cat sanctuary on the Isle of Wight. McCubbin was 12, and her mum and stepfather had split up, “but they’re really good friends, and she’s always put my relationship with Chris first”. McCubbin went along because Packham was opening one of the enclosures. “It was a pivotal moment,” she says – not because this is where Packham met Charlotte Corney, who is still his partner now, but because it was where Megan met four hand-reared tigers. “You always want an animal not to be hand-reared if you can avoid it. But because these were, it gave me an opportunity to fall in love with them – it was like an invitation.

“Aysha was my baby. She was quite a small Bengal tiger. I would sit next to her all day, I would talk, tigers chuff. It’s a friendly greeting sound.” I asked her to do an impression of it, and now I wish I could play you the audio. It’s such a lovely sound and it’s also quite cute when a human does it. “I was always going between my dad, Chris and my mum, but the tigers were always there.” Big cats really love perfume, apparently. “We had a jaguar called Tequila, who was a rescue from a drug dealer; he used to walk her round London in the middle of the night. She had a real liking for Coco Chanel. She would go absolutely nuts for it.”

Living among these tame tigers was a turning point for McCubbin – but not because it informed her relationship with wild animals, as you’ll know if you’ve seen her nature programmes. She’s much more in the David Attenborough than the Terry Nutkins mould. “Humans seek relationships, from one another and from other animals,” she says, “but I respect wild animals enough to not develop a very strong bond so they become habituated to people. Because it’s a tough world for animals out there, and people will try to exploit or harm them.” Rather, the tigers made the difference because “I grew up with them, we were teenagers at the same time, though they matured a lot quicker than I did. I don’t think, without them, I would have had the confidence to go into science.” She had always struggled academically, being dyslexic. “I can remember as a kid being handed a pile of books, and the genuine anxiety and fear that I would feel having to open them. It’s like trying to climb Everest in ice skates.” But, after meeting Aysha, Zia, Zina and Diamond, “I was just dedicated to making the world a better place for them. I wanted to make the future better for tigers.”

She went to Liverpool to do a foundation degree in biological science, then did a zoology degree, spending four months in China as an animal behavioural volunteer for Animals Asia, rehabilitating bears from the bear bile farming industry. “This is a hideous, awful business,” she says, shaking her head. The rescued bears had spent their lives in tiny cages up to that point. “Some of them are more tolerant of people than others. It’s amazing how forgiving they are of humans, considering the torture they’ve been through. It was just really joyful watching them be bears again.” It was the best of times – a lot of people, locals and volunteers from across the world, coming together to save bears – and it was the worst of times: bears in terrible condition after lifelong maltreatment, other people kidnapping dogs for a dog meat festival. “An amazing experience, a very eye-opening experience,” she says, more sober than enthusiastic.

When she got back, she was approached by the producer of BBC Three’s Undercover Tourist, who had just had a story fall through. This was 2017, and McCubbin got her first presenting job, a 10-minute documentary for which they went to bear bile farms in Vietnam. The concept was, “how close can a tourist get to this sketchy underworld?” But “the sad thing”, McCubbin remembers, “is we didn’t have to go that deep undercover: you can look into people’s garages and they’re full of bears, the cages so small they can’t turn around. They can be in that cage for about 30 years.” McCubbin wasn’t really thinking about it in career terms: “I just thought, great, I can get the story out there, I can get people thinking about bears.”

She then got a job on Al Jazeera, presenting Earthrise. On one episode, she went behind the scenes with Extinction Rebellion, shortly before its major actions. “Direct action is necessary,” she says. “It’s the only way that change has ever been made.” I like people who come at activism via a cause, not ambient left politics, like me; they look more respectable, and a bit less wet. She is freelance at the BBC now, so she is not bound by rigid impartiality, “which for me is important; it’s not enough to love animals and talk about beautiful science, I have to be doing something to try to help.” She makes the caveats that direct action has to be peaceful and considered, that she’d always work with the police, and she hasn’t personally glued herself to anything, yet. “Ask me that in a few years time, or next year. How bad are things going to get? How much inaction is going to happen? How angry am I going to get? I don’t know. I’m already quite frustrated. I’m already quite desperate for change. I’m already very, very angry. But I hope it doesn’t come to that. I don’t want to be gluing myself to things. I’ve never been arrested.”

“It’s only a matter of time,” Packham chimes in. “We’re all going to be arrested, I think.” I didn’t hear him come in. Both McCubbin and Packham move very quietly, as I guess you have to if you want to get near a badger.

“I think our freedom of speech is being trampled on,” McCubbin says. “The public order bill is trampling on our rights. We live in 2023 and we can’t protest.” She’s dismayed by how the climate movement and its demos are increasingly portrayed as riotous and anarchic, “because my experience has been nothing but positive. They are beautiful events, filled with beautiful, kind-hearted people who want to do something. They are not troublemakers who want to get arrested. These are professors, doctors, highly intelligent people who feel like there’s nothing left to do but take to the streets. We can’t just be squashed. We won’t have a livable environment.”

Most UK wildlife pros live in Bristol, McCubbin says, because that’s where the BBC’s natural history unit is. But she and her boyfriend decided that “rather than be where the people are, and being sent out to the wildlife, live with the wildlife and then come back and contact the people.” They have pine martens and badgers in their garden, and spring and summer are beautiful because of the ospreys. “I need to be near wildlife and nature. Even when I lived in Southampton city centre, I’d get my nature fix from the New Forest. My flat looked over the marina and I’d see gulls flying at eye height, and oystercatchers.”

The one thing I still don’t understand is how a person loves all wildlife equally – it seems as random as loving all people equally. Surely, even within the 20 endangered species of her book, let alone the assembled life forms of the Earth, she has a preference?

“I really like sharks. I love misunderstood creatures. If I can convince one person who reads the book to love glow-worms as much as orangutans, I’ll be very happy. Because they’re not the most attractive animals in the daytime. But at night, when they light up, is there anything more magical than that? You’ve got these fairy lights twinkling at you. How amazing is that, that you can create light in your abdomen? What a beautiful thing to be able to do. Trying to imagine what it’s like to live as a glow-worm is more intriguing to me than trying to imagine what it’s like to live as an orangutan.”

So, there’s your answer: all dogs, of sorts: funny-looking dogs, strange dogs, but especially underdogs.

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