Endangered Species vs. Humans. Is one more important? Does it have to be a battle? This film explores the divergent, yet common perspectives of a cattle rancher and a wildlife biologist.
Jeffrey Mittelstadt is a first year master’s student studying documentary storytelling in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Jeffrey uses his storytelling to dig deeper into questions surrounding wildlife populations, and is currently working on his master’s thesis about of restoring populations of endangered carnivorous mammals in the southeast. Because of the unique nature of his work, reesenews talked with Jeffrey further about his studies.
Reesenews: How did you get involved in making films on things like wildlife and endangered species?
Jeffrey Mittelstadt: My passion, since I was a toddler, has always been for wildlife. This passion translated into a desire to reduce our environmental impact throughout my career in environmental management and sustainable enterprise. However, my career was missing the direct connection with the wildlife that motivates me each day. I decided to leave my career and come to UNC-Chapel Hill for wildlife documentary production and to apply my backgrounds in economics, policy and business to help develop collaborative solutions for wildlife issues.
RN: What is it like to film and report on such dangerous animals?
JM: Personally, I believe the animals I film and report on are less dangerous than humans when entering their homes uninvited. When red wolves in the wild circled around behind us a week ago, I would have been worried by myself. However, the red wolf experts had already informed me that red wolves are afraid of us. It turns out, the wolves just kept going. They just did not want to find out what this strange, loud, clumsy animal was in their backyard. The same goes for bats (explained in detail in the piece I am putting together) and the Florida Panther. There has never been a Florida Panther attack on a human being. In fact, my interviewee Larry Richardson told stories about panthers less than 15 yards away from him without knowing it. They run away, they have never come after him. I should note for legal purposes, this does not mean you should EVER approach any of these animals in the wild. Remember, it’s like a stranger coming into your home and threatening you. They might defend themselves.
RN: What questions has your work brought to light that you would want to explore further?
JM: There have been as many questions as answers for me, because I’m in the beginning stages. Who has a right to the land, humans or the animals? Who called it home first? Is there a way to share? I believe there is, and that is one of the reasons I am making this my work. How do we communicate the importance of diversity in species, to all people with varying perspectives and interests? How do we communicate the sometimes indirect impacts from loss of a keystone species on our individual lives (e.g., the importance of bats in controlling mosquitos and beetles that threaten our agriculture, trees, and gardens)? How can we celebrate the people who have dedicated their lives to saving entire species?
There have been answers, too. The Red Wolf (Recovery) program is an incredibly successful program. It pioneered species restoration. Few realize that the gray wolf program learned from the red wolf program. It’s the first successful program of it’s kind; and it’s right in our backyard! I also learned there are multiple locations in North Carolina directly involved in the red wolf captive breeding program where you can see these ambassadors, such as the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science in Durham.
RN: What do some of these phenomena mean for North Carolina wildlife?
JM: This is an important and exciting time for North Carolina. As I said, we are leaders in species restoration. The Red Wolf Coalition is looking for funding to bring ecotourism centered on the amazing red wolf to a small county that has fallen on troubled economic times. Almost two million bats have died in North America due to White Nose Syndrome; a fungus recently discovered on bats in caves in North Carolina this February. Bats are incredibly important to keeping our insects in check for comfort (they can eat up to 3,000 insects in one night) and agriculture. Bats actively hunt certain species of insects that are considered agricultural pests. Without these keystone species, problematic deer populations will grow and other carnivores will hurt populations like game hunting birds.
RN: Why should North Carolinians care about this?
JM: My answer to the previous question begins to address this. There are reasons we should all care. People worried about agriculture and economy should know that they can spend less money for pesticides if we have bats. Red wolves and cougars (which we used to have in the Carolinas) would help keep deer in check but would not do so to the extent that deer hunters would even notice, and in tough economic times this is an opportunity to bring tourism dollars to more inland areas of North Carolina that are looking for an economic boost without destroying their habitat. An average estimate for Columbia, NC is a gain of $993,000 for Tyrrell county from developing red wolf ecotourism.
This piece was produced as part of the J582 Interactive Multimedia Narratives course at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.