Famous last words

Mark Gold interviews wildlife television presenter Chris Packham.

What inspired your interest in and enthusiasm for animals?

My parents always encouraged me in whatever I was interested in and I am told that I was already fascinated by animals before I could speak! It seems to have been a primal thing. I’ve still got some of the presents I was given for my 2nd birthday and they are largely books on animals and birds. My mother was very tolerant and allowed me to fill the house with animals and I remember being fascinated by ladybirds and tadpoles.

How did that passionate interest translate into working as a wildlife television programme presenter?

By complete chance. As a youngster I wanted to be an astronaut, until a biology teacher at school stimulated my academic interest. As a teenager I was in a punk band, then I became interested in wildlife photography, bought a camera and got a job as a camera assistant. When I was about 18 I can remember my younger sister telling me that I spent my whole life looking at animals and talking about them and that ‘you should be the next David Attenborough’. But it was a long time later that I went for an audition for The Really Wild Show.

How has working with animals in the wild influenced your views on animal cruelty?

At all stages I prefer animals in the wild – there is nothing that matches seeing an animal in harmony with its environment. Seeing that creates a quantum leap in admiration – you develop a purer respect. By contrast, you develop a growing awareness of how bad things are for other animals

…Mostly domestic animals ?

Mostly, but not exclusively. I’ve also seen tigers in South American zoos in rooms no bigger than a cellar. I just think that humans are often psychopathic in the behaviour we regularly dish out to animals – breeding 3,000 pheasants to be killed for some kind of sport, for instance. How can killing things for pleasure be condoned?

Which issues most concern you?

I am fiercely anti-hunting – hare coursing, fox hunting. They’ve had their day – they are antiquated, medieval. Even though the hunts have little effect on the population of foxes, they are interfering in the countryside. More than that, how can we encourage people to respect the wild and at the same time allow people to dress up and kill – the contrast in symbolism is too great.

With so many species threatened with extinction and so much institutionalised cruelty, do you view the next century with optimism or pessimism?

My expectations are not cut and dry. As a pragmatic biologist I conclude that there is not a lot of future for big mammals – I don’t see a planet with rhinos and tigers. For the first time in evolutionary history one species has dominated the whole planet and we are an arrogant and destructive species. On the other hand, one thing I’ve learned is life’s tenacity. If there is a way to survive it will. Whatever we do we won’t break life on earth.

If everything is so determined by biological evolution, is there any point in campaigning?

Well, one of the qualities I have as a human is a conscience. And even for selfish reasons I like seeing animals in their wild environment and I am not going to like myself if I don’t try to help their survival.