It’s Only Natural

From frolicking orcas to gay penguins, local conservationist Connel Bradwell explores queerness in the animal world.

It's only natural - YAM Colour Issue - JAN/Feb 2024
Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

BY David Lennam 

Lesbian albatrosses, gay penguins, hermaphrodite banana slugs.

Sexual preference beyond our own species gets scant attention. But a young Victorian conservationist is out to write a new narrative for that.

Cue the David Attenborough voice for timeless authority:

Here the lesbian albatross stares down from a rocky cliff to pounding waves, assured of her place in the flock despite her choice of pronouns. And this easily tread-upon slug simply oozes the sort of confidence only a creature who is neither one nor the other — but both — can have. The penguins, resplendent in their matching tux and tails, like the figures atop a wedding cake, two grooms seemingly aloof as they waddle towards another meal.

OK, that was never Attenborough. But it could be Connel Bradwell, who has landed his own episode of CBC-TV’s long-running The Nature of Things, suitably titled “Animal Pride.” (The air date has yet to be announced.)

“It’s on gay animals, queerness, and why that’s important in the context of the world that we live in because it’s very much like, ‘So what?’ ” explains Bradwell, adding that to protect the natural world we need to understand and accept whatever it offers.

“We are basically going around the world looking at how queerness exists in the natural world and how learning about queer wildlife leads to better conservation of species.”

He’s journeyed to Hawaii, England and Antarctica, and discovered some same-sex loving right here on Vancouver Island (that banana slug).

Bradwell seems the perfect choice to create and host the documentary — a pioneering queer wildlife conservationist and educator who’s changing the conversation about what’s too often deemed unnatural.

The 32-year-old has established himself as the sort of go-to queer eye guy to challenge conventions about the “natural” world. Earlier, his work on the CBC’s online series Out & About sought to give a voice to what he refers to as the misrepresented wild kingdom: the LGBTQ+ population of the animal world, every bit as “out” as is the human side of the community.

The episode’s producer, Victoria’s Carolyn Whittaker, calls him a great science communicator who can digest the complexities and regurgitate them to the rest of us.

Bradwell, she says, is more character than host as he sets out on a journey to explore why, as a scientist, he hasn’t been exposed to queer behaviour in the animal world through biology classes, books and even other documentaries.

Bradwell says the science is all there.

“We’re not debating whether it’s natural. We’re kind of showing people that it is natural. But it’s based around this idea that, as a queer person, you constantly hear that you’re unnatural.”

The idea for the documentary came from the orcas. The U.K.-born Bradwell did a co-op term here during university, researching our resident killer whales.

“I saw them doing same-sex behaviour and I never really heard that being talked about before,” he says. “In order to conserve something you have to know about it. In a lot of these species, same-sex interactions are very important and if we don’t see it, or we ignore it or we are discriminatory against it, we’re not taking into account a big part of their lifecycle that could actually save them.”

Bradwell is a fluid conversationalist. Our chat is all over the place: on not calling seagulls “sky rats”; where the ducks of Beacon Hill Park fly to at dusk; how, as a child, he had boxes and boxes of toy animals that he would sort into their ecosystems; and how his work puts a new spin on Noah’s Ark. I even mention his resemblance to British actor Ben Whishaw, the latest Q in the Bond films (“Who?” looking him up on his phone, “I usually get comedian Jack Whitehall.”). Oh, and that continuity thing. Being on camera for a year of filming means never changing your look (“Don’t go to the gym too much, don’t get a tan, don’t shave, keep your hair the same length. And the moment someone tells you, ‘Don’t you start to think, well, what if I want to get a big face tattoo now?’ ”)

Does he think his research will ruffle some feathers?

He laughs. “Yes, I think I will. I think I’ll ruffle some feathers of the people I want to ruffle the feathers of. Because it’s a science show we’ll ruffle feathers, but you cannot pick apart the argument that I think we’re putting down. It’s solid. We’re not trying to take the natural world and box it in and make it unnatural.”

Four Important Questions for Connel Bradwell

What are birds trying to tell us?

“I don’t think they’re trying to tell us anything. I don’t think we’re the centre of their universe. But we can learn and see from them what’s going on in the world.”

Are we doomed?

“We can’t be doomed. Because I can’t accept that we, as a society and a species, are doomed. I can’t look around and say, ‘Oh, you’ve got no future’ … Indigenous conservational science is a way forward. We have a framework of how we can do that and it’s happening.”

Are you an optimist?

“It’s funny to call me an optimist. I don’t think anyone would ever describe me as an optimist. I have a dark English sense of humour. But I’m optimistic in terms of there are solutions and a way out; we just have to actually implement them.”

How do you inspire young people about nature?

“Allow people to have their own connection with nature. Let them go and explore. My thought is if they start to feel comfortable in a natural state, that’s great because maybe one day if it’s threatened they might go, ‘Oh, I really liked that place when I was a kid. Let’s not destroy that.’ They won’t think of it like ‘Oh, that’s where that guy made me do this and that.’ ”