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‘It’s important you know I grew up in the ’hood,’ says this wildlife conservationist from Philly

She found her calling when she found a mentor who looked like her at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Corina Newsome is pictured with Wilbur, a Palawan binturong, which is a type of bearcat.
Corina Newsome is pictured with Wilbur, a Palawan binturong, which is a type of bearcat.Read moreCourtesy of Okwa Andrew, Raw Image Solutions

Meet Corina Newsome, a Philly native and wildlife conservationist who’s known online as the Hood Naturalist.

• On her Hood Naturalist nickname: “I didn’t want people to think that when they saw a black girl in nature that I had to be someone who grew up in nature or the sticks. It’s important you know I grew up in the 'hood. I don’t come from here."

• Philly’s pulse: “When a team wins, or a person wins, if there’s any cause for celebration on the block or citywide, it feels like you share the same blood, the same energy. It feels like you’re one person. I still feel that pulse.”

As a wildlife conservationist, Philly native Corina Newsome has weathered forests, beaches, and marshes — where she’s suffered as many as 200 gnat bites in a single day. But the most unsettling environment she ever endured was living on a former plantation in Georgia during her first year of grad school.

“My ancestors literally died on that land, were mistreated on that land,” she said of the property, which is now owned by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. “This is a weird reality — that I am literally standing on the shoulders of these people."

Newsome, 27, had never been to the Deep South before becoming a biology graduate student at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga., where she’s in her second year. Her mom and grandma back in Philly asked her to be careful, especially in situations where she finds herself one of the few — or only — black people.

“The richest and most untouched natural spaces are in places that are socially hostile," Newsome said. "That’s why you don’t get a lot of black people in backwoods situations.”

But she wants to change that.

Infectiously passionate about wildlife, Newsome is equally as enthusiastic about inspiring more people of color — especially those from urban areas like Philly — into careers in the natural sciences.

“There’s no inherent reason why we aren’t represented here," she said. “It’s exposure and representation.”

Newsome knows it firsthand. If not for seeing herself in a black zookeeper at the Philadelphia Zoo when she worked there as an intern for three summers, she wouldn’t be where she is today.

Newsome grew up in Germantown, where the closest bit of nature was a turf of grass down the street with a lone willow tree on it. Sometimes robins would stop through. Twice someone found a snake. That was the only wildlife she saw. Even squirrels were rare.

Fascinated by animals, Newsome devoured wildlife encyclopedias and savored every National Geographic she could find.

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She volunteered at Germantown Animal Hospital after school, but one day, she saw blood during a procedure and fainted.

“I freaked out because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do if I couldn’t be a veterinarian,” Newsome said.

The summer before her freshman year at Malone University in Canton, Ohio, a family friend whose sister worked at the Philadelphia Zoo suggested Newsome apply for an internship there. The friend’s sister, Michelle Jamison, was a black woman and the lead carnivore keeper.

“Until I saw her doing it with my own eyes I never considered I could do it," Newsome said. “She provided me with exposure and a mirror — a representation of myself to realize not only was it a possibility, it was a possibility for me."

In 2015, Newsome graduated with a bachelor’s degree in zoo and wildlife biology. She worked at zoos in Cleveland and Nashville but always knew she wanted to study birds more after becoming “obsessed” with them during an ornithology class in undergrad.

“There’s a lot of existential reasons, and some concrete ones,” she said, of her fascination with the feathered.

Birds are global, often flying across entire countries and continents during their migration, Newsome said. And while fragile and hollow-boned, many can fly for hundreds of miles without ever resting on land.

“To think that something seemingly so frail accomplishes such a massive physical feat is incredible,” she said. “At the moments when I feel the most weak, the most incapable, the most fragile, when I see a bird it reminds me that does not disqualify me."

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In 2018, Newsome followed her passion for birds to Georgia Southern University, where she’s focusing on avian conservation.

Perhaps nowhere is Newsome’s elation over the natural world clearer than on her platforms in the digital world, like Twitter, where she tweets about wildlife, social justice, and diversity to her more than 49,000 followers under the handle @hood_naturalist.

From getting stoked about watching bird migration on weather radar (Y’all listen to me bird migration is CRAZY!) to losing it over seeing a purple gallinule bird (Holy crap! Holy crap! Holy crap! Shut up!), Newsome’s palpable sense of wonder reminds us of the joy we can get from what’s already around us.

Newsome said her unbridled passion is due, in part, to her Philadelphia spirit.

“People always describe me and their Philly friends as really intense," she said. "That intensity translates to some really beautiful things when we leave and go other places.”

During these intense times when our own rhythms are disturbed, Newsome said looking to nature can remind us that not all is lost.

“We’ve been so disconnected from the natural rhythm for so long and now that ours is disrupted, we can look back to the natural rhythms for a sense of calm and peace,” she said.

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