Ronan Donovan, explorer, photographer and host of Kingdom of the White Wolf on Nat Geo WILD dishes on everything [Exclusive Interview]

Photojournalist Ronan Donovan captures himself in the Artic. Pic credit: Ronan Donovan

Ronan Donovan is not only matinee-idol handsome (yes, he does look Bradley Cooperesque), but he is a real adventurer and a thoughtful one at that.  He makes his living as a wildlife photographer and has spent many years working with National Geographic; the pinnacle of achievement for those in that area of work.

After years of working with all sorts of social mammals, he was recently tasked to capture the lives of wolves as he shows in the Kingdom of the White Wolf that premieres on Sunday, August 25 on Nat Geo WILD.

Ronan Donovan spoke with Monsters and Critics about his atypical childhood, how he abandoned big opportunities in the city to follow his passions, how he came to work for National Geographic, what makes Kingdom of the White Wolf special, what his hopes are for the Endangered Species Act, what he likes to do when he isn’t working, and more.

Donovan was born in at home in Vermont to educators/adventurers John and Susan.  His parents instilled a respect for the animal kingdom in him from a young age.  After a few bad decisions in his early youth, he reinvented himself and became the respected conservationist, photographer, and storyteller he is now.  He has worked with all sorts of species like the spotted owl, chimpanzees, gorillas, and wolves, with those being at the apex of his work.

This new series shows Ronan going up to the high Arctic to capture white wolves as they really behave.  We get to see the strong familial bonds, as well as the power dynamics.  His lengthy stay provides some fascinating insights into this often vilified species.  His photos from this experience will also be featured in the September issue of National Geographic.

Eureka, Nunavut, Canada – Ronan Donovan sitting on ATV near base camp. Pic credit: Market Road Films/Tony Gerber

See this fun and fascinating interview below

Monsters & Critics:  Now, Ronan, your story begins before you’re even alive.  Your parents were adventurers.

Ronan Donovan:  They were. Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of a natural progression in some ways when you go back and look at history. My parents, one of the craziest things I think they did was sail across the Atlantic Ocean, just the two of them on a 35-foot sailboat, spent a year at sea. It took them four weeks to get to Ireland. That sounds terrifying to me. But they successfully did that.

M&C:  Where are they from?

RD:  My mom is from Connecticut, New Haven. And my father grew up in Massachusetts.

M&C:  Oh, okay. I thought they were Irish for some reason.

RD:  Yeah. My dad’s side of the family, Donavan, is Irish for sure and maybe two generations removed. And so they went over to visit their family. They’re not off the boat. They’re born and bred in America [laughter].

M&C:  What did they do for a living?

RD:  Sure. Well, they were both educator teachers. That’s how they were doing that. My mom has her master’s in special education. And my father was in the Navy out of college and volunteered to serve in Vietnam and then came back and got an education as well. And so they did that for, yeah, several decades before I was born. And they both have second careers. My mother was a nurse for 20 years. She retired two years ago. And my father got into organizational development kind of strategic planning long-term visions for big corporations, big businesses. He was a consultant for years.

Ronan Donovan talks about his early life

M&C:  Now, where did you grow up?

RD:  I was born in my house, home birth the 2nd of the 2nd. My older brother, Eamonn, was born at a local hospital. My mom did not like the experience and wanted a more kind of intimate, personal not so sterile hospital experience. So she was, again, pretty adventurous and brave and had me at home in Norwich, Vermont, a little town, just a couple of thousand people right outside near Dartmouth College.

And so yeah. I was born on 24 acres of mixed conifer deciduous forest. And yeah, played outside all the time. And that was my childhood, was learning about the species around the house. And since my parents were educators they were very interested in communicating the natural world and teaching us about it, my brother and I.

M&C:  And I hope this isn’t insensitive. Are your parents still alive?

RD:  They’re both still alive. Yeah.

M&C: Okay. You were saying were. I just want to make sure. Great. 

RD:  Yeah. I guess, I was speaking in the past tense, careers is what I meant past—but yes. They’re both still alive. Everyone in my family is still alive, just lost a grandparent. That’s all. But they get old, and that’s what happens.

M&C:  It is still sad though.  Were you always interested in animals? 

RD:  Yeah. I mean, I grew up with two golden retrievers—sweet beasts. So it was kind of my introduction, I guess, to relationships that you can have with animals. I kind of extend those into the wild counterparts now in my work. And then, as I said, my parents are very adamant about my brother and I learned about the natural world. They lived in Provincetown, Massachusettes for like 10 years before they had kids and then they made a decision when they decided to have kids to move to a rural area. They chose Norwich, Vermont to be closer to nature and raise their kids in that environment.

So yeah, definitely from a young age, we would go on these nature walks around the house and had these journals that my mom would help us make from a young age.  We would draw pictures of the butterflies and the birds that we would see. And then my mom would write a little note about the day and what we saw. And just kind of a sweet example of really what I do now in many ways is go out and take pictures and record information and data about species. And then I look back and realize, oh, that’s what I was doing when I was five and six years old.

Wolf pup standing next to a carcass. Pic credit: National Geographic/Ronan Donovan

M&C:  And you live in Montana now?

RD:  Yeah. I’ve lived in Montana for the last 10 years. I’ve lived in Bozeman, Montana now for the last five years.

M&C:  What led you to go there?

RD:  Well, I went west when I was a teenager. My dad was the first to introduce my brother and me to kind of the Rocky Mountains and the west. We’d go out fly fishing in the summer, once a summer for a couple of years. And I was just blown away by the scale of wilderness.

My dad is still and does Outward Bound instructing. It’s kind of like outdoor experiential learning. And so we would, as kids, go out in the Rockies, just kind of pick an area in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming or the Beartooth Mountains in Montana and just pick a series of lakes and bushwhack orient ourselves with a map and compass and go figure out a place where it was far from people and off-trail and just go spend a week or two in the backcountry. And that was just incredible.

I’d never experienced mountains, the wilderness like that growing up in Vermont which is also a very wild place in contrast to lots of other parts on the East Coast. But I just got hooked at a young age on the west. And then after college went out and worked in Yosemite National Park in California doing spotted owl surveys for the park there for a couple of summers. So I just needed to move to the west and Montana became that place.

M&C:  Sounds wonderful.

RD:  Yeah. Oh, it is, yeah.

M&C:  Now please tell me about your educational background.

RD:  Well, I was a problem child, just too much energy. They said you’re ADD, threw me on some Ritalin for a couple of years and fifth, sixth grade, I just couldn’t sit still. Super hyper kid. And that’s the problem when you need to conform to the six or eight hours a day education system that we have for kids.

And I at age 13 was tried and convicted of two felonies and four misdemeanors for stealing various things. I didn’t realize that that was a reward system, a social reward system that I got feedback from amongst my social group of oh, it’s cool to steal stuff and they would say, ‘Ronan, will do that because he’s kind of off the walls.’

And so that changed the course I guess of my earlier education. I went to a good camp out in Oregon in the desert for a couple of months one summer going into eighth grade. And then from there, I went to a reform school in Vermont where there were only two other kids in my freshman class.

I skipped eighth grade, went into this reform school, and then was in a boarding school for my entire high school. And then I had turned myself around basically at that boot camp which was a success in terms of just getting me to wake up and realize you can’t get felonies. You want freedom and you’re pushing against the boundaries of society and you have zero freedom.

And it was a pretty kind of easy switch that I made then. So yeah, I went to University of New Hampshire and went to there studying wildlife management as a freshman and then I switched to business after my freshman year in the sense that all the case studies we were learning about in wildlife management were all about doing an environmental impact assessment ahead of a mining company or a logging operation. And I wanted to learn more about what runs the world which is corporations.

And so I studied international business and economics. That was my graduate and bachelor of science degrees and then had a minor in environmental conservation. I interviewed for two jobs that my dad had set up through his consulting connections in Boston with John Hancock Mutual Funds and was offered two jobs in the business world.

We did that whole song and dance and last minute just could not see myself living in Boston in the city. And backed out and turned down both jobs. So kind of made a 180 decision to not pursue the business world. So then went into just spotted owl work was what I did after that and that’s my only formal education.

M&C:  And were you always interested in photography?

RD:  I took the black and white class in that reform school and took to it there, but it wasn’t kind of the light bulb moment I guess. And then so I didn’t really pursue it after that. And then when I went out to California to work on the spotted owl project, my roommate at the time had a basic entry-level Canon film camera and I just got the same setup as he did like used equipment I got on eBay and took it out to Yosemite. And then that was full throttle excitement about photography in conjunction with the wildlife work that I was doing.

And it’s Yosemite National Park which is just an incredibly breathtaking iconic landscape. There’s an Ansel Adams gallery in the valley of Yosemite that I would go visit. And it was my first exposure to professional photography and how impactful that could be for people. Just feeling how impactful it was for me seeing these images by Ansel Adams.

And then interacting with some professional wildlife photographers that were deep in Yosemite visiting. And then I had a good friend who was my field partner. The work was you’d go out and monitor these backcountry spotted owl sites for eight days on, camping, backpacking, having these wildlife encounters. And I would photograph that.

And this friend of mine, Mike McDonald, was really advanced in photography and so he just helped me immensely early on learning just basics. And I had a little book of every photo that I would take and exposure, aperture, lighting conditions and I’d do the slide film. So you have to send it off and wait a month to get it back and get the slides back.

And I found a projector that was in the attic of one of the houses we were staying at in the park and we’d sit down in the dark in the evening and cry over how many mess-ups I made.  I made lots of mistakes. Then I learned from that one or two frames in the roll that I’d be excited about.

So that was the start. So that was my introduction to photography and excitement in a way that it became all I wanted to do. And so all the wildlife work that I did since then, I was eight years as a wildlife biologist traveling all around the world. I always was photographing everything along the way. And then the transition came out of the research. In 2011, I researched chimpanzees in Uganda for a professor at Harvard University. His name is Richard Wrangham.

I was lucky enough to be in the right place, at the right time and using photography as the research tool. So photographing chimps and collecting data through imagery and then also using photographs in conjunction as a way to tell their story as well. Kind of my first click of like, ‘I might be better or feel like I’m making more of an impact through photography and storytelling  than just through hardcore science.’

National Geographic September 2019 The Arctic

Ronan Donovan’s road to National Geographic

M&C:  Sounds interesting.  What kinds of animals have you studied?

RD:  So spotted owls were the first. Then I worked on and off for six years doing work on marine mammals. So whales, dolphins, turtles which aren’t obviously mammals, but it was part of the job, around the world. Mostly around Africa. Then was chimpanzees in Uganda. Then a couple of summers in Montana doing baseline wildlife surveys for amphibians,  reptiles, small mammals, bats, birds, all the small critters. And then, yeah. That was the general suite of animals.

M&C:  How did you start working with National Geographic?

So my first connection to National Geographic was after the chimpanzee work. That was 2011, the man I was working for, Richard Graham, he had a connection to a photographer who works for National Geographic named Tim Layman. And Richard said, ‘I’ve been doing chimpanzee work for 30 plus years. I think these images are interesting. Would you mind if I pass along some of them to this friend, Tim Layman.’ So that’s how it started and Tim said, ‘These are interesting as well. You should send these to the editor at National Geographic who is the senior natural history editor there.’

And Tim basically was the connection to National Geographic and he’s an incredibly gracious and kind photographer because, in many ways, I was a direct competitor of his. He’s also known for doing work with primates also in the canopy. So climbing trees and photographing wildlife in the trees, which is what I did with the chimps in Uganda. And so Tim connected me to National Geographic. I sent photos to the editor and she said, ‘Do you have more?’

And then we just went from there. That was 2012 and then we just kept in contact. Nothing ever came of the photos. And then in 2014, she offered me a job assisting a photographer named Nick Nichols who has worked for National Geographic on and off for 30 years, one of their legendary wildlife photographers. And he had a project in Yellowstone and needed assistance for that.

So I went to work for him for a year-and-a-half. And then after four months into that project, the magazine needed somebody to photograph wolves in Yellowstone for that project and Nick went to bat for me with the editors at National Geographic and said, ‘Hey look, he’s a young guy, unknown entity, but at the same time, I think he can do this. He’s hungry and excited and it takes a lot of time and so give him the opportunity.’

So that’s how I got my first images published in National Geographic magazine. That was 2016, there was an issue on Yellowstone, single-topic issue. May 28, 2016, and from there I’ve worked for National Geographic primarily for the last five years.

Ronan Donovan talks about Kingdom of the White Wolf

M&C:  Oh, that’s exciting. Now, tell me about your new show, please?

RD:  The new show is called Kingdom of the White Wolf. And it is about a family of Arctic wolves living way up north, the furthest northern landmass in Canada. It’s a really extreme environment. And it’s a project that really came out of that Yellowstone project where I was trying to photograph wild wolves there and show their behavior and natural history.

I felt at the end of that project that I hadn’t really done the wolves a fair portrayal in Yellowstone just because the wolves around Yellowstone are so hunted, trapped, and every pack that lives in Yellowstone has lost a member of their pack to hunting. So they have a negative fear of humans. Which is a good fear to have in Yellowstone but what that means is you rarely see them.

When you do see them, they’re typically shy, they’re close, and you just don’t necessarily get the natural behaviors that are really important when you’re trying to tell these stories through photos and videos.

Proximity counts. You need to be close to your subjects to feel that intimacy, you have to feel their behavior, interactions with each other as family groups with pups playing. I never got to do that in Yellowstone. And then I had an opportunity to visit this place in the Arctic in 2016 and realized that that place is magical because the wolves there had no negative encounter with people.

So they have kind of this passive view of humans, where they’ll approach you and be curious, and sniff your boots, and check stuff out. And once that initial encounter subsides, then they just basically ignore you and you’re able to follow them every day, all day because there’s 24 hours of daylight, and do a more full and fair story about their lives that isn’t affected by humans directly every day.

And you are able to showcase the wolves for what they are which really is family-driven top predators that hunt the same prey that humans evolved to hunt. And they have to cooperate and work together to feed themselves which is how humans are as well. And just you can showcase all the similarities that we have to wolves in this place.

M&C:  What is something that surprised you to learn about the wolves?

RD:  Just how devoted they are to each other. We know that they’re pack animals. That’s well known around the world of literature. But to see it first-hand just to see how the female chooses the den site and the pups basically become the center of the family for the whole summer.

These big, giant wolves, a 120-pound animal that’s rolled over on its back while the pups play and climb all over it. And they’re incredibly gentle and licking and kissing. And then they, at the same time, use that same 120-pound body to go wrestle a giant animal that weighs 10-times their body size and bring it to the ground. And they sometimes will — I saw this moment where they just brought down this musk ox.

And the wolves are exhausted, and they’re essentially chasing these animals for 20, 30 minutes. They’re utterly exhausted. And the female who was not the strongest, she’s the oldest member in the pack but the most respected. She was at the carcass. And the pups were trying to come feed. But the animal wasn’t dead yet. It was still kicking. And she kept growling and pushing the pups.

And then once the animal died all the pack members started to come in to feed and the female wouldn’t let any of the other adults come. She let only the pups come in and feed until they were filled. And then the pups went off and took a meat nap. And then she let the other adults come in. So the idea that the adults do all of the work and then they have to make sure that the pups are well-fed and strong, it’s kind of that next generation was really striking to see.

M&C:  Were you ever afraid of them?

RD:  No. I was never in fear from the wolves. They just don’t see humans as prey. I mean, I fully respect that they make they’re living taking down animals way much more than I do and they have that capacity. But there’s something about the human shape, the uprightness— we look tall perhaps. But they respect us. And they respect our presence.

It’s not to say that wolves haven’t attacked people. But overall, it is not a common thing in the United States and North America or around the world. It’s only been, I think, four recorded deaths in the last hundred years in North America from wolves. So they’re just not the vicious killers we think the are. You contrast that with 20 people a year die from cows [laughter]. And we don’t vilify cattle. We eat them in their delicacy. But we still love them and grow them. I mean, there are tens of millions.

That’s part of the story, is why I agreed to be a character in this story and not how to just be a purely wolf film was that I wanted to show people that humans in this area are not on the menu, that these wolves aren’t just killers that are always out there trying to get people. Not to say that I wasn’t trying to become part of the pack. I was there to document them as a family group but just also being able to show proximity to them in a way that was safe and they’re relaxed and they’re not out there trying to hunt people.

M&C:  Who would enjoy your show?

RD:  I hope everyone would enjoy my show from small children up to adults. It’s totally a PG show.  It’s really directed at people who might not know very much about wildlife or know that there is this place way up in the Arctic where these wolves and these musk oxen. They prey at shaggy dogs live and make a living.

I hope that everyone’s able to see the value of wolves on the landscape. I speak to that as them being part of the ecosystem and maintaining the balance. But also just being surprised that these wolves are incredibly loving and sweet on each other is inspiring. I hope that it surprises people and that all ages can enjoy watching it together.

Wolves huddled together. Pic credit: National Geographic/Ronan Donovan

M&C:  How does the Endangered Species Act affect wolves?

RD:  Yeah, so the current legislation proposed to remove the protection of wolves in the industry, subject protection of wolves across all lower 48 states. And what that would do is really hinder the ability for states to bring rules back and to use wolves as a tool to bring balance to the ecosystem and a sense of controlling prey.

We have 48 states that historically, every single one that had thousands of wolves within that state, and now we just have a handful of states, five or six states across the west, that have viable populations of wolves that are in over several hundred, but that’s still not enough to control the hundreds of thousands of prey species that we have.

You look to the East Coast, where you don’t have wolves we have coyotes, which are not really actually native to the east coast. They exist in the US because there aren’t wolves and move east after wolves are eradicated from their eastern United States. Carries our western species. But there’s hundreds of thousands of deer that exists in New England, in Connecticut, and in the States have been trying to come up with ways to keep them from just coming into the cities and people’s yards, and trying to sterilize white-tailed deer with darts.

They do all these calls at night, somebody a hunter can hunt 20 plus white-tailed deer in Connecticut if they get all the tags and permits to do that. The simple solution would just be to bring some wolves back and control that population. And this Endangered Species Protection Act removal of wolves would greatly hinder the state’s abilities to do so.

M&C:  So what do you want the government to do?

RD:  I want the government to acknowledge nationwide that they have a right and they’re mandated to restore species to their historic ranges. And that’s why the Endangered Species Act was created, was to protect species that are going extinct and to mitigate the issues with that, and to strip the protection across the entire United States would mean that wolves are going to continue to only inhabit a small fraction 10, 15 percent of their historic range. And that’s not why the government is set up to protect species and to restore balance in the ecosystem.

M&C:  Now, I’m going to a tangent on you. Is there anything you want to add about your personal life?

RD:  Well, I think that a lot of people, they just assume that this is an incredibly easy lifestyle [laughter]. Everyone’s just like, oh, you’re living the dream. That’s a classic tagline everyone tells you. And while 100 percent and fortunate and agree that it’s better so lucky place to be to have the ability to work on these intense projects and to be outside and in the wild and to experience these things and see these wildlife events, you’re also sacrificing a lot and defensive like time away from family, from loved ones.

Physically, I just got knee surgery in March from injuries that I sustained on this last project in the Arctic because of the nature of the work was so physically demanding that I tore the meniscus in both my knees. Had to get them surgically repaired and it’s a year out from this project and I’m just now starting to lift from the physical and emotional fog of being in the Arctic for three months.

M&C:  Yikes. I hope you’re recovering smoothly.

RD:  Yeah. It’s just kind of, at the end of the day it’s physical, manual labor that we do as filmmakers and photographers. Sure I go on talk shows, yesterday, which is not my happy place but most of the time it’s really challenging work. So I guess that’s what I would like to add about my personal life.

M&C:  Do you have any pets now?

RD:  I don’t have pets. I wish. I’m gone too much. The last five years I’ve traveled for like eight to nine months a year which is more than I would like. But kind of when you’re freelancing which is what we all do for National Geographic, you got to say yes to all the things so you can pick and choose later.

M&C:  Fair enough. What do you like to do for fun?

RD:  I like to go bird watching. It’s one of my passions and hobbies. I like to go mountain biking and hiking. But yeah, just watching wildlife sometimes is nice without having to feel the need to work, produce images or content. I’ve never had like a middle mode, it’s either full-on throttle work with wildlife and watching or it’s just relaxing and take the cycle in and enjoy.

M&C:  Now you seem far more of an outdoor guy for this question to work but I’m going to try anyway. What are you watching?

RD:  So I don’t own a TV, one of the new generations of streaming. What is the last thing I watched was? It was a documentary on, it’s called The China Hustle. It’s about the cropped up stock market industry in China where they’re lying about how much profit they’re making. This is not interesting for you. I can’t remember the last series I watched. I watched Game of Thrones, so whenever that came out. The last grand finale.

M&C:  At least you’re with all of us on that one. That’s good to know.

RD:  Yeah. Well, you’ve got to pay attention to the popular culture storytelling if you’re going to work in the storytelling space, so. That to me is really well-done storytelling. It’s interesting.

M&C:  What is something you have not done before but you would like to do?

RD:  What is something I have not done before that I would like to do? I have only been scuba diving like once so I would like to do that for real and not just go with a buddy who just throws you in the water and you just try and keep up. I’d like to go scuba diving in warm water.

M&C:  Where you can see all the beautiful flora and fauna?

RD:  Yeah. And not freeze your face off which is what I did the first time in Massachusetts with a buddy and it was freaking terrible.

M&C:  Is there any charity work or philanthropic causes you’d like to mention?

RD:  I partner with non-profit typically when I do my work, scientists. So the one that I’ve been working with in the past is the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International which is created by Dian Fossey and in her name to conserve mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And then I’m also working with a smaller NGO in Uganda called the Bulindi Chimpanzee Project that’s about conserving chimpanzees that live outside of protected areas across Uganda.

So the work that I do is not nearly as impactful if I do it on my own. So I’m all about partnering with local scientists and local NGOs that are doing the real work on the ground every day.

M&C:  How do you like people to connect with you?

RD:  To connect with me?  Instagram.  It’s Ronan_Donovan.

M&D:  And what advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps when it comes to work?

RD:  Yeah, I mean, I consider myself a photojournalist. I’ve chosen to highlight my passion, which is conservation, wildlife conservation. And my advice to people is to figure out who wants to be photojournalists, they don’t necessarily need to be wildlife, it’s to figure out what they’re passionate about and using photography as that tool.

I don’t consider myself a photographer, I consider myself somebody who’s working on issues and stories. And I use photography as a tool to highlight, showcase, and share those issues.

The end goal isn’t just photography. It’s about using that as a tool to tell stories about something you love. So people love their local park. They want to be an activist and considered a local product. They can use photography to do that.

If they love telling stories about fishermen or some sort of other industry farmers, then they can use photography to do that. But it’s you have to be obsessive in order for this career to work, I think. And so figuring out something you’re obsessed about, and then applying photography to that, that’s what I would say — you don’t have to study photography to become a photographer with National Geographic. In fact, most of the colleagues did not study photography. They have other careers or other passions that they then apply photography to.

M&C:  What’s next for you?

RD:  Well, the series comes out on Sunday night, and my goal has always been to return to that island to film the wolves in winter. They are white wolves that evolved on a predominantly snowy white landscape and wow, I had to show them in summer for the pups in the family, I really want to see them at their strongest with their big winter coats, which is at the end of winter, February, March, when their prey is at their weakest and the landscape and the terrain is so much harsher. They may they’re actually the most uncomfortable and hot and like least percentage of body fat in the summer when I saw him.

I want to see them when they’re just big, strong wolves that are living up to their full potential and getting stronger. That’s winter. So if the series does well, perhaps National Geographic with me back in winter.

M&C:  I hope they do. I hope your knees heal up soon. That’s always scary.

RD:  Yeah, they should be up for it by then I could have another like four months before I get back to 100 percent, but I’m like jogging slowly now and able to do a lot of strength training. But yeah, actually my next immediate thing — I head to Rwanda in a couple of weeks to do more work with mountain gorillas.

M&C:  Cool. I like that mix up the species that you work with often.

RD:  Yeah, I mainly focus on social mammals. So the chimpanzees, gorillas, wolf. That’s kind of been my niche for the last couple of years. So it’s very similar to social interaction structures. And it’s also helpful in communicating empathy and understanding to have social animals that we are as humans, so easier for us to connect with them.

M&C:  So is there anything you’d like to add?

RD:  I hope people will tune in and watch my roles and be excited and curious about wolves and perhaps ask in the states they live if there’s any goal of bringing them back.

Ronan Donovan Pic credit: Mark Theissen

Kingdom of the White Wolf premieres on Sunday, August 25, on Nat Geo WILD.

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