Animal Park's Megan McCubbin on dyslexia, climate hopes and Chris Packham
Megan McCubbin has overcome personal battles to become one of our most popular wildlife presenters.
This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
In 2018 Megan McCubbin saw a random tweet posing the question: what were you told you’d never be able to achieve, but have since accomplished? The stepdaughter and sometime screen partner of Chris Packham responded: “My teacher told me I would never get a degree in science due to my dyslexia. I graduate tomorrow.”
The accomplished 27-year-old Springwatch regular has continued the process of “graduating” ever since, this week joining the long-established pairing of Kate Humble and Ben Fogle on the popular BBC One daytime series Animal Park. If it’s been a battle she makes light of it, though she acknowledges why her teacher held such a pessimistic view of her prospects. “I struggled at school – I found it really, really difficult and was terrible at exams.
“Complicated science was something that I struggled with initially because I had to find my own way to learn it. I don’t learn conventionally. After a class I might be able to relay the information and understand it, but there was no chance that I could retain it in the way that was asked of me. My brain definitely works very differently from other people’s – I retain information differently.”
One of her coping strategies was to strip out some of the complex language she was presented with in order to absorb the core detail. It’s an approach she still uses today. “I think my dyslexia does change the way that I broadcast, because I try to speak about science in a way that I would have understood when I was younger. I’m like that with my writing – I’m a very slow writer. So I try to strip back the unnecessary complexities.”
Does her dyslexia impact the way she works? Can she digest scripts, for instance?
“I mean, I can. I did drama at A-level and I had to learn scripts for that – memorising them line by line if I needed to. But I try not to [for television work], because I think if you memorise a script and are going into a live broadcast, your head is so full of words that you trip yourself up. So I have to find a fundamental thread that sticks in my mind and then I work out from that in branches. As long as I’ve got the basic points, I just let my brain run with it.”
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When we speak, her brain is in coherent and confident free flow, which is particularly impressive given we’re talking in the stupefying heat of the warmest day ever recorded in the UK. Her environmental activism suggests that if she were wearing a collar, she’d be getting pretty hot underneath it.
“This is not what summer in the UK should be like,” she says. “The scary thing is that we think this is hot now, but it’s only going to get hotter. It’s not just here. It’s the hottest it’s ever been in Portugal and Spain and it’s the coldest it’s ever been in parts of Australia. So this isn’t just about heating, this is about the occurrence of extreme weather events.”
McCubbin, who made her debut on Springwatch in 2020 after moving in with Packham during the first lockdown and co-presenting the show from his New Forest home, accepts there is a parallel concern of eco-fatigue among the public.
“That’s definitely a fear,” she admits. “We know from psychological studies that the human brain isn’t actually very good at processing the issues of climate change because they are seen as too big. So we have to take that down a notch and start talking about little steps, and then solutions that can make systematic change. Because that’s the change we need in order to prevent summers getting hotter, winters getting colder and wetter and more extreme weather events around the world.”
What gives McCubbin most hope is the generation following her, those inspired by the likes of Greta Thunberg. “The younger generation is more motivated, knowledgeable and empowered than I think they’ve ever been. It really is a generation of action, so it’s brilliant to see young people engaging and being passionate and taking a stand and using their voice, because the most important tool that we all have is our voice. And we can use it wisely and kindly and get our message out there.”
Of course, in the vanguard of the movement is her stepfather Chris Packham. Despite splitting up with Megan’s mother, nurse Jo McCubbin, when Megan was 12, he has remained at her side throughout her life and helped shape her interest in the natural world, which led to that degree in Zoology from the University of Liverpool in 2018. But she was very much an early adopter...
You were interested in animals from a young age. Which were your favourites?
“I loved snakes. I thought they were great. And I had a praying mantis, that was cool. Most young girls probably think it’s quite weird, but when I was younger it was the things that I could get my nose into.”
Talking of using your nose, tell us about your encounter with the dik-diks at Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire, where Animal Park is filmed?
“They are the smallest antelope that [in the wild] live out in the plains of Africa – adorable little things with really big eyes, very small bodies, very agile. They get a putty-like substance coming out of their eyes, which is full of lots of different scents that they use for communication. So this was kind of dotted around the enclosure and I immediately picked it up and had a sniff. I think that natural curiosity is important. I want to know how things sound, how they smell, how they move. You’d win a pub quiz, wouldn’t you, if you could tell what a dik-dik’s eye gloop smelled like!”
Did you have any misgivings about filming with captive animals?
“Honestly, it can be a complicated answer. I always say that it depends on the zoo and the sanctuary. For me, zoos and sanctuaries across the UK have a responsibility to educate everybody that walks through the doors. You want people leaving with more information, more facts, than they ever came in with. Animal Park is a fantastic way for Longleat to educate not only the people that visit and see the animals first-hand, but the nation as well. So it’s really important for me that the animals in captivity are fantastic ambassadors for their wild counterparts. That’s the most critical thing. Of course, their welfare as well. And that we are learning from them the best that we can.”
Chris has supported you throughout your life and career. Does he still offer advice?
“Yeah, all the time. We are very close – we’re very good friends more than anything. He’s been in the industry for a really long time and he’s a brilliant person to learn from and I will always continue learning from him. I actually got a message from him half an hour ago asking me to go and collect some red squirrel poo for him. So that’s a job for this afternoon.”
“He’s doing a talk that he wants me to bring it to. And then he also added, if I could get pine marten poo as well, that’d be great!”
Animal Park airs weekday mornings at 9:15am on BBC One. Looking for something else to watch? Visit our TV Guide.
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