Joey Santore, 36, never expected to get famous for posting videos about nature.
But on Thursday, the Chicagoland native went viral when a profanity-laden clip of him comforting a sick coyote pup surfaced on Twitter, garnering upwards of 8 million views.
“I’m not going to fuck with you,” he promises as he chases the pup, who eventually relents and sits in the grass. “That’s cute, you think you’re tough. I believe you; I believe you’re so tough.”
Guy with thick chicago accent helps coyote pup pic.twitter.com/RJB9sqkrxl
— derek (@eedrk) August 15, 2019
Beyond the tenderheartedness, what really made the video was Santore's thick, Bill Swerski-esque Chicago accent. “I’m in absolute awe of the sheer depth of his accent,” Twitter user @kevinefarrell commented.
In real life, his lilt isn’t nearly so exaggerated. Santore, who also goes by Joe Blowe and Tony Santoro online (none are his real name, for privacy reasons), grew up in La Grange and lived there until he went to college in California. He now works as a freight train driver in Oakland, where he frequently makes trips into the wilderness in search of native plants. Santore is an amateur, self-taught botanist who posts videos nearly every day to his YouTube channel Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t, which he describes as “a low-brow, crass approach to plant ecology as muttered by a misanthropic Chicago Italian.”
We spoke to Santore about his complicated feelings on his newfound fame, how the natural world can be a balm for modern anxieties, and why he plays up his Chicago accent for the camera.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What drew you to making videos about botany?
My aim is to give people a context in which to place [the nature] they see around them. Things that were formerly bland to them become these organisms with their own evolutionary lineages. One single rock can tie a person back to the event in which that rock was created, whether it was a volcanic eruption 20 million years ago or the gradual deposition of sediments in an ocean 400 million years ago. It makes life a lot more interesting.
The tragedy here is we're destroying a lot of this as our population grows, so I guess that's where my misanthropy comes up. But I also try to keep [the videos] lighthearted. I mix tragedy with comedy to make it more digestible and less futile-seeming.
What did you think when you saw that video went viral?
I thought, "Oh, shit!" [laughs] And I had a pang of regret.
Why is that?
Well, first off, I'm not really trying to create YouTube fluff. There's enough cat videos and cute videos with corny narratives. But also, [coyotes] are heavily persecuted. You'll see guys posting photos of dead coyotes they shot over the weekend. It plays into some of the more gross elements of human nature. Luckily, it seems like most of the comments have been from these middle-aged women in the middle of the country who just love seeing this cute pup getting a bath.
But on the other hand, the sad part of the story is that the thing died before I was able to get it to a rehab center. I was out in the country and the nearest rehab center was, like, two hours away, and they weren't open the day I got it. So 30 hours after I found this thing, I woke up and was going to take it to this rehab center on my way back down south. I called them and they said they could take her and everything, but she had already passed away in the night.
At the time, I was like, "Whatever, shit happens, animals die." But then the next day, it kind of messed me up a little bit more. To see this whole thing being paraded around as a cute clickbait video kind of bummed me out. Maybe I should have just left her alone. I mean, she almost certainly would have died — she was underweight and she had mucus in her nose and eyes — but maybe she would have been food for something else.
That's just my personal take. But if [the video] gets people to smile a little bit, that's cool. If it gets people to hate coyotes a little less and not demonize them, I'm down with it. I guess it's for the better.
What kind of attention have you been getting in the past week?
It's kind of funny. I got like 120 Facebook friend requests from middle-aged white ladies in Iowa. It was nothing personal, but I rejected them all unless we had mutual friends.
And then the YouTube account blew up, which is cool. I love getting people excited about these things I've seen. I want to share them and [talk about] what a tragedy it is that people don't know this stuff is here.
Do you have any favorite hikes or excursions you recommend in the Chicago area?
There's a wealth of stuff in the Chicago area that people should check out. Most important is the Garfield Park Conservatory, which is free and features plants from all over the world. The Field Museum is great too.
[Outside the city], there's Wolf Road Prairie, [plus] a couple prairies down in Markham. Most of the prairies have been destroyed, but there's still these little islands left that people can go check out. Volo Bog near Crystal Lake is another great resource. They tried to turn it into a golf course in the 1960s; luckily, that plan failed. Midewin National Tall Grass Prairie is another excellent one, down by Joliet.
Braidwood Dunes is another really good one. The soil type is different there, it's all really sandy. You get, for instance, a cactus that's native to the Chicago area. That's near Kankakee.
I try to always encourage people to download Wikipedia and iNaturalist onto their phones as a resource. You can hit the ‘Explore’ button [in iNaturalist] and see what grows around you and then just start learning plants by family and genus, which is how they're all grouped together.
Is there anything you miss about living in Chicago?
There's little nuances of social mannerisms that I miss about Chicago, like that voice I channel on the YouTube page. I obviously don't talk like that in real life — I got an accent, but I don't talk like that. A lot of people [who] find that YouTube page seem really upset to find out that Elwood Blues is not really a botanist.
I guess why I talk like that is, one, I want to make the science communication more funny. But also, I grew up knowing guys like that, you know? When I was a kid, a lot of my friends had dads like that. Anyone who lives in Chicago knows that Tony Santoro is an actual person.
It was funny, going out to California when I moved out there. The mannerisms — at least among the white people out there — were super soft and delicate and kind of passive, with an NPR voice. I found it hard to swallow. So I said, fuck it, I'm just gonna be who I am.
What do you hope viewers take away from your channel?
I just want people to take a closer look at the nonhuman world and ask more questions. The first steps to learning more is realizing your own ignorance, and then being willing to work beyond that.
The main plus-side to any of this viral stuff is that maybe it'll encourage more people to look at the world like that. I've had everyone from teenagers to suburban dads tell me, “Hey, I saw your page. I didn't realize botany could be so cool. I went out and bought some of these books that you recommended and I'm learning so much.” That's what really makes it worth it — getting people excited about learning and the natural world, which is the antidote to all the ugliness and stress and anxiety of the human world.
Is that your way of destressing?
Absolutely. I would be a lot more angry of a person if I didn't have this.