MOUNT DESERT — On Christmas Eve four years ago, Jennifer Skiff flew home to Maine from her job at Cable News Network in Atlanta with a black, point-eared dog she found cut and scarred alongside a 10-lane highway the previous week.
Taking in a stray was nothing new for Skiff. It’s an act she has repeated countless times during her life. In fact, the welfare of the world’s creatures — wild or domesticated — has been central to her journalistic mission over the years.
Interviewed at her Mount Desert Island home last week, Skiff was just back from a CNN assignment in Alaska. She was reporting on the proposed rocket-launch of satellites from Kodiak Island and the potential threat to Kodiak bears, sea lions and other wildlife.
“Every time a rocket is launched, 23,500 pounds of hydrochloric acid would be dumped into the air,” she said, quoting experts. Yet, the operation would boost the local economy. “There are always two sides to a story.”
With daylight lasting well into the night, Skiff and her crew often worked 17 hours a day. They also covered how Exxon Valdez trust funds are being used to protect the threatened habitat of various species following the disasterous oil spill which happened March 24, 1989.
Recouping from her intense stint in Alaska, Skiff’s return home to MDI coincides with the release of “Maine, An EcoTourism Guide.” She jointly produced the video with Jeff Dobbs Productions, based in Bar Harbor. The film is available free of charge to Maine school systems. It is intended to educate people about Maine’s wildlife and ecosystems. The video takes viewers over diverse terrain, from Acadia’s Precipice Trail, where peregrine falcons have returned to nest, to a salt marsh where a white-plumed egret is hunting for food.
Since her return, Skiff has been busy pitching a TV series profiling people who have dedicated their lives to species conservation. Her subjects range from a Borneo woman who nurses orangutans back to health after the primates were illegally peddled in Taiwan to a Greek farm where abused dancing bears are sheltered.
Skiff’s love of animals is apparent even before her two dogs answer the doorbell — a sign asking firemen to please save her pets is tucked in the window beside the back door. There behind the door of her white clapboard house in the Mount Desert village of Somesville is her beloved NickDingo, the canine found along the highway in Atlanta, and 13-year-old Philophal, a poddle-terrier mix rescued in Utah.
Even in her off-camera attire of jeans and a moss-colored top, Skiff looks glamorous. But is she ever really off camera?
A willowy woman with a heart-shaped face and flowing blond hair, she says glamour is an image she has learned to project and maintain in a tough TV world where looks matter a lot and younger women are giving her stiff competition.
“As long as I am on the air, I have to look as good as I can,” says the 35-year-old Skiff, who seldom sheds her TV persona even when venturing to Bar Harbor. “I feel I am being looked at, judged, when I don’t have my makeup on.”
Behind the made-up facade, the journalist says, is a person with simple tastes who likes to mow the lawn, play with her dogs and curl up in her flannel nightshirt and watch TV all night.
Carrying tea and homemade cherry cheesecake, she leads the way to her study overlooking a lush green valley of ferns, and towering pines, maples and spruces at the head of Somes Harbor. In the office, signs of the dogs in her life are everywhere.
When she is working, NickDingo and Philophal sometimes stretch out on dog beds near her desk. A “drink and dine” — a nifty traveling water and dog food bowl — stands in the corner. Snapshots of a spitz named Mary and her other previous canines stand atop bookshelves.
Love of animals
The eldest of six children, Skiff traces her love of animals back to her childhood, when pets ranging from a boxer to a rooster figured in her upbringing.
Born in Boston, she says her family moved to Bar Harbor when she was 7. Her parents eventually divorced. She says it was poor relations with her stepfather that caused her to become so fiercely attached to animals. She was especially close to a golden retriever named Sally.
“My dog was always there for me when people weren’t,” she recalled. “I became very dependent on the unconditional love I got from animals.”
By eighth grade, Skiff was already on the path toward becoming a journalist. She excelled at writing and requested a typewriter as a graduation present.
As a junior at Hebron Academy, she got her first taste of broadcast journalism, penning stories as a teen correspondent for WGAN-TV in Portland. The following year, she landed an internship at a CBS affiliate in Palm Beach, Fla.
Determined to make it in TV, the ambitious intern got to the office early in the morning before the staff reporters arrived. Her first big break came one morning when she and a photographer were dispatched to cover the abduction and grisly murder of 7-year-old Adam Walsh, whose remains were found in a marsh beside a highway.
“That was my first introduction to reporting,” she recalled. “I was in heels. I can remember police helicopters flying overhead, and trying to find a place to be sick where everybody wouldn’t see me.”
By then, Skiff had set her sights on becoming either a broadcast journalist or FBI investigator. So she pursued a double major in broadcast journalism and criminal justice at Texas Christian University.
“If I didn’t make it in TV, I could always fall back on a career studying serial murderers,” she reckoned, explaining the latter interest. “I wanted to find out where the missing link was — what takes people over the edge.”
Returning to Maine in the early ’80s, she became an anchor and general assignment reporter for WABI-TV, where she further honed her on-air delivery and news-gathering skills under the tutelage of veteran newsman Don Colson.
“To this day,” she said, “I have a high regard and admire Don for his ability to produce news.”
Animal stories with an edge
After one year in Bangor, she gravitated to Utah to cover crime for KUTV in Salt Lake City. It was there she spotted Philophal on her way to work one day. Encrusted with sores and feces, the poddle-terrier was sitting, facing a bench of people at a bus station.
A volunteer for a local humane society, Skiff found the canine tied to her front door when she returned home that day. A year-and-a-half old, the young pup was riddled with buckshot.
In her mind, Skiff said, her crime beat began broadening to include atrocities against animals. But she ran up against a mind-set among news editors who dismissed wildlife and other animal-related stories as “soft.”
It wasn’t until she formed her own television production company and went to work as an environmental investigative correspondent for CNN in Atlanta that she was able to do animal stories with an edge. Her topics have varied widely from the threatened habitat of manatees in Florida’s Homosassa Springs to a reformed Louisiana poacher.
Called “Preaching Poacher,” the latter piece profiled Rowley Folse, who by night killed hundreds of thousands of migrating birds, alligators and other creatures in Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain. While serving time in prison, he did a taped interview with a game warden about his crimes. The experience inspired him after getting our of jail to tell his story as a lesson to others.
“He’d go out at night and shoot at the sky. He would kill anything, and he’d be the first to tell you that,” Skiff remembered. “You go in hating the person. You come out learning from them as to why people do the things they do. We are all products of our past.”
Through her MDI-based Dingo Productions, Skiff developed a series called “Wildlife Minutes” that premiered on The Discovery Channel and now airs in a dozen countries.
Skiff says one of her toughest assignments was a story about the beauty of Puerto Rico.
“When I got there, it was as much a beast of an island as beautiful,” said the CNN correspondent, who found a pack of stray dogs, covered with boils, outside her four-star hotel.
As part of her tour, Skiff and her crew visited Ciudad Cristiana, an abandoned community near a toxic waste cleanup site.
“As I walked past the deserted homes, doing my interview, I heard the cries of dying dogs coming from inside the houses,” she said. “For the first time in my career, I broke down and sobbed. I told the cameraman to stop rolling …”
After leaving Puerto Rico, she sent money to a Puerto Rican veterinarian to buy a euthanasia gun to put the ailing hounds out of their misery. But the vet never followed through and it has been on her conscience.
Skiff didn’t leave the Caribbean island without a stray dog in tow. She found a pup lying beside its dead, maggot-ridden mother in a pile of garbage at the foot of the El Junque rain forest. Named Sadie the Puerto Rican Lady, the canine now belongs to the CNN correspondent’s youngest brother.
In between assignments, Skiff manages to volunteer for a myriad of animal-related groups, including Puerto Rico’s Animal Protection League and Hancock County’s Mature Animals for Mature Adults. MAMA places abused or abandoned animals with people able to love and care for them.
Skiff says her own dogs have stood her through various life crises.
Two years ago, she was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in her bone marrow. Believing she had cancer, she underwent an operation in which the DNA results revealed the tumor to be benign. She credits her dogs with helping her recover from the ordeal.
“What motivated me to get up in the morning and get going were those dogs pouncing on my head,” she said, chuckling.
Skiff says her father, mother and siblings have also been a source of support for her far-flung endeavors and adventures. A love of animals seems to run in the Skiff family. Family members hold a Christmas lottery every year, swapping a diamond-studded collar and other gifts for each other’s pets.
Wherever her travels take her next, Skiff will always make sure to pack a box or two of dog biscuits along with her makeup, designer clothes and laptop computer.
“It is my love of animals that has directed my career,” she said. “I believe if you do in life what you love, you will be rewarded for it.”