A few questions come to mind now that Steve Bannon is back in the news. After surrendering to New York authorities earlier this month to face charges of fraud and money laundering, will he be found guilty? How many shirts at once is one allowed to wear in prison? My own question, though, relates to a more tangential, nonlegal complaint concerning the former Donald Trump adviser.
Bannon has long viewed the honey badger, the unlikely star of a 2011 viral video, as his personal political emblem. Before his stint as a White House strategist, Bannon made the famous phrase “Honey badger don’t give a shit” the motto of his media operation Breitbart News; he even had it engraved on flasks as party favors. “I am not going to back down,” Bannon said on his War Room podcast after being arrested in 2020 on suspicion of defrauding donors for a dubious fundraising initiative to build a border wall. “I was called ‘honey badger’ for many years. You know, ‘Honey badger doesn’t give.’”
What did an obscure member of the badger family ever do to deserve this association?
The origin story is harmless enough. “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger” was posted to YouTube in January 2011 and has been viewed more than 100 million times. I was 17 when the video came out, and I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen. In the three-minute clip, a slinky, industrious badger trots around the African savanna while the video’s narrator, Christopher Gordon, comments glibly on its behavior: “Ew, it eats snakes? Oh my God, watch it dig.” The most memorable line in the video is also the one that has come to define it: “Honey badger don’t care,” Gordon says, while the creature swats at a snake. For my birthday that summer, I was given a Honey Badger Don’t Care T-shirt, which I later wore to one of my very first college parties, tucked into high-waisted black shorts.
The honey badger’s seemingly fearless, take-no-prisoners approach clearly caught Bannon’s eye. When Trump made a particularly vicious attack during a debate with Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election, Bannon quipped that it was “classic honey badger.” Allies in Bannon’s movement who, like him, see themselves as pugnacious disruptors of a staid political establishment have embraced the label. The symbolism, after all, is more brazenly intelligible than that of a donkey and an elephant. Mark Finchem, the bolo-tie-wearing, election-denying candidate for secretary of state in Arizona, goes by the handle @AZHoneyBadger on the right-wing social network Gab. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who showed up at a Trump rally this month to declare him the rightful president, held a raffle last year for a $2,900 honey-badger-branded AR-15–type firearm—“the same type of gun the hate-America gun-grabbers in DC would love to ban if they ever get the votes.”
No animal chooses to be a political mascot. And the honey badger is so much more than an internet meme or a totem of right-wing election deniers. This little mustelid is a smart, scrappy striver working its way through a hostile world with—above all—ingenuity. Please, this creature might say if he knew what was going on. Exclude me from this narrative.
Objectively, the honey badger is physically equipped to be a whirling dervish of trouble. It is omnivorous, with a long body for tunneling and strong forearms for digging. With its small, snarly mouth and sharp teeth, the honey badger is like an overgrown ferret crossed with a wolverine. The honey badger’s body is a sinuous defensive machine. As the animal’s name suggests, it is very fond of raiding bees’ nests in search of honey and juicy larvae, and its thick skin cannot easily be penetrated by bee stings—or even by porcupine quills. Plus, that skin is loose, which means that if a predator grabs it from behind, the honey badger can swing around and bite back.
The honey badger can be found traipsing about deserts and grasslands in Africa, India, and parts of the Middle East—which makes the creature a strange choice, as a non-native species, for the “America First” set. European badgers, which have striped faces and feature prominently in children’s literature, are social with one another but shy around humans. American badgers look similar to European ones but are slightly more ferocious, and smaller, sandy-colored badgers can be found throughout Asia. Appearance-wise, the honey badger has a more lithe and weasel-like body than the European or American badger. And instead of bold striations on their face, they’ve got a long, thick stripe from head to tail, as though they’ve been dipped horizontally in milky-white paint.
Honey badgers also have a high degree of immunity from the neurotoxins produced by some snakes. They’ve been known to fight and eat black mambas, among the world’s most venomous snakes, for a nighttime snack. In one well-known video, a honey badger is bitten by a puff adder, passes out, wakes up, and eats the snake. “That’s an extremely unique reaction” in the animal world, Danielle Drabeck, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, told me. “It’s pretty incredible that it’s doing that—and we don’t know anything about it!” Drabeck’s current research involves studying vertebrate adaptations such as venom resistance, which could prove useful in antivenom development.
Despite what the YouTube video suggests, none of these adaptations is due to the honey badger not caring. The animal is quite passionate about survival. Instead of playing dead like an opossum, the honey badger tackles challenges directly. When cornered, it will take on a leopard. “Mustelids punch above their weight; that’s something they’re known for,” Emily Latch, who studies badgers at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, told me. “They’re carnivorous in a way that perhaps comes as a surprise.”
Although they are brave and built for survival, “it’s not like they’re going out just to pick fights,” Liz Johnson, a senior wildlife-care specialist who works with honey badgers at the San Diego Zoo, told me. Johnson describes them as “a little mellower” than nature documentaries might make them out to be—even bashful. “It’s been hard for researchers to study them in the wild, because they do everything they can to avoid interaction with humans,” she said. Honey badgers are typically nocturnal, but in more remote parts of their territory, researchers have observed them going about their business during the daytime, Johnson said.
The main thing to know about the honey badger, though, is that they are incorrigibly curious. They like to inspect unfamiliar objects and will make off with items that interest them. Brian Jones has decades of experience with honey-badger mischief. He runs the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, in South Africa’s Limpopo province, where he’s been rescuing honey badgers and other native animals for decades. In South Africa, honey badgers are considered pests, often breaking into farmers’ chicken coops and killing birds, and Jones is sometimes called in to trap and relocate them.
A few badgers live at Jones’s rehab center, including one 20-something male named Stoffel. When Stoffel first arrived at Moholoholo some years ago, he was allowed to roam free. But after one too many raids on the center’s pantry, Stoffel was placed in a wire-fence enclosure. Stoffel proved to be a formidable escapologist. Almost immediately, he burrowed underneath his pen and found himself in a cage full of bewildered lions. “He fought the lions!” Jones told me. “His skin is so loose, he’d swing in his skin and bite the lion on the face!”
After that, Jones built the badger a cement enclosure with high walls. Stoffel was undeterred: Again and again, he scrambled up and over the walls, using sticks, rocks, mud balls, and anything else he could find to build a makeshift ladder. Honey-badger cognition remains under-studied, according to the experts I interviewed, but stories like this add to the anecdotal evidence suggesting that honey badgers are capable of using tools to solve problems—an indicator of intelligence in animals.
Natalia Borrego, a biologist specializing in African mammals, has conducted a few pilot studies of honey-badger intelligence with some of the badger residents at Moholoholo, including Stoffel’s son Stompy. Not only did the badgers quickly solve every meat-filled puzzle box she put before them, but they also wanted to wrestle and receive belly rubs. Borrego hasn’t finished her experiments, but “honey badgers have all the hallmarks of an intelligent species,” she told me. “I wish there were more researchers investigating them.”
In my interviews, not a single expert said they would describe the honey badger as “mean”—or “nastyass,” per the 2011 video’s title. Instead, they spoke of these mustelids with awe, admiration, and something like delight—as though they were grinning on the other end of the phone while they described the badgers’ antics. Jones keeps a drawer full of chocolates in his desk. This fact has not gone unnoticed by Stoffel, who one day scrambled into Jones’s office, determined to have a taste. Because Stoffel couldn’t open the drawer with his claws, he quickly changed tactics, lying on his back under the desk, lifting his feet up, and kicking the drawer open from underneath. “They are a terror,” Jones admitted to me happily. “But I love them, I love them, I love them.”
Drabeck, the University of Minnesota biologist, sighed when I mentioned the honey badger’s unwitting political ties. “They’re just really cool animals,” she said.