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El Gringo

El Gringo

I returned to the United States, after many years away. In this post-9/11 world I noted a dramatic increase in the number of armed officials, some of whom wore uniforms of agencies I did not recognize. My luggage included various pieces of scientific equipment, some of which were very strange in shape, in particular the vapor shipper for storing and transporting venoms and tissues at negative 328 degrees. In its protective travel case, it looked like a mushroom, a Dalek or, to other eyes, a small thermonuclear device. Naturally, this could not fail to draw attention.
This was my thought as I was pulled up at passport control at LAX. I was escorted off to a side room where very stern people took digital copies of my fingerprints for searching against a database. I had no choice in this. The details from both my passports were also entered in. This was all done in complete silence while one agent in particular stood rather close to me. I was thinking this was a bit excessive for just a weird piece of gear, which had actually attracted scant notice. However, I noticed confusion creep across their faces as they wordlessly turned from the monitors and looked me up and down. Then one of them came over and asked me to roll my sleeves up. He said, “You don’t have any tattoos there.” I wondered why he was stating the bloody obvious.
He then asked me what I did for a living. I replied that I was a researcher in Australia on snake biology. He replied that the file said “biotoxins.” I kept a poker face while internally my mind reeled. The paranoid little Norwegian gnome in my brain hissed, “See, I fucking told you, those damn rock trolls are out to get us! Never forget, even paranoids have enemies.”
It confirmed something that I had long suspected: I featured prominently on security agencies’ lists due to the nature of my profession. Any trawling of metadata will have in the explicit search file words such as “neurotoxin,” along with many other words which feature prominently in my daily emails. Add to this my tendency to blithely wander through some pretty politically unsettled areas of the world and emerge (mostly) unscathed. The tracking of my Australian passport would reveal the most random travel pattern to some of the most non-touristy spots in the world. I used my United States passport, however, only for entry/exit to and from the US. I had figured that with all of this combined, I would be caught in the data filtering by intelligence agencies. It was only natural, since I could kill with any number of toxins or even a combination of unrelated chemicals. If a particular effect was desired, I also knew which ones were detectable and which ones were not.
So I was not surprised at this confirmation that one or more of the countless international security agencies had picked me up on their radar, whether it was Interpol, domestic intelligence in England (after the airport fiascos and also milking a cobra live on television), or ASIO, the Australian intelligence service, since I was at this point consulting for different government committees about venoms, ranging from biodiscovery intellectual property protection, to environmental listings, through to the use of venoms as bioweapons.
But it turned out to be something much more mundane: simple identity theft. I had had my wallet stolen during my undergraduate years. The person who stole it tried to use my Oregon driver’s licence when pulled over after drunkenly hitting several cars in Medford. This, of course, was a fail, since he was a shortish Hispanic guy while I am six foot, three inches, and as Aryan as they come. The police station had returned my wallet and licence (the money was, of course, nowhere to be seen). Boy Wonder didn’t show for his court appearances, so a warrant was issued for him under his own name and also under his aliases, which were all spelling variants of my name, including my Norwegian middle name, Grieg. This was completely ridiculous, since the same people who entered the aliases had been the ones who returned my wallet to me. It meant that my name was now flagged in all law enforcement agencies that had access to this system or derivatives thereof—a completely ridiculous state of affairs. I was able to straighten it out in the airport security computer, so that I would not be held up again for this reason. But there was no guarantee that some state cop somewhere wouldn’t have it come up if I were ever pulled over while innocently speeding.
At least this incident confirmed my hunch about being noticed by intelligence agencies as a result of my toxin expertise. It didn’t really bother me; I had nothing to hide. And besides, it meant that if the world got invaded by an alien race of venomous animals, I would be the one they would call upon to heroically save the tattered remnants of humanity from the scourge. Naturally, I would end up with the hottest female among the ten thousand people left alive at the end of the war. Michael Bay can direct the movie. Like a cockroach, he would survive even a direct nuking from space.
My purpose for being in Los Angeles was to pick up a car and drive north to San Francisco to lead a seminar at the California Academy of Sciences, where Joe Slowinski was working when he died. It was strange to be giving a talk there. As a devout atheist I, of course, have no belief in any sort of afterlife. Regardless, it was like the ghost of Joe was there in the questions not asked or the comments not given. An existence whose genesis was a vacuum. My talk was very well received and the questions lucid and insightful. It was very nice to be giving a talk at a place I had visited during my formative years. This and the Steinhart Aquarium were favorites of mine during the five years we lived at Hamilton Air Force Base, north of San Francisco. It would have been even nicer if my mate Joe had been there.
Joe was now a public figure. In the years after his death there had been much reporting and analysis, culminating in the book The Snake Charmer by Jamie James. While he has a name that would suit the latest soulless clone in a UK boy band, he is in fact a very solid reporter who had a reputable career before wisely deciding he could write books while living the good life in Bali. He interviewed quite a number of people across a broad spectrum, and thus was able to do justice to an emotionally charged topic. I was able to relate to him how I felt during my death adder envenomations and the euphoric sensation that had resulted. Krait venoms act much the same way but are even more potent, since they bind at the point where a nerve waits for a message from another nerve in a series, so that the message never gets through. They also have similar toxins to a death adder, which block the receptor that sits on a muscle waiting for the message from the nerve. So with a krait bite, you are double-teamed. Usually you have to pay extra for that kind of action. And you do pay—your nerves are getting hammered twice as hard. I made it clear to Jamie that I could only speculate, but based on my experience I reckon Joe would have been feeling the same sort of delicious sensory distortion that I had. Perhaps even more intense. If this was the case, it was not a bad way to go.
After my talk, Jens Vindum gave me a tour of the preserved specimen collection. I wasn’t expecting the emotional lightning bolt that struck me when I came across the exact krait that had killed Joe. It had been preserved and brought back when the expedition abruptly ended after Joe died. It was very interesting to talk to Jens about the lingering legacy of Joe’s death. Whatever the level of personal grief, his death had profound impacts upon the ability of researchers to do field research of any sort, let alone in remote locations with potentially lethal animals. This was most acutely felt, of course, at the California Academy of Sciences, where there was the inevitable overreaction, resulting in layers of stifling bureaucracy.
From there I was off to milk beaded lizards with my mate Howard “Howie” McKinney. Howie is a clinical pharmacologist with a legendary reputation in the scientific community that investigates hallucinogenic drugs. His authority came from extensive personal experience. People love having him around for the weirdness that gravitates towards him like a moth to a flame. So we added to the lore by going up to the psychiatrists and getting them to give us a few of the special question-mark-shaped soft plastic devices they had specifically for psychotic people having a fit, who can bite down on such a device as hard as they want without doing themselves harm. We were going to use them to milk beaded lizards that were in the collection of extremely talented private keeper Steve Angeli.
These bits of rubber would deform as the lizard bit down. I had noted that these lizards had a much more powerful bite than a monitor lizard. When they clamped down on a heavy leather glove, the teeth would grip but not penetrate—they were too narrow and deeply grooved. They were more like syringes than the serrated knives of the giant lizards. But the giant lizards have very weak bites because they need light heads that they can swing quickly while pursuing fast-moving prey. The beaded lizard, and its smaller sibling the Gila monster, both have broad heads with very large jaw muscles. Monitor lizards are lithe and bird-like. But the beadeds and Gilas feed on rodents underground or on the nestlings of ground-breeding birds. So they occupy a niche of close combat, in which brute force is more useful than agility. This means they can hold their prey and chew the venom into the flesh, while compressing the flesh rhythmically to move the shock-inducing venom along. They are heavily armored, with bones in each scale, and thus able to resist the bites of even enraged female rodents, which they would eat first before devouring the jellybean-like babies.
On the drive back, Howie recounted to me a story about an event that was easily the most extraordinary story involving a venomous animal I had ever heard. In the late 1980s on a quiet weekday evening in the emergency department of a San Francisco hospital, a phone rang in the Poison Center:
Howie: Hello, can I help you?
Caller: Yeah, I, umm, got bit by my snake.
Howie: Okay, are you all right?
Caller: Yeah, I’m basically okay.
Howie: Okay, what kind of snake, do you know?
Caller: Oh yeah, it’s a rattlesnake.
Howie: Crotalus, right?
Caller: Yeah, a northern Pacific rattlesnake, you know, one of the locals.
Howie: Umm, you sound very calm. Are you okay?
Caller: Oh yeah, I’m just fine, but I think I maybe got some venom this time.
Howie: This time?
Caller: Right, uh, I get bit all the time.
Howie: I see. Where were you bit?
Caller: Right here in my home.
Howie: Okay. Actually, I meant, where on your body were you bit?
Caller: Oh, sorry, uh, you know, right next to my scrotum.
Howie: Uhh, okay, I see. How long ago?
Caller: Maybe about half an hour.
Howie: And you said you thought there was some venom. What makes you think that?
Caller: Well, you know, it stings and hurts at the fang mark and I have that minty taste in my mouth.
Howie: I see. I can call an ambulance to get you to the hospital.
Caller: That’s okay, my friend is driving me, we’re about to leave. Actually we are only about ten minutes away from you.
Howie: Then we will be expecting you shortly. Sure you don’t want an ambulance?
Caller: No, I’ll be okay.
And he gently hung up his phone.
Certainly one of the more unusual phone calls, even for a place that receives unusual calls all the time. Most snakebite calls involve a frantic caller, but the extraordinary calmness here was noteworthy. Plus, the caller recognized the genus name and quickly and correctly identified the species. This was an experienced “herp” person, he did not sound intoxicated, and despite several very uncharacteristic elements in his story, he was so calm and matter-of-fact. A veteran of ER departments, Howie had long ago learned to take these scenarios as they present themselves, seek the internal logic in the situation, and attempt to evaluate the patient and plan responses to help them.
Howie told the story to the triage nurse and physician on duty, and while he obtained antivenom supplies, the staff prepared a room for the caller’s arrival. All of the staff had seen snakebites before, and constantly witnessed bizarre behaviors that land people in emergency departments, but this one had engaged the interest of the entire staff. The police, several firefighter-medics, and doctors all were curious to see this patient.
And a few minutes later two slender men in their 30s, well-groomed, wearing jeans and T-shirts, walked into the emergency department, one man assisting the other walking with a slight limp, and the limping man holding a large capped glass jar containing, yes, one neatly coiled rattlesnake.
The patient was swiftly placed sitting up on a gurney, and as the gurney was wheeled back to the treatment area, vital signs were taken, clothes removed, and hospital gown draped around him.
The snake was indeed identified as a northern Pacific rattlesnake, very much alive and calm, coiled in the bottom of the jar. Snakebites occurring outdoors in appropriate environments and circumstances for encountering a snake are nearly always an indigenous species. In those circumstances local emergency departments typically had supplies of appropriate antivenom for the local species. But “pet snakes” could be any species including “exotics,” which can be very venomous animals for which antivenom may be locally unavailable, requiring the hospital to sometimes obtain supplies from foreign countries. Networks for clinicians to obtain antivenoms and expert consultation that are quickly available nowadays simply did not exist in the 1980s. Quick positive identification of the offending snake is still of great benefit in planning treatments for the envenomed patient.
This patient, now calmly resting on his gurney in the treatment room with the rattlesnake in the jar on a bedside table, was being subjected to rapid-fire volleys of questions while intravenous lines were started and blood for lab analysis was collected in various tubes. Do you have pain here? Any nausea? The staff searched for any evidence of ecchymosis near the single fang mark, swelling in the area of the bite, and other physical examinations to document an envenomation requiring antivenom administration. For a “dry bite” wherein the snake strikes, leaves fang marks, but does not expel any venom, local wound care is usually sufficient without the need for any antivenom.
Having determined that this patient did indeed have a moderate envenoming, they commenced the Wyeth antivenom preparation. This antivenom was notoriously difficult to reconstitute, the lyophilized (“freeze-dried”) powdered mixture required about twenty minutes of swirling in the vials to get the powder into solution so it can be injected by intravenous infusion. While an initial dose of six vials were being swirled by staff in the room, the patient maintained a sharp interest in the activities, even requesting to swirl two vials of his dose into solution himself. Upon their first encounter in the hallway, the patient and Howie engaged easily in conversation, and throughout all the activities he stayed focused on Howie. With his initial evaluation complete and antivenom preparation in progress (yes, in the 1980s emergency department drug preparation was frequently accomplished at the bedside, a circumstance that would be very unusual today), Howie began asking him about the circumstances of his bite.
Quite a large “audience” of people had gathered just outside the doorway to his room, and all fell silent, listening, as the patient and Howie continued their conversation.
Howie: So, you seem to know more about snakes than our typical patient.
Patient: Well, snakes have kind of been, you know, my hobby, since I was in my teens. I just enjoy watching them and working with them.
Howie: So, do you mind if I ask what happened this evening that resulted in your being envenomed? Were you feeding the snake?
Patient: Uh, no.
Howie: I see. Maybe you were handling the snake?
Patient: Uh, yeah, kind of handling it.
Howie: Maybe milking the venom?
Patient: Oh no, no, I had done that earlier in the week.
Howie: Uh huh, do you collect the venom for donation to science? Like give it to a research scientist?
Patient: No, I don’t. Actually that’s a great idea, just never thought of it. No, I milk them just to be safe.
Howie: Safe?
Patient: Right. Uh, you know, so there’s no venom when I handle them.
Howie: So, you free handle your rattlesnakes?
Patient: Oh yeah, all the time.
Howie: Uh huh, I see. And your scrotum, that’s not the usual bite site. Actually not unheard of, but, you know, unusual. Was the snake maybe in your lap?
Patient: Oh no, nothing like that. He was on the table in front of me.
Howie: Okay, on a table in front of you. Like, just lying there loose?
Patient: Well, really, he was all coiled up ready to strike.
Howie: Really? And you, uh, were you wearing any protective clothing? Using a hook?
Patient: Oh no, nothing like that. Actually, uh, well, uh, actually I was naked.
At this point the entire audience was, very uncharacteristically for an emergency department, utterly and totally silent. Not a single word could be heard, except for Howie’s conversation with this patient. He maintained his reserved, unemotional deadpan intonation, a very matter-of-fact delivery. Throughout their encounter, it seemed he had developed a trust in Howie, kind of a bond. He seemed reluctant to speak with other staff, but continued his narrative with Howie’s gently prompting.
The story that emerged was, well, let’s just identify him as an entertainer, of sorts. To the growing disgust of the audience, he explained that he charged admission to people to watch a sex show. He performed naked with the rattlesnake positioned on a table at “scrotum height” about two feet in front of him. As he performed various activities, the show was brought to a rousing climax as he masturbated while the snake would strike him around his groin.
Hence, naturally, the need to milk the snakes so there was no venom. Of course. Which also explained the “I think I maybe got some venom this time” comment. It was all adding up quite nicely. Bizarre, but it all fit.
The audience in the emergency department were by this time making loud comments, which included commentary about how utterly sick and depraved this patient was, how the neighborhood was not safe with him around, how society would be better off without such sick people, and various other comments along those lines.
As the emotional crescendo elevated around his room, the antivenom almost ready for infusion, the commentary was causing this patient considerable distress. Howie was still in conversation with him and Howie himself was becoming upset at his rude colleagues. So, as the taunts became more graphic and had developed a dynamic momentum of their own, Howie reached boiling point. He turned to the doorway, stopped swirling the antivenom, and shouted at the audience.
“You all need to just shut up now. Yes, this patient has an unusual occupation. And you are insulting and scaring him. And you’re talking about how scary he is with his sick little sex show? You know what? In a way, he’s just a guy who has found a way to make a buck, to get by, to survive. You know who scares me in this story? Not this patient, it is the weird twisted sickos in his audience! Those are the people who scare me!”
As they got back to the business of antivenom infusion and monitoring the patient, the friend took the rattlesnake in a jar home, and the scene became history. He was not even admitted to the hospital, just spent several hours in the emergency department being observed for any problems.
Later, several of the team and Howie were reviewing the extraordinary scenario they had just witnessed. Upon reflection, they agreed, that those who would pay to watch such a performance were indeed the sick ones.
Weirdness, after all, lives in the mind of the beholder. And perspective changes everything. But one can certainly have too much fucking perspective!
Once the seminars were all given and scientific tasks successfully undertaken, it was time to fly out. As customs rubber stamped my US passport I wondered to myself why none of them ever asked where I went to, since there were no other stamps. My Australian passport was packed with stamps and almost completely full, despite it having four times the number of available pages as my US passport. It was as though Australia expected its citizens to travel while, conversely, the United States did not expect its citizens to leave the country. This was, of course, the country that “elected” Bush, who did not obtain his first passport and travel out of the country until after becoming president. There should have been a rule that if he couldn’t pronounce it correctly and find it on a map, he couldn’t invade it.
Landing in Mexico City, I checked into the Four Seasons Hotel and headed down to the bar, where I had a decent beer, but the guacamole was so awful it might as well have been made by an Australian. Meanwhile, the piano man serenaded the largely empty lounge with a weird Spanish rendition of the Wham! song “Careless Whisper.” The only guilty feet were those of the musician working the pedals as he managed to transform an already-awful song into something even worse, or muy mal, as the locals would say. After a peaceful sleep to the soporific sounds of gunfire, I headed to the Cuernavaca UNAM laboratory of my amigo Alejandro Alag?n. The goal of this leg of the trip was to collect additional species for the lizard venom research, while also testing the waters of a new research area: vampire bats.
While Mexico was well known as having the venomous beaded lizard, our research had determined that there were many more venomous lizards than previously recognized, and this meant that there were a number of unique species available in Mexico to be studied. Interestingly, all of these potentially venomous species were locally referred to, along with the beaded lizards, as escorpi?ns. It was yet another example of how indigenous populations typically know what’s going on long before foreign scientists.
The two main targets were the arboreal species of alligator lizard and the crack-dwelling knob-scaled lizard, both of which were to be found in the cloud forests a long drive from Cuernavaca. This drive was among the most hair-raising of my life. For some reason, there were large arrows indicating when to drive on the normal side of the road for the country and when to switch to drive on the left, as in Australia. Visibility was severely compromised by the thick clouds that gave the forests their name, leading to constant anxiety about a head-on collision being imminent. I can only assume this was done to help the trucks navigate the steep roads more safely, but it was still terrifying.
With Tito & Tarantula’s song “Strange Face of Love” playing on the car stereo, we reached our destination in one piece and went hunting for lizards with our guide Roberto Mora. We hunted for the knob-scaled lizards at night, when they would be in their refuges in the rocks, safely tucked away in the deep cracks that crawled across the boulders like the sun-damaged wrinkles on a beach bum’s face. We would use a pencil light to shine in just enough light to see a lizard, but not so much as to startle it. Then, using a long piece of wire, we would tickle the very tip of its tail, as if a snake were sniffing at it from behind in the crack. This would invariably send it sprinting forward and arcing out of the crack into the air. We’d flail like a baseball outfielder trying to catch it. Despite our success rate being only about 10 percent, after a couple of nights’ hunting we had the half-dozen specimens we needed for the research. These little lizards were fascinating—they were genetically intermediate between a beaded lizard and an alligator lizard, and looked the part: while their heads were those of an alligator lizard, their scales and their tails were those of a beaded lizard.
Next up were the arboreal alligator lizards, which proved to be frustratingly hard to find. The weather had turned and cool rain saturated the forest—hardly ideal conditions for reptile hunting. After three fruitless days, we were walking down a dirt road one morning when we spotted a tiny object far off in the distance. It was a person running toward us, but still over two miles away. Once he got closer, I could see that he carried two clear plastic bottles, one in each hand. When he reached us, I spotted flashes of green in each. Two Germans had been through in recent months and had created an artificial (and illegal) cargo cult economy for arboreal alligator lizards, which are prized on the European pet market. These lizards are now very rare in the wild, due to habitat destruction, so it is illegal to collect them without a permit, such as the scientific authorization we possessed. But the Germans had purchased quite a few before flying off with their illicit wares concealed in their luggage. They were stopped by Mexican border patrol on the way out, however, and arrested for wildlife smuggling. There is a cynical joke regarding this behavior: “Question: What’s the first thing that happens when a new species of reptile is described? Answer: Two Germans buy a plane ticket.” We were reluctant to encourage the economic dependency of remote populations like this one, but desperate for specimens for the research. So after some rapid-fire haggling in Spanish, we settled on a mutually acceptable price and went on our way.
The sun broke through the clouds, so we kept looking as the area rapidly warmed up. While we did not find any lizards, we did find something else I had long been searching for: the black-tailed horned pit viper. These snakes are typically found on the ground, but within an hour we found two, both basking at the top of three-foot-tall bushes, looking like little smoky brown clumps of dead leaves. Milking this species meant that I now had a venom sample from every genus of viper in the world, thus completing the set and launching a series of projects. I was extremely pleased.
The rest of my time was spent collecting scorpions. The part of Mexico we were in has an annual incidence of five hundred thousand scorpion stings during the four-month tropical monsoon season. One hundred and fifty thousand of these require life-saving, pain-relieving antivenom. The scorpions were present in plague proportions, so I’d zip my shoes and all other gear into packing cells whenever they were not in use. Collecting scorpions was extremely easy—you simply had to shine an ultraviolet flashlight around at night. The scorpion exoskeleton would reflect back like a nightclub ornament. As a safety precaution, we wore special protective glasses to prevent the strong UV light from damaging our eyes, which could lead to an increase in cataract formation.
Back in Cuernavaca, we collected vampire bats. The method of capture was to string extremely fine nets called “mist nets” across cave mouths during the late afternoon and then settle down and wait for nightfall. The caves were shared by a wide variety of bat species, most of which were the insect-eating microbats. These little guided missiles were fast, but not too bright. Upon encountering the nets, they would thrash violently and instantly get entangled. Vampire bats, however, are very smart animals, since they have to calculate an approach to much larger, potentially dangerous warm-blooded prey. They first fly near to the prey and land on the ground. The rest of the approach is through a series of stealthy hops and stilt-like walking motions. Upon encountering a mist net for the first time, they would freeze, swivel their heads around, immediately figure out the situation and actually walk down like a spider from Mars until they reached the bottom, drop off, and then fly away. So if we weren’t fast, we would miss out on the capture.
It was complicated by the fact that the vampire bats were also extremely light-shy, so if we had our headlamps on, they would not fly out of the cave. This meant we had to flick our headlamps on for a fraction of a second every few minutes to see if there was a vampire bat on the net. This made the hunting that much more fun, as I love nothing more than a good challenge. It took us two nights to get the trio of vampire bats we needed for the research, while we plucked fifty microbats from the nets each night.
From there, I flew to Colombia, a country with a reputation for being extremely dangerous but with reptiles found nowhere else. This is because the narrow isthmus with Panama created a genetic bottleneck as snakes pushed south after invading North America over a land bridge from Asia many millions of years ago. Upon reaching Colombia, the animals were then filtered through a series of very large mountain ranges, producing a high number of endemic species. I landed in Bogot? and stayed the night ahead of catching a connecting flight to Santa Marta the following morning. While I was waiting for my flight out of Bogot?, my gear and I were thoroughly searched inside and out by airport security officers suspicious of my two large aluminum suitcases, the type favored by the CIA. They opened them up, scattered my belongings haphazardly and even knocked on the side panels. What they thought they would find was beyond me, but I was totally unconcerned since I knew there was nothing to be found. Amusingly enough, they ignored my snake-catching equipment and field guides. With an air of resignation, they allowed me to depart.
I then met up with Juan Manuel Renjifo, a herpetologist so cool he even named a really weird coral snake after his daughter. Micrurus camilae is unusual in that instead of the red and yellow colors being in separate bands, with black rings in between, the dorsal is colored orange/red and the ventral yellow in each of the two-toned color rings that alternate with a black ring.
Hunting for coral snakes is coincidently also best done in the same way as hunting something else I was after: armed spiders, also known as wandering spiders. These are the largest of the “advanced spiders,” a type of spider characterized by small chelicerae, the fang-like structures from which spiders deliver their venom. These spiders are of the sub-order Araneomorphae, and are thus often referred to as araneomorph spiders. All are characterized by having small fangs that move inward like pincers. Primitive spiders (sub-order Mygalomorphae), on the other hand, have fangs that swing out vertically like a rattlesnake’s fangs, traveling parallel to each other. Despite being large and fearsome-looking, mygalomorph spiders such as tarantulas are almost harmless to humans, producing typically no more than bee sting–like pain and swelling. The exception is the male of the Australian funnel-web spider, which has a bite that can kill humans. All other spider species lethal to humans are araneomorph spiders.
The wandering spiders are the biggest of all araneomorphs, with two-inch-long violin-shaped bodies, and legs as long as the body. They are powerful, agile hunters that will attempt to kill any animal, vertebrate or invertebrate, up to twice their size; they will readily attack tarantulas much larger than themselves. These spiders hunt by sight, not using a web. They can run fast, but also leap up to one and a half feet into the air, traveling on an arc that carries them forward by one and a half feet. People are bitten when they try to push them off the porch with a broom, and the spider runs up the handle and bites a finger. As many people receive antivenom for this spider as for any particular species of snake.
To catch both the wandering spider and the coral snakes I was after, Juan and I set about clearing large brush piles of oil palm leaves found on a research station that had its own plantation. On the commercial plantations, the amount of pesticide used kills off the entire food web because of the depletion of insects, leading to vast chemical wastelands of green sterility. But these particular mounds had been untouched for months and were now home to a vast array of creatures, ranging from microscopic life in the undergrowth, through to coral snakes and wandering spiders, which are apex predators in this microhabitat.
Clearing a mound started with first cutting away all the weeds, grass, and growth around the pile to create a three-foot-wide ring. Even the morning air of the Colombian wet season is hot and very humid. As the mound was cleared from the edges, whatever was in the mound retreated to the center rather than coming out into the open sunlight. Each frond had to be vigorously shaken and then closely inspected, particularly as some extremely cryptically colored and patterned insects can be almost impossible to see unless they move. The deadly lancehead vipers also are very difficult to see; venomous landmines is how I thought of them. As the pile became smaller, things got more exciting, until a certain critical mass was reached and myriad life showed up. Coral snakes were few and far between, but invertebrates such as wandering spiders, scorpions, and centipedes were abundant.
Colombia is a place of contradictions. It’s one of the most visually stunning places in the world, with the kind of beauty that makes you weep just for the privilege of having cast an eye upon it. Beauty that only a master oil painter could capture, as photographs do not do it justice. However, paradise is being destroyed through malignant mismanagement. The lushness that makes it such a botanical wonderland also facilitates the growing of the two most evil crops on earth: cocaine and oil palms. It might seem strange to include these two in the same category. Before going to Colombia, I certainly would have thought they’d be opposites, with palm oil being the green-fuel “golden child.”
In addition to sustainability considerations such as depleted soil or the environmental catastrophe that results from chopping down primary rainforests and replacing them with chemically saturated plantations, the social costs have to be considered too. Palms are replacing bananas on the existing plantations that were part of the huge US-agriculture business empire that flourished in Colombia during the first half of the 1900s.
Bananas not only provide steady work but they provide the workers with virtually unlimited, free high nutrition to take home to their families, to be used in a wide variety of recipes. In contrast, palms are harvested once every three to four years, so the work crews are rotated around the country by the companies. Thus, in the switch to palm oil the local communities have been economically devastated, while simultaneously unemployment has soared. Not only are the locals out of work, but also they now have to buy overpriced, low-nutrition, highly processed food. This has worsened the social disenfranchisement that was the impetus for the formation of the guerrilla movement, which had a noble social goal at the beginning. However, this noble movement became horribly corrupted along the way and now exists purely for the economic riches brought by drugs and kidnappings. The writing is on the wall for the worsening of the social situation of this magnificent country, which is very sad, as it has so much potential.
This social inequality is what makes Colombia so dangerous, particularly for foreigners. My field collaborators and I had just finished hunting for multicolored giant coral snakes in the La Victoria coffee plantation, located on the mountain range up from Minca, and were driving back down toward Minca. Suddenly, a dozen motorcycles with armed riders were circling the car while we paused at a stop sign. Being boxed in gave me a sinking feeling in the stomach. Juan spoke in excited Spanish, far too fast for me to follow, and held up snake bags. This seemed to satisfy—or at least confuse—our potential captors enough for us to be on our way.
The danger was clear and present. Only a few months before, the owners of the coffee plantation had similarly armed people invade, line up their staff, ask questions to determine identity, and then shoot dead one of the workers without warning. They were convinced that he was talking to an opposing group a few mountain ranges away, since they had been tracking all mobile calls in and out of their own area. In reality, he had simply been ringing his girlfriend, who happened to live in that area. I was very happy to leave Colombia and head to the relative safety of Brazil. While Colombia was stunning and the animals amazing, it was a country I vowed I would never return to.
My intentions for Brazil were to simply enjoy the land. No research quarry. Just going troppo in the tropics. Landing in Manaus after a series of flights, I could tell instantly that Brazil had a very different vibe to it. More cool, calm, and collected. Perhaps this was due to the sedative effect of the caipirinha, a potent, sugary lime drink infused with the local rocket-fuel liquor called cacha?a. I was awesomely devastated by several glasses of this when meeting up with Dick Vogt, ahead of joining his research group upriver. Dick is a brilliant American herpetologist who has been leading a delightfully decadent existence since arriving in the Amazon decades ago and deciding to never leave.
We navigated the chaotic dockland and boarded a three-story people-mover boat to head up the Amazon. I was rapt as the first pink dolphins appeared—mermaids of the tannin-stained waters—as well as the caimans and iguanas, which created scaly ridges on the riverbanks. But the boat ride quickly lost its novelty and appeal; it was sensational for the first few hours, but by iguana number two million they became less mesmerizing. The reptiles might as well have been moss-covered rocks for the level of interest they stimulated in me. If someone had said that being on a boat on the Amazon would be boring, I would have looked at him or her as if they were as mad as everyone considered me to be. But imagine watching the same twenty seconds on loop for days on end. There was nothing to do but drain tiny can after tiny can of the truly awful Brazilian beer called Brahma Chopp, which I renamed Brahma Crap. Predictably, this led to me getting burnt like a British tourist on Tenerife. I went the “full lobster” with this one. Never go full lobster.
Three days later, after boat rides in successively smaller vessels, we were in small aluminum boats with little hamster-powered outboard engines, the sort that no self-respecting saltwater crocodile in Australia would pass up the opportunity to crush like a beer can. A comforting thought as I gazed at the waterline so close to the gunwales that a well-timed epileptic fit would be all it would take to capsize us. We had seen many black caiman by this point, the local crocodilian filling the niche scientifically known as “bad-assed motherfucker.” As big as the benign American alligator that inhabits Florida golf courses, but much more vicious, the black caiman regularly made a meal out of village children.
The research site was a seven-hour hike once we left the last boat. Howler monkeys screamed like dementia patients while intricate lace-winged butterflies fluttered by. Or for me, just crashing like Mowgli through the water, since my ability to stand leeches was much better than my balance at any given time, let alone with a heavy backpack. The others found this amusing, but my logic was that if I went on to a slippery log bridge, I was almost certainly going to take a clumsy fall eventually. So if I was going to get wet anyway, it might as well be bipedally.
During the long boat ride up, we had slept entirely in the open air in hammocks. While we were moving, mosquitoes were not an issue, but now that we were camping in the Amazon forest, mosquito-borne disease was a constant concern. Before leaving Melbourne, I had made sure I was vaccinated against everything I could be, ranging from yellow fever to some pretty rare types of encephalitis. We were remote enough that the streams were drinkable—a luxury indeed.
Camping was as simple as stringing hammocks between trees and then cocooning them with fine-mesh nets to keep out the mosquitoes. The first two hours of darkness were the danger zone for the malaria mosquito, a quite delicate little creature that haunts the early evening. So about an hour before nightfall, everyone would curl up in their hammocks, safe behind the fine mesh netting cocooning them like messy spider webs. Everyone would bring a headlamp, a book, and anything to help them pass the time—various chemicals of choice and a fine whisky were passed around over successive nights. Whatever you had that night was all you were going to have for the next three to four hours. The malaria risk was extreme where we were, but we knew the flight patterns of this mosquito, which meant staying put during the defined activity period. I discovered that peeing into a bottle while in a hammock is a very challenging task that requires much concentration. The last thing I wanted to do was flip the hammock, go airborne, tear through the netting, and end up a urine-covered heap below … with malaria. Not my idea of a good time!
There were mosquitoes that spread other diseases, but where we were they were in much lower concentration than the malaria mosquito. So with normal precautions we were fine for other biting insects. The small black flies, with their oversized wings, were one of the most annoying animals I’ve ever encountered. They were only around good-quality fresh water. Bites invariably result in a violent reaction, ranging from small hives through to grotesquely swollen ankles. They prefer white meat. The local Brazilians would still get bitten, the wound being obvious, but the bites wouldn’t swell or itch. This is because they had been bitten regularly since they were young and had developed antibodies to the anticoagulant proteins the fly spat into the wound to keep the blood flowing.
We were staying with a local indigenous tribe, who were cooking for us and helping to run the camp. One night, they shot a capybara relative and it tasted exactly how I imagined a large forest rodent would taste. Rat-kebab is not on my shortlist of future meals to cook for a date. We washed it down with lots of caipirinhas. Pickle the tastebuds with this liquor made from sugarcane in the tropics, and anything can be eaten!
I took full advantage of the space for solitude. While I was in Colombia, my male dingo Norton had been diagnosed with malignant lymphatic cancer, so I’d had to give the okay for euthanasia over a long-distance phone call. To do this without being able to say goodbye was terrible. It affected me deeply and I needed nothing more than some long walks through the jungle with only my thoughts for company. However, I discovered that one couldn’t get more decompressed than tripping on some potent herb with members of an indigenous tribe. Their ritual, not mine—but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy it if invited. It would be rude not to!
I drank deeply from a bowl that contained a liquid which tasted like green smoke. But in a good way. Whatever this stuff was, it far exceeded anything I had ever had in the Netherlands. It even beat the joint recipe I used all my biochemical training to perfect in Amsterdam over several successive northern hemisphere summers: the final ground-up mixture was 50 percent dried marijuana with the rest made up of equal parts of dried psychedelic mushrooms, datura seeds, catnip, and blue lotus flowers. This drug neapolitan produced extreme visual hallucinations with the occasional bout of fractal vision, but none of the emotional intensity triggered by eating psychedelic mushrooms. The blue lotus flowers didn’t contribute to the dissociative effects, but rather made the smoke as smooth as polished diamonds. The catnip gave it a delightful twist. If this is what the average housecat goes through, they are doing it right. But nothing in my chemically consumptive history compared to this Amazonian delight that was meant to induce a vision quest—which is just a fancy way of saying, “You are going to have a very long hallucination, white boy.” The closest I had come previously was being off my head on Hawaiian woodrose seeds while playing with my dingoes. The world felt like a manga cartoon. But being on strong plant-based drugs while in the jungle added a whole new layer of complexity: was that three-headed black jaguar gibbering monstrosity for real or something that would go away after a hot bath and lots of vitamin C?
It reminded me of a spectacular hallucination experience that occurred during my undergraduate days. As university is a time for experimentation and the seeking out of new existential knowledge, a mate of mine ate a handful of psychedelic mushrooms while at the foothills of Mt. Hood. His plan was to start out at one of the picnic grounds and then have a lovely day walking in nature while wasted. What could possibly go wrong?
He had the most vivid hallucinations about conversations with a newfound leprechaun friend, singing, dancing, and laughing the day away. The next day he was checking his camera at the same time that a news bulletin came on to the television screen, stating that a missing child had been located after being lost in the woods. He gazed in horror at his camera, at the TV, and back at the camera. His “leprechaun” was actually an eight-year-old child with Down syndrome who had wandered away from a group of relatives having lunch at the same picnic area. By the time anyone noticed he was gone, he had already bumped into my friend, who was now walking, laughing, and talking, with the “leprechaun,” leading him along the path to the deepest, darkest part of the forest. Once there, my friend bid his leprechaun friend goodbye, since leprechauns live in the deep forest. He then wandered happily back, leaving this confused special-needs kid in the middle of the forest. My mate debated it for a while and then deleted the photos, since they could be considered evidence. I thought it was a very smart move!
One night around midnight I went for a long walk alone under a full moon, with my torch turned off, using the moonlight to guide my way through the forest as Godsmack’s song “Voodoo” echoed in my skull. I stopped to kick back against a tree. While I was there, two vampire bats started stalking me in the air, cruising silently feet above my head. As I wasn’t on any sort of chemical at the time, I knew these were real, not drug-induced hallucinations. I kept really still, like sleeping mammalian potential prey, hoping they’d land and come over to try and feed on me. Along with the other vaccinations prior to leaving Melbourne, I had had my rabies shot, so I was well prepared. Sadly, they were skittish and eventually flew off. As an aside, the rabies vaccination was the most horrid vaccination I’ve ever gone through. It takes three shots and each time my body reacted violently with explosive diarrhea a few hours later; the third time I broke out in a full-body rash. It was like having a hypodermically delivered exorcism while being prepped for a colonoscopy.
The next morning, I was having my bath in the clean, clear jungle stream. As I got out I brushed up—luckily just with my leg—against a large fishing spider. It promptly bit me, and caused a one-inch circle of dying tissue over the next few days. I was already prophylactically crunching massive amounts of powerful broad-spectrum antibiotics to counteract the daily insults my body was receiving, knowing all too well how quickly wounds can turn septic in the tropics. Luckily in this case the tissue grew back uneventfully.
Another inhabitant of this area is the Amazonian turtle. It is a water turtle that spends an unusual amount of its time on land. This is because the sandy-bottomed jungle streams are lifeless. The only vegetation other than sparse, fine moss is the dead leaves that give the water its dilute tea appearance and taste. While this meant it was safe for us to drink the water, it also meant that it was virtually sterile. With nothing to eat in the water, these fish-eating turtles had adapted to eating nuts at the base of the trees. They would come out on land to forage for this meal like weird armored squirrels. Dick’s group was also investigating another fascinating aspect of other Amazonian turtles—they seemed to communicate with each other underwater by making fart noises. This was as weird as the Australian Fitzroy River turtle, which can actually breathe through its butt!
When taking down my hammock for departure, I did not notice a scorpion that had taken up residence in one of the folds. That is, until I was stabbed on the back of my hand by the black-tipped stinger that led from the purple body. The pain was immediate, and felt like my hand was in a flame. More worrying were the effects on my heart that showed up within twenty minutes. My heart would race, pause, race, pause, race, pause, and repeat, averaging about ninety beats in thirty seconds before pausing completely for the longest five seconds of my life. Without oxygen-delivering red blood cells being pumped through my veins, I would start feeling suffocated even though I was hyperventilating from this terrifying turn of events. My balance became even worse than usual and I had extreme photosensitivity. There was nothing to do, however, but pack up the camp and head for the boat, as it was scheduled to depart with or without us. The nearest antivenom was several days away by boat, and so there was no recourse but to burn it out during the hike. Six hours later we reached the first of many boats. My hand still burnt, but my heart was settling down to a normal rhythm. I was still weak, but starting to perk up. Now, instead of feeling like death, I felt like something a cat puked up. Not an experience I’d like to go through again!
From Manaus I went on to S?o Paulo. I spent many happy hours wandering through the aisles of the herpetology museum located within the Instituto Butantan. This repository contained many venomous snake holotypes. It had broad implications far beyond herpetology, but I wanted nothing more than to examine the preserved body of some obscure coral snake. It was a truly magical place, the herpetological equivalent to being in a library in ancient Athens or Alexandria.
After returning to Australia, I got to work on researching the samples that I had collected. It was satisfying to discover that even small, completely harmless but still technically venomous lizards like the arboreal alligator lizard had extremely complex venoms and therefore were great sources of novel compounds with potential for drug design and development. Even more satisfying were the results of the vampire bat research. While vampire bat venom had been the subject of considerable research, the efforts had mainly been concentrated on the large clot-busting enzymes. Alejandro had even patented one of these compounds for medical use. Meanwhile, the very small components had been ignored. We discovered that one of these was extremely selective for the very small arteries of the skin, keeping them dilated and the blood flowing. Obviously, this was beneficial to the vampire bat in its feeding, but we immediately recognized it as having great potential to help re-establish blood flow for patients with skin grafts or reattached amputated limbs.
Shortly after my return, I woke to a phone call about another snakebite to yet another mate of mine. This time it was an envenomation to Myke Clarkson in Los Angeles by an obscure African burrowing snake called a stiletto snake. These unique snakes are characterized by having hinged fangs like a rattlesnake, but instead of moving on a vertical axis, they swing out sideways. This means they can erect their fangs without having to open their mouths—an advantage while attacking a potential prey item underground. Combined with a spastic, unpredictable mode of movement, it makes them among the most difficult of all snakes to work with. Myke was stabbed by one fang in his left thumb. It rapidly swelled alarmingly and became discolored to a sickly green-blue. Such spectacular local effects as his had not been well documented for this type of snake, and it had us quickly raising a lot of questions. As this snake was so taxonomically distant from any snake venom for which an antivenom was made, there was no therapeutic treatment available.
There were several immediate complications. One acute early effect was that he became delirious from the pain. Morphine had no effect, which meant the venom was acting upon a very unusual receptor or pathway. He also broke out in full body hives and had explosive diarrhea and vomiting—the same reaction I had to death adder venom, but he was having it to a painkiller. His thumb developed into a green puffy mass that strongly resembled the effects of gangrene. It was obvious that tissue was dying. Untreated, this had the potential to kill him, as it was a fertile breeding ground for all sorts of bacteria. Sick with worry, I was frequently on the phone with his wife, Rebecca, and could hear Myke howl in the background; absolutely delirious in his suffering. Rebecca was a nurse, so she understood all too well the gravity of the situation.
In addition to the zombiefication of his thumb, there was the ongoing problem of another effect of the venom. Instead of lowering the blood pressure like a Stephens’ banded snake or a Komodo dragon, it raised it. We knew this was coming because what little research had been done on this venom had concentrated upon the toxins that raise the blood pressure to dangerous levels such as 220/125, which could result in an artery bursting like an overinflated tire inner tube. There was a further complication, one that shows the true domino-like action of venoms. Myke had a pre-existing heart condition. His mitral valve was prolapsed, resulting in valvular insufficiency; the valve did not open and close properly. When he was a kid this had led to several critical medical difficulties.
The decision was made to do an emergency debridement of the thumb; to cut away the dead tissue until only healthy tissue remained. This would leave Myke with significant scarring and potential loss of movement, but there was nothing else to be done. The pain he was in meant that Myke had no sleep for three days before being prepped for surgery and given general anaesthesia. When he woke, he looked at the bandaging on his hand and noticed there was less of it than there should have been. He was then told that his thumb had been amputated. The surgeon had kept cutting and cutting but found nothing but rotting tissue. Upon reaching the bone, it was discovered that it resembled Swiss cheese; it too had been damaged beyond repair by the venom. Myke was now without his most important finger. It was going to take considerable physical therapy for him to adapt to this sudden turn of events.

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