Venomologist Bryan Grieg Fry has one of the most dangerous jobs on Earth: he works with its deadliest creatures. He’s been bitten by twenty-six venomous snakes, been stung by three stingrays, and survived a near-fatal scorpion sting while deep in the Amazon jungle. He’s received more than four hundred stitches and broken twenty-three bones, including breaking his back in three places, and had to learn how to walk again. But when you research only the venom you yourself have collected, the adventures—and danger—never stop.
Bryan’s discoveries have radically reshaped views on venom evolution and contributed to the creation of venom-based, life-saving medications. In pursuit of venom, he has traveled the world collecting samples from Indonesia to Mexico, Germany, and Brazil. He’s encountered venomous creatures of all kinds, including the Malaysian king cobra, the Komodo dragon, and the funnel-web spider. Bryan recounts his lifelong passion for studying the world’s most venomous creatures in this outlandish, captivating memoir, where he and danger are never far apart.
“Jam-packed with wildly entertaining behind-the-scenes stories of how Bryan became an expert on venom and the trials and tribulations of a life in science. Brilliant, flamboyant, and sometimes controversial, this is the story of his life, warts and all. This book is thrilling and thought-provoking! Bryan’s memoir is a must-read for anyone interested in herpetology.” —Nigel Marven, BBC television host
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There is nothing quite like agonizing withdrawal from months smashed to the gills on an extremely potent opioid derivative to turn to ashes one's fire for recreational drugs. Intravenous hydromorphone had been my neurosurgeon's weapon of choice for the last four months — a necessary remedy after a spectacular lifelong, out-of-control, self-medicating, self-destructive vortex had culminated in me being stranded in the City of Angels with a broken back. What a wild ride it had been. The kind of adventures where one lives decades in only weeks. My obsession with venom had taken me across the globe to seek out the world's most dangerous animals in the world's most inhospitable places, including conflict zones. I had been in and out of hospitals throughout these adventures. While there had been bodies on the floor along the way, I was still alive. For now. There was, however, the small matter of my paralyzed legs.
Thirty-eight years earlier, I came to my first awareness of self with my head restrained and all limbs strapped to a bed. Intravenous lines had been surgically implanted into my temples and on the insides of my ankles. In this earliest of memories, I was in hospital being pumped full of a wide variety of chemical combinations, all in a desperate attempt to cure me of the spinal meningitis that was wreaking havoc on my nerves. At only two years old, I was one very sick little baby. My spine was cold liquid fire and my newfound existence a tortured hell. The reason I was restrained was that I kept grabbing onto the tubes like a hairless little monkey and pulling them out, even the ones inserted into my temples.
Eventually the electrical storm passed and the cleanup began. This was my first flirtation with death. Well, it was a bit more than flirting; bodily fluids were definitely exchanged. It was a hell of an introduction to the comedy club known as being human.
I had started walking just before I fell ill, but left the hospital so weak that I couldn't stand. I was back to square one, learning to walk all over again. My paternal grandmother, Gene, bought me a big toy truck so I could brace myself standing against it while I took the uncertain steps to rebuild my wasted leg muscles. During the follow-up treatment at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC, the team of neurology specialists had an intricate set of exams planned to test the recovery of my neurological function. However, these were immediately suspended after I spontaneously started doing multiple somersaults across the floor. My cavorting was all the evidence they needed to confirm my successful recovery.
It turned out that in this first critical event I had escaped without any long- term damage except for the hearing in my right ear being almost entirely wiped out and my sense of balance permanently affected. I had perfect hearing in one very narrow range, but on either side of that it was like my hearing had just been deleted, leaving the ear useful for not much more than hanging sunglasses off. It did come with the social bonus of being able to put annoying people on that side, particularly during a movie or a long dinner party. Plus, I could tune the world out by sleeping on my left side: the ultimate noise-canceling headphone. I now had a daily reminder of the concept of mortality — a concept I became familiar with pretty much in sync with the concept of "me."
My parents became used to my cavalier attitude towards life and its normal constraints. It was quite evident early on that I was not a flower child, rather, I was a flower piglet. Once, when I was three and outside playing contentedly with worms in a mud puddle, my mother saw it and called out to me, "Get in here and get those filthy clothes off RIGHT NOW!" I obeyed to the letter, and a minute later she looked out the window again to see my bare little bottom sprinting back out and flopping back into the same mud puddle. At times I can be literal to a fault.
I was at my happiest wandering blithely through the woods, flipping logs and rocks. I quickly proved myself adept at catching whatever lay beneath. My parents quickly realized that this was more than an interest, more than a passion: it was a calling. While it was certainly not a career path that they might have imagined for me, they were nevertheless extremely supportive. My father was the consummate hunter and fisherman, and he always encouraged an interest in the outdoors. I was lucky to have parents who had their own atypical pasts and interests, and thus avoided the more typical reaction of parents when confronted by an oddball. Which, in most families, could have been along the lines of "The boy is deranged. We need to see a psychiatrist. I told you not to drink during pregnancy!"
Very early on, I was struck with a deep and abiding love for all the nasty little creatures out there. I was only four when I grandly announced I would study venomous snakes when I grew up. I was not into fluffy bunnies or downy ducklings. I liked my creatures sharp and full of chemicals. Just like me. My first proper envenomation came from a decent-sized bullhead catfish while we were living in Alabama, first from getting a pectoral fin spine into the meaty part of my thumb, and then a pectoral spine into the leg as I dropped the catfish in pain. I quickly got up to speed with just how agonizing defensive venoms can be and experienced the joys of the inevitable puncture wound infection over the coming days.
There was definitely a bit of the genius/crazy quicksilver shooting through the veins of the family tree on my mother's Norwegian side, which had spawned not only the epically bloodthirsty Vikings, but also luminaries such as my distant relative, the composer Edvard Grieg. I grew up listening to his music on the turntable, with "March of the Trolls" quite naturally my favorite piece. The unique wiring of my brain to begin with, and the frying of the circuit boards upon start-up, proved to be a potent nature-nurture combination. I had an ability to focus upon one thing to the absolute exclusion of all else, tunnel vision the likes of which my parents had never seen. Obsession and compulsion are not disorders: they are competitive advantages! Such a gift, however, was accompanied by the social skills of a stoned dingo.
Because of my father's career in the United States Army Corps of Engineers, we bounced around from military base to military base across the United States, moving almost every year. Our summers were spent back in Norway, my mother's homeland. This was where my brother was born and where I spent most of the months of my gestation. The constant travel afforded me the opportunity to keep feeding my appetite for new experiences and new animals; for me, the continual upheaval was a wonderful way to grow up. I thrived on the chaos. It resulted in a certain adaptability and, in a sense, universality — while language and culture change, people are still just people.
I was one of very few children not leaving the house unless I had my snakebite kit stuffed into a hip pocket of my cargo shorts. Razors at the ready to slice the flesh in case of a bite, and ammonium carbonate tablets on hand to sear the sinuses; we now know that the former is dangerous, causing great harm and no benefit, and the latter useless. In first grade, after moving to Florida for the second time, I had been in my new school for less than a week when I fell in love with the librarian. She had me at, "Would you like to see me feed a live mouse to my corn snake?" Hell yeah, baby!
At that time, Florida's natural world was not virgin by any stretch of the imagination, but it hadn't quite hit the truck-stop whore stage that it has now. Native animal species were still plentiful, but the first tide of alien species had begun washing up on the shores. The Cuban anole was a sign of the times: just another honest capitalist lizard fleeing communist Castro. The introduced marine toad ironically hated salt water but if there was an outdoor pool that was not screened, these toxic Jabbas could be found in the morning serenely floating on the surface. The pool screens were also my richest hunting grounds for basking lizards.
Snakes have a pair of glands located just inside their cloaca (the posterior opening that serves as the only opening for the intestinal, reproductive, and urinary tracts), about 80 percent of the way down their belly, which produce a noxious secretion. Some snakes have evolved these glands for active defensive use. Ring-neck snakes in particular, as it turned out. These snakes are glossy black on their backs, patternless except for the namesake narrow orange ring that circles their necks. The underside of the tail, however, is vibrantly colored with oranges and yellows. When they feel threatened, they curl the tail up tight like a corkscrew, displaying the color. Naturally, this did not deter me when I encountered my first one and I was sprayed with eye- watering stuff that was disgusting beyond description. Ordinary soap was summarily defeated by this foul concoction. I went around the rest of the day reeking of the delightful aroma of Ring-Neck Snake Funk #5, thus deterring even further my peer-level female schoolmates, who thought me rather odd to begin with, as I liked snakes and kept bringing them to school with me.
At this time we lived just a few blocks away from the iconic Miami Serpentarium, run by the legendary Bill Haast. Seeing him milk the king cobras left an indelible, golden-scaled impression in my soul. Black mambas moved silkily across their cages while rattlesnakes played a one-note sound of warning: a heavy-metal, open-E-string sort of droning buzz. One day my family was supposed to go to the Serpentarium again but went saltwater fishing instead. The king cobras would be there tomorrow. Or so we thought. We headed out into the sort of hard dawn that was characteristic of the Keys at times: harsh, unsubtle coloring with that trailer-park beauty queen kind of attractiveness. The two-stroke engine buzzed like a giant mosquito as we cut through water that looked like polished glass on this windless day. After a sporting time pulling in grouper and assorted smaller reef fish, we headed out into deeper waters than usual because of the calmness of the day. And there we struck green and gold: dolphinfish. The sleekest, fastest things on fins that I had ever encountered. My golf-ball-sized biceps were weak with exhaustion.
Back on land and starting our return home with an ice chest full of fresh fish fillets, we heard on the car radio about the tragedy that had occurred just moments before. Crocodiles at the Miami Serpentarium had killed a young boy after he had fallen into their pen. His father had irresponsibly let him stand on the ledge overlooking the pen. The boy turned and asked, "Daddy, what would happen if I fell in?" His father said, "I would save you." Ironically, this was not to be the case when the boy fell as he turned back to look at the crocs again. He was rapidly dismembered and partially consumed before Haast shot dead the two crocodiles. Tragically, the young boy and the two crocodiles all paid the ultimate price for the father's shocking level of parenting. The Miami Serpentarium closed immediately and that was the end of an era.
Two years later, as a northern alligator lizard relentlessly chewed on my classmate's finger like Luis SuÃ¡rez having another mental breakdown on the soccer field, I noticed that the saliva coming out of its mouth was unusually frothy. But any mental notes about this were soon washed away by the copious amounts of blood that emanated from the wounds. This was all accompanied by the strange squeaking/squealing sounds the boy made every time the lizard clamped down and chewed. The only thing I was certain about was that it was entirely his fault; I had warned him about putting his finger too close, saying, "It will bite!" Which it certainly did, without hesitation.
Not unexpectedly, this commotion attracted the attention of the teachers. In the course of the post-mortem interrogation, it was revealed that during the previous six months at my new school on Hamilton Air Force Base in California, my mother had been dropping my brother and me off at the same time for school. The school had a weird staggered start, where grades 4 — 6 started at 8 a.m., while grades 1 — 3 started at 9. My brother was two grades ahead of me, so he started in the first wave. It made no sense for my mother to make two trips each morning and again in the evening, so I was simply dropped off with a free hour before school, while my brother had an hour to kill at the end of the day. As I was without explicit instruction regarding where to go or what to do (implied instructions being lost on my very literal brain), as soon as the car turned the corner, I would head straight for the nearby woods to go snake hunting. So each morning I would arrive back for class with my backpack writhing mysteriously with whatever the morning's hunt had turned up. This particular morning I had flipped a large rock and found the biggest northern alligator lizard that I had ever seen. The body, with its brown and white shingled scales, was flawless, all the way down to a perfectly intact tail. It was very rare to find a large adult without at least part of the tail regenerated after a potential predator was left with the rest impotently squirming in its jaws. I was made to let it go, which I protested loudly against since it would not change the damage to his flesh, which had required ten stitches to close the profusely bleeding wound.
When not causing administrative problems at school, I was invariably out snake hunting with various equally snake-mad friends. One of my favorite spots was a small lake flourishing with amphibians and snakes. I would hit it early in the day, the soft morning light painting the landscape with pastels. By 9 a.m., the temperature would already be in the mid-seventies — perfect for going around rocky areas and looking for cylindrical serpentine bodies halfway out of the grass and basking on rocks. The pond was littered with the multi-colored polka dots that were the lily pads and their flowers. Herons strode majestically through the shallows. Feral Florida bullfrogs provided a sustaining meal for indigenous wading birds.
One particular morning, we weren't the only ones looking at a body moistly glistening in the new day. Like the fingers of god, shafts of light came through the stone-blue clouds, revealing a "painting" — an unexpected nude portrait. For, standing in the middle of the clearing, striking a pose the likes of which I had never seen, and putting a finger somewhere my nine-year-old brain had never thought of sticking a finger, was the first naked woman I had ever seen. And she was being photographed by a mustachioed man with an oversized camera. The forest was silent as we all contemplated each other. A pair of scruffy urchins with mud-stained pillowcases containing moving creatures of uncertain identity. And them. We just trod on past, staring intently out of the corners of our eyes, experiencing odd new glandular sensations. While life went on, it certainly had a new flavor to it.
Not long after this came the championship game for my Little League Baseball team. As we were warming up, my attention was caught by an aerial traffic pattern of hornets going in and out of a subterranean nest located within a gopher's burrow. My fast but typically wildly inaccurate method of throwing objects was unusually on-target as I zinged dirt clods into the hornets' nest from a short distance away. I was momentarily distracted from tormenting the hornets by having to throw a ball back to the rest of the team, so I didn't notice until it was too late that an enraged stream of hornets was pouring from the hole. I copped fourteen stings in total on my arms, face, and neck. Of the many hornet stings I accumulated that day, the one that really hurt was the disfiguring one on my left eyelid that looked like a small tumor. It was off, again, to the Hamilton Air Force Base Hospital, where I was already on a first-name basis with some of the staff, and I missed out entirely on the championship game.
At this time, California was flush with funding and was wisely putting a considerable amount of this into education, including a flourishing Gifted Program, into which I was enrolled. In addition to learning Spanish and computers, we also competed in the regional science fair. My project, for which I won first prize, investigated whether my pet tarantulas were more likely to eat a prey item quickly if another tarantula was in view. After feeding my pets under a variety of conditions, I observed that in the presence of another spider they ate considerably faster; which I concluded was the arachnid equivalent of a kid stuffing his mouth with the last piece of chocolate birthday cake before someone else could eat it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Venom Doc"
Copyright © 2015 Bryan Grieg Fry.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Well-spent Youth 1
2 Endless Summer 22
3 Serpents of the Sea 44
4 Singapore Sling 69
5 London Calling 81
6 Great Southern Land 95
7 Underwater World 111
8 Puff the Magic Dragon 127
9 The Frozen South 155
10 El Gringo 165
11 Pakiscary 196
12 This is Spinal Tap 211
13 Phoenix Rising 244
14 Mr. and Mrs. Smith 261
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Venom Doc: The Edgiest, Darkest, Strangest Natural History Memoir Ever by Bryan Grieg Fry is the very highly recommended memoir of a professional venom biologist. In this very appealing conversational style memoir Bryan Grieg Fry, Australia's most renowned field biologist/venomologist, shares stories, jokes, close calls and quips. Ultimately it is all about what he loves: venomous creatures. Yup. Fry loves all things poisonous and deadly. He has been "bitten by twenty-six venomous snakes, been stung by three stingrays, and survived a near-fatal scorpion sting while deep in the Amazon jungle. He’s received more than four hundred stitches and broken twenty-three bones, including breaking his back in three places, and had to learn how to walk again." I know this may surprise all of you, but Fry lives a much more exciting, adrenaline pumped life than I do and I'm good with that. (Check out the website for YouTube videos and more information: http://www.venomdoc.com/) There are also many pictures to be found online of Fry and venomous creatures, but the book does include a section of black and white photos. The great thing about Venom Doc is that you don't need a scientific background to enjoy it as Fry will explain any scientific or technical terms he uses and has made this memoir for the general public. While entertaining you, and you will be entertained (and maybe a bit horrified at his actions), he will also educate you. It is fast-paced and does not have any slow or boring sections, which is sort of what I expected and therefore was pleased about finding true. If you need to set this aside while reading it it will be because you needed the break, either because the action was overwhelming or creeped you out (guilty). It's not all just for the thrills, though. Fry's discoveries have contributed to venom-based medications that can save lives. Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.