In the first episode of Bite Me With Dr. Mike, Dr. Mike Leahy is standing beside an anthill wearing only flip-flops. It’s the sort of thing an unsuspecting tourist might do, and the results can be painful — and, as Leahy proved, unexpected. Soon after receiving multiple bites from fire ants, Leahy found himself barely able to breathe and in a very real medical emergency. It’s one of the many “eek!” moments in a series that enlightens, entertains and makes staycations seem like a really good idea.
In each episode, Leahy visits a different slice of paradise and reveals what nasty little demons are lurking in the pristine waters and tropical overgrowth. Among the worst are tiny tropical fish that are attracted to urine and — use your imaginations here as this squeamish writer does not want to get too graphic — swim and get stuck … ah, heck, guys! Just don’t pee in the river, OK? That little fish won’t kill you, but the result of an infestation can really ruin your vacation itinerary.
Leahy, who has degrees in virology and biology, was happy to share some of his experiences during the making of Bite Me, including the critters that bothered him the most.
After watching you getting bitten by fire ants, I can only assume you will go to great lengths to make a point. Did you expect that reaction to the stings and did it make you more cautious?
Mike Leahy: To be honest, the fire ants were a mistake. I had no idea that I was going to react that way. I had a good idea that they’d be uncomfortable, and my director and I thought it would be good fun because I have done less pleasant things in the past (As an example of those “less pleasant” things, Leahy once swallowed a tapeworm cyst and allowed it to grow in his stomach for 11 weeks preceding his wedding. He “passed” it on television — much to his bride’s relief, one would suppose.) and I genuinely wanted to see if they would burn. I didn’t expect the reaction that did happen. It was interesting, for want of a better term. We hadn’t given it a moment’s thought.
I’ve traveled a lot before, and one thing I found when working this series is that it pretty closely simulates what somebody would do if they just went traveling to these places without even thinking. Here in the U.K. you’ve got a lot of young students on their year out. They don’t take their anti-malarials. They maybe dabble in drugs. They maybe drink too much. They don’t worry about little scratches they get. And, quite by accident, we simulated these conditions.
One in eight people may have an adverse reaction to fire ants. Usually I avoid any ants, but on this occasion we did it to prove a point and proved it a little more thoroughly than we anticipated.
You’ve had a number of series on science and nature. What’s your background?
I came from a family that valued education but didn’t have much money. And I was always a little bit reckless and rebellious and got kicked out of school early. … I went back to university at 26. I always needed to know how things work, so science was an ideal place for me to go once I settled down enough to sit on my backside for more than an hour at a time.
A lot of people might argue that this series will make staycations look like a really good idea instead of a compromise due to the economy. Did you ever feel like staying home yourself after a particularly bad encounter?
Never. I stay home at the moment because I’ve got a very young family, but my wife and I are planning the next trip as we speak. When I first met my wife, the first thing I did was go off to India for three months. Then when we got married, we went on a two-year honeymoon and went around the world twice. But I like my roots. I know where’s home.
Where are some of the spots you are filming?
Brazil, Rio and the Amazon; Vietnam; India — a bit like the U.S., it’s got everything; Borneo — a place that should be beautiful but has been trashed; Australia; Mexico; the U.S.
We went to Miami but I’m not big into cities. I did enjoy the Everglades, then rural Arizona, right on the Mexican border. It was a place called Portal that I am definitely going to take my family to.
What was your worst encounter while filming this series?
The one animal that really freaked me out was a venomous caterpillar in Vietnam. I couldn’t bring myself to handle it, but I did a little bit. Obviously, I had to. It’s my job. But the animal handlers wouldn’t touch it, either. It’s ferociously strong, its bite is extremely painful and it’s got attitude.
And some things weren’t shown onscreen. One experience I didn’t like was experimenting with Ayahuasca tea in Brazil. After my close encounter with the ants, as you can imagine, I had a ferociously bad trip. I also think the guy I was with was pulling a bit of a joke on me. I had quite a bigger cup than anyone else. I’ve never done recreational drugs; even smoking cigarettes makes me ill.
Then there were the things I caught accidentally. There was a sequence shot in Borneo, it was about Leptospirosis, Weil’s disease … I had a choice to swim in a big lake where there were crocodiles or a less big lake where there weren’t crocs. I should have known better, because often it is the small thing that is more dangerous. I came down with Crypto- and Cyclosporidium.
So anyway, the double infection was the thing that did me the most harm. I wound up in the hospital again. From there I went to the outback, where it was about 115 degrees, and I couldn’t hold any water in for more than a few seconds. [In that situation] you will keel over eventually.
I saw the notice at the end of the credits that some of the creatures used had been “bred for safety” — I assume that means things like the mosquitoes and assassin bugs, correct?
We can’t play with infected kissing bugs — that would just be suicide. There are certain things you can’t risk, like Chagas disease. It’s what people think killed Darwin. It is still present in the U.S. and it is a massive, massive killer. You can’t see it on television but you can see its vector. Although I am game for a lot, I am not up for killing myself just to make a program. But with the kissing bug, there was no way I would use a wild one, nor would we want to lie about it.
You look at any wildlife show, and I won’t name names, but an enormous amount is staged. Sometimes it is purely for technical reasons, like lighting. So even if you move something into better light, it’s only right to mention it in a disclaimer. But that said, everything you see is otherwise genuine.
Would you categorize this show as cautionary — “if this is where you are going, here’s what to watch for”?
I hope it’s an inspirational show. I hope what we show is how brilliant these places are. What amazing wildlife there is. … If you listen to the locals and take precautions, you’ll be fine.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about tropical wildlife?
There are two classic misconceptions that can get people into trouble. The first is that the rabies vaccine protects you from rabies. It doesn’t. It just gives you more time to get medical attention. If you don’t get medical attention, you will die. The second is that mosquitoes only bite at dawn and dusk. There are daytime-biting mosquitoes, too, and they spread diseases such as dengue.
My sneaking suspicion is that if people watch the show, I like to think we can save quite a few people from pain and suffering. But mainly I want to share my enthusiasm for travel and the places I went to.
Bite Me With Dr. Mike airs Tuesdays beginning June 23 on Travel Channel.