Donald Schultz has a job some would envy — traveling to remote locales like Tanzania, Jordan and Fiji to hunt down poisonous spiders and snakes and collect their venom for scientists conducting lifesaving research. While he’s on assignments, he also gets a chance to rescue an occasional critter. The result of his work is the series Wild Recon, airing Tuesdays beginning Jan. 5 on Animal Planet (HD).
I caught up with Schultz when he was — briefly — visiting Los Angeles before taking off again for another exotic locale.
I just saw a highlight reel for “Wild Recon,” and my first thought was this was the Crocodile Hunter as scientist. Is that an apt description?
Donald Schultz: [laughs] Steve Irwin was such a legend in his own right, it’s hard to emulate him. But realistically, it’s a totally different shoot. Our main goal is to get something from the animals scientifically that will either help in conservation or special preservation or human applications like drugs and so on. Steve was a zoo guy, but we’re definitely research-based. Everything has to do with going out and finding samples for research.
I’ve taken everything near and dear to my heart, and people that I love, and made a show where we get to do the coolest things in the best countries with the best animals and there’s no compromise. The show turned out to be exactly what we do, no strain on the premise of it.
I’ve been around the world twice — South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Jordan, Sri Lanka, Australia, Central America, Fiji and the U.S. In between that, our production company makes TV shows for Discovery, so when I wasn’t in front of the camera I was operating the cameras for a couple of Shark Week shows.
How long do you stay in an area?
Usually between seven and 12 days, depending on how much we need to travel. We are opportunistic so we go into countries with things that we want to do but everything is pretty much fair game. We’ll run across a spider and say “that’s great for venom” or we’ll find an injured animal and try to help it. We work with anything that’s alive.
Are you working on your own or with different groups who send you to collect a sample?
Some research is for myself and we publish that independently. We also have relationships with some companies and universities who ask, “We really want a sample from a snake that’s on a tiny little island off the coast of Tanzania. Can you get it?” And we go out and get the sample and give it to the person, but if we go to a country looking for one snake, it’s not like we would just find the one snake and leave. Anything else we find is also scientifically significant.
As far as venom goes, I work with a company that is trying to unlock the whole venomous world for pharmaceuticals. So everywhere we go, every snake we see, we collect the venom. Or spiders, or jellyfish, and so on.
I worked in veterinary medicine for about five years, but felt I had more of a calling out in the field. So I have some background as far as animals and anesthesiology and drugs and getting blood. So instead of anesthetizing an animal twice to get a sample, I can get samples while the animal’s down.
What have been some of the biggest finds for medicine from research into venom?
It takes about five to 10 years for something to come from a toxin to a drug, but the upside of it is, the more things you have in the pipeline — the more venoms and toxins we look at — the more potential there are for drugs. A good example is a scorpion from the Middle East started being analyzed six years ago and now there is a medication on the market from this scorpion.
The bad thing with synthetic drugs, they have side effects. With natural substances, they are often very specific. They will only make your blood thinner, or make your blood clot, or make your blood pressure drop. They have very few side effects.
But if synthetic drugs have side effects and natural ones don’t, what happens to the animals from which you get the venom?
There’s a new branch of science now that was only started from two years ago. We can take RNA from a gland and get the complimentary DNA. From that you get protein and from that protein you can synthesize the venom. You can literally make gallons and gallons of venom or gallons and gallons of what you want. That’s good for the population of animals in the wild because they aren’t getting hunted for venom anymore, and good for the researchers because they don’t have to handle snakes every day.
What have been some of your most dangerous animal encounters?
When I sky dived into Sri Lanka, I landed next to a pond that had about 150 crocodiles, totally wild and totally unfriendly, and the wind picked up just before I jumped out and it was very dicey.
What made you choose this for your career?
My dad and I found a tiny little worm snake, and I thought it was the best thing in the world. And there was a snake park in Durbin, Australia, where I grew up. And the guy said snakes make terrible pets; let it go and I’ll give you something really decent. And we went into the back of the snake park, and I saw a rattlesnake. I’d heard about rattlesnakes, but seeing one was so exhilarating and I went out in the wild looking for snakes. That went on until I was about 12 years old.
Then I began hanging out at the snake park with the guys and the owner said to my mom, “Do you want Donald to work here?” And she said she was sure I’d be very happy. That started my career working with snakes. I felt working with animals that people despised was good. I’ve always liked the underdog. And also being in a position where you can help not just people but animals stuck with me for the rest of my life. So I work with difficult animals and scared people.
I noticed you are working with a cheetah. How did it make it into a series on venom?
Without a dramatic conservation, cheetahs in the wild will go extinct in the next 12 years. That scares the daylights out of me because they are such iconic animals. That cheetah got into a scrap with another animal and had one of his testicles ripped off. So we wanted to make sure he was healing OK and to get genetic samples. Two of the biggest fears of researchers is that cheetahs get two diseases. One is a dog disease and the other a cat disease — canine distemper and feline leukemia — so we tested the cheetah and got genetic samples. As it turned out, he was fine and will probably go on to breed.
It was the first time I’ve worked with cheetahs in the wild. They are huge. They are bigger than a Rottweiler.
Is there anything you want to add about “Wild Recon”?
One thing I hope comes across in this series is how much fun we had making it. I met some amazing people with shared beliefs, trying to make a huge difference in the world with not much available to them.