Once Bitten

Mark Ferns, the producer and presenter of NATURE's BLOODY SUCKERS, believes in first-hand experience. While making the film, he decided the best way to inform and entertain viewers was to become a victim of bloodsuckers himself. "I wanted the best footage possible of these animals feeding," he says. "And the best way I could think of getting it was to use myself as a subject." So Ferns allowed himself to be bitten, and his blood lapped, by everything from the large chipo bug to the vampire bat.

He recently shared some thoughts on his "draining" experience:

How did you get interested in blood-sucking beasts?

My interest goes way back to childhood grade-B vampire movies, and later learning from my high school library that there really are vampire bats. I was surprised that vampires were not just a creation of Hollywood. It was even more intriguing to find that real vampire bats in South America were not discovered by European scientists until well into the 19th century, so the Transylvania legends of a bat-like Dracula had developed quite independently from knowledge of the real thing. Those early reports were careful to avoid hysteria and emphasize that vampire bats prefer to feed on horses, cattle and pigs but seldom if ever attack people.

Then, in 1998, I heard about a case decades earlier, where a sleeping forestry worker in rural Argentina had been repeatedly plagued by vampire bats. He had been bitten dozens of times on the face and scalp. The bats came back night after night, re-opening the same victim's wounds and ignoring his fellow workers. Every night the poor man tried to block the chimney, all the gaps around windows and under doors, but the bats always found a way in to the workers' hut. Eventually the unlucky victim had to flee to the city. So vampires could attack people and -- what's more -- the little horrors seemed smart and determined. I was hooked!

Unfortunately, everyone directly associated with that famous case had died or moved away.

Meanwhile, my colleagues uncovered new scientific reports of a bird that feeds on bloody wounds of elephant seals, a blood-sucking butterfly, and rare vampire bats that only bite birds. Add those to the classic nasty little suckers that we all love to hate, like leeches and mosquitoes, and there was a wealth of possibilities for a great documentary -- even if most of the critters were small, very shy or nocturnal -- a pain for wildlife filmmakers!

You decided to let many of the animals in the show take a taste of your own blood. Why?

Originally, I was aiming to film local people as well as some surprising animals being bitten, showing the broadest array of victims who have to live with the persecution of blood suckers every day. But it wasn't so easy to convince people who try hard to avoid being bitten in their regular lives to help us by being victims for the camera. With careful preparation, we were able to minimize the risk of disease. But people were nervous and always said things like: "If you are so confidant there's no risk, why don't you do it?"

I started thinking about more of a reality TV-style show where various crew members including myself and some consultant scientists would get bitten. But most of the scientists and all the crew thought it was a disgusting idea!

So it was down to me. And the more I thought about it [the more advantages I saw]. I didn't want to push people to do something I would not do myself. Plus [we] realized that the stuff any audience would react to most strongly was a human being bitten -- and preferably a victim who is able to tell people about the experience.

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