Meet the man who was (maybe) devoured by an anaconda

The star of Discovery Channel's controversial new show insists it's all in the name of conservation

Published December 6, 2014 8:30PM (EST)

      (Discovery Channel)
(Discovery Channel)

My biggest question for Paul Rosolie, the man Discovery Channel claims will be eaten alive in a "documentary" airing Sunday night -- really, my only question for him -- was, why?

Rosolie's a dedicated naturalist who has made protecting the Amazon and its species his life's mission. The book he published earlier this year,"Mother of God," combines adrenaline-fueled stories about his adventures in the rainforest with an earnest call to preserve the natural world. Reading through it, as Rosolie suggested his critics do, one's struck by the passion he obviously felt for an ecosystem under threat, and particularly by the caution and respect with which he treated the anacondas he encountered there. Almost all of that is missing from "Eaten Alive's" trailer, which comes off, as Salon's Joanna Rothkopf put it, as an attempt at entertainment that "crosses the line from bad taste to outright... animal abuse." A petition attempting to prevent it from airing has more than 37,000 signatures as of this writing.

Is it really possible that Rosolie abandoned his principles entirely for the benefit of the network that brought us "Shark Week"? It will be impossible to know before the show itself airs, but the reality of what really happened may be somewhere in the middle. Rosolie wasn't able to reveal much about the stunt itself, but from what he did say, the whole "getting eaten alive by an anaconda" thing is sort of a bait-and-switch: come for the drama, stay for the important message about conservation (or, as he calls it, the "vegetables").

Salon spoke with Rosolie about his critics' concerns and about why he feels saving the Amazon is in dire need of rebranding. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

I expect you’re not actually going to be able to tell me whether or not you were eaten by an anaconda, right?

[Laughs] Jumping right into it, huh? No. That’s one thing they want me to keep until the end, just like they don’t tell you if Nik Wallenda makes it across the tightrope. You just have to wait until Sunday.

A lot of people think it’s going to be fake. There was one expert online saying it would probably be impossible, even for a large snake, to swallow a human…

Well, I don’t know who the “expert” was but I’ve worked with anacondas for years in the Amazon and I've seen them eat animals significantly bigger than humans. One of the factors that makes it difficult for an anaconda to potentially eat a human is that, unlike a deer that goes from head to neck to shoulders very gradually, humans have this sharp angle where their shoulders go out. That’s one of the things that makes it difficult, but these things crush their prey to death before they eat, so once a human ribcage is collapsed and your clavicle is snapped, your shoulders aren’t so much of a problem. Actually, my cook, when I was a guide for ecotours in the Amazon -- her father was eaten by an anaconda.

A lot of people are saying things they think are true, but anacondas are a pretty powerful species. They live in an environment with black caiman that grow to be 18 feet, with jaguars that can grow to be 250 pounds. Humans aren’t that formidable; we don’t have any claws or spikes or teeth to speak of, you know?

That's horrifying about your cook. I’m assuming, since I’m speaking with you, that you weren’t crushed quite in the same way?

The carbon-fiber suit that was designed to protect me during the stunt -- we tested it to make sure that I wouldn’t get crushed to death while doing this.

I read a bit of your book and I know you care a lot about conservation. Obviously the point of the documentary wasn’t to see whether or not you could be eaten alive. Could you tell me a little bit more about what you are hoping to achieve with it?

Absolutely. I have worked in the Amazon for almost a decade now, and when you're actually there… I’ve seen the Trans-Amazon Highway cut through thousands of miles of forest, I’ve seen illegal gold mining completely raze what was once pristine rainforest to the ground. I’ve been on the front lines of this developing story for a while now, and I’ve seen scientists writing papers, I’ve seen activists starting petitions, but I still feel like the world still turns.

I look at the Amazon as: It produces a fifth of our planet’s oxygen and contains another fifth of our planet’s fresh water. There’s more biological diversity here than anywhere else on the planet, so whether you’re a politician in Tokyo or you live in New York or L.A., our planet’s weather is heavily influenced by this one gigantic forest biome. It’s not just about saving the animals or saving the rainforest, it’s something at the crossroads of global politics and the health of life on Earth.

For me, getting eaten by an anaconda addresses a lot of people’s worst fears and nightmares, but it’s also a chance for us to start studying this really awesome, beautiful, charismatic animal -- we call it a flagship species in conservation, when we can use a charismatic ambassador for the ecosystem. If you can protect an apex predator, you can protect everything else in the ecosystem. By doing this show… I mean, look, just the trailer on YouTube got 15 million views in a week; when you search “Eaten Alive” on Google you get something like 250,000 results of articles written. People all over the world are interested, offended, curious, and people are talking to experts and asking questions about anacondas, about the Amazon, about why this guy would do this. For me, that’s a huge success. I would like wildlife and the natural world to be a greater part of the dialogue in our culture.

You mention in the book that anacondas are thought of as deadly -- and obviously they can be -- but that they are actually pretty docile animals unless provoked. Do you worry that this could create misconceptions about them?

Yeah, I worry, but at the same time anyone who sees the show will see: We catch a number of snakes and we study them, but every single anaconda I’ve ever interacted with has tried to run away. It’s only when, as a researcher, you want to measure it, weigh it, and work on it, you have to handle it. But every anaconda, if it's 20 feet or two feet, every single one I’ve ever caught has tried to run away and then, when I grab it, turns to defend itself, which is what it should do as a wild animal; it doesn’t know that I’m not going to hurt it. I don’t think the show is going to hurt the anaconda’s reputation so much.

I also don’t think that their reputation can get too much worse. In the Amazon, I’ve seen people drive past an anaconda basking by the riverside and just shoot it because they’re scared of it. They know it’s not venomous; they know that no one they’ve ever met has ever been bitten by one or had a bad experience, but they’re still scared of it because it’s a big, ugly snake, and they kill it. I think the only place to go is up. So yeah, this show is about trying to get eaten by an anaconda, but at the same time we spend a lot of time just really worshipping these things and talking about how awesome they are and how beautiful they are and how important they are to the ecosystem.

One more thing that was really striking to me in the book was how strongly you emphasize not disturbing the anacondas any more than you need to in order to weigh and measure them, being as careful as possible. How did you ensure you didn’t harm the animal in this case?

Not harming the animal was priority number one. I work to protect these animals in the world; I would never harm one. First, what we did with the suit was make sure it was smooth. They swallow caiman, which is a type of crocodile, and caiman have spikes on their tails, they have sharp claws, they have teeth… we made sure that this suit has none of those things. It’s all very smooth and streamlined so that it wouldn’t hurt the snake going into the snake’s throat. And don’t forget these are tough animals.

And then with the event itself I went up to the snake, and I wanted to keep it within the parameters of, if I was catching this snake for the first time, what it would be like. Usually you have to grab an anaconda behind the head so that it can’t bite you, and then you can measure it and weigh it and everything else. What I did was I went up to the anaconda and I walked around her with the suit on, and she -- which I think is important for people to see -- she showed no interest. She just kept slithering away; she wanted nothing to do with me. It was only when I grabbed her -- which, again, to study the snakes, we have to grab them -- that she defended herself. Really, we didn’t actually do anything with the snake that would put it through abnormal stress. If it was in the wild and it was constricting a prey item, it would do the same thing. I was very careful about that; I certainly didn’t want to torture a snake.

Would you say you felt the need to take a bit of a cynical attitude on how to get people to pay attention to these important conservation issues? As in, you needed to create controversy like this in order to get people to pay attention?

Personally, as a scientist, I watch "Nature" on PBS and I read these devout accounts of scientific expeditions and studies, and I enjoy that stuff. When I talk to my friends, they’re talking about football games, they’re talking about movies, they’re talking about other things, and I feel that nature and the natural world is very underrepresented in all forms of media. That’s what I was trying to do with the book, was make something that was exciting and accessible but also had some substance. With the show, I’m sort of taking that a little farther.

I’m 27 and my entire life I’ve been hearing about how the Amazon is disappearing and all the rainforests on our planet are disappearing. If you ask the average person, they know how important these places are. A lot of people can actually list for you why these places are so important: biodiversity, medicine, weather, resources… but somehow there’s a disconnect. There’s some sort of dissonance where people know what’s going on but there's not actually anything being done, and every year the march of deforestation continues. The Amazon is not a system that our planet can survive without, and what’s cool about the Amazon is that it’s so black and white. You can really see it, you can crystallize it like that.

With something like this, breaking out of the defeated, weepy, save-the-rainforest thing and trying to rebrand it, reinvigorate it, make it more exciting, hide the vegetables and take people on an exciting adventure into the Amazon, into this crazy experiment, but then also have some substance there. The reason I’m doing this is because I’m so horrified at what I’ve seen that I just have to do something, you know?

By Lindsay Abrams

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