Bryan Grieg Fry: the venom doctor

He milks cobras, calms Komodo dragons and extracts octopus venom. Dr Bryan Grieg Fry tells Louise Ridley about his life’s hazardous research
10th March 2011
Bryan Grieg Fry: the venom doctor

Your job is very dangerous. What drives you to do it?

Danger’s relative. It’s the same basic premise behind military training: repetition combined with experience changes your reaction to something and that’s how you manage danger. Plus, if you love what you’re doing you’re coming from a position of love, not a position of fear. When I make documentaries, I try to show that it takes a lot more skill to keep an animal calm than it does to make it angry. We love the animals we’re working with and we don’t want them to get stressed out.

What techniques do you use to keep an animal calm?

It’s about removing the fight-or-flight reflex. We try to have a practical understanding of the animal. I worked with Komodo dragons – they’re large lizards, but are incredibly intelligent. We actually played peek-a-boo with them. We’d close our eyes and they’d open their eyes to see if we were sleeping, so they could sneak a little closer to us. Then we’d open our eyes and they’d close theirs! They had astounding self-awareness and understood the concept of something existing despite it not being seen. King cobras are another good example. When a king cobra encounters another in the forest, it will rear up and try to touch the other on top of the head to establish dominance. So when we’re working with them, we’ll tap them on the head to stimulate that reflex. They’ll drop to the ground and slither away before going ‘Hey, wait a minute…’. You can see them realising that they’ve been had.

How did you first get interested in venomous animals?

I was in love with them from the beginning. When I was four, I grandly announced that I was going to work with these animals for a living. As far back as I can remember, I’ve had pet snakes, lizards, frogs and whatever else I could drag into the house. What little boy doesn’t like creepy crawlies? These creatures are the coolest things that evolution has ever produced. What’s the most dangerous animal you’ve worked with?

It all depends on the situation – one animal isn’t going to be the same animal in a different set of circumstances. For instance, stingrays are much more dangerous to work with in shallow water. They hate you being on top of thembecause that’s how a tiger shark or a killer whale preys on them. Steve Irwin’s death was almost a mathematical certainty because once you put a series of events into play, the chance of something happening becomes 100 per cent over a set period of time.

The most dangerous animal might be a little,brightly coloured fish that you stayed down a bit too long following while scuba diving. It becomes the most lethal creature on Earth because – whoops! – suddenly you’re out of air.

What’s a typical day for you?

I don’t have an average day. In the last year alone I’ve been to Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Komodo Island and Mexico. It’s a constant state of travel. I have a deep, psychological loathing of my suitcase now!

How often do things go wrong?

Things happen. Just as Michael Schumacher’s wrecked a few cars along the way, I’ve got a good batting average. But nothing’s 100 per cent. That’s why we have back-up strategies in place. I got bitten by a sea-snake in Queensland, but we had the antivenom on site, we had mobile phones with us and we had the hospital on standby. All of our procedures worked perfectly. Within 10 minutes of getting into the hospital, the antivenom was already entering my veins. It’s just as well, because I was already in rough shape and it took my body nine months to recover.

How much more can we learn from venom?

It’s infinite. There are entire groups of animals for which nothing is known at all. The challenge I’ve set myself is the Antarctic octopus. Even by Antarctic standards, this thing is just plain weird. We put nets down to 2000m, pull up venomous giant octopuses and see what’s in their glands. We’ve DNA-typed everything we found, revealing four new species including an entirely new genus.

Every scientist is driven by basic child-like curiosity. It’s much easier to find something new and wonderful from an Antarctic octopus – whose venom no-one else in the world had looked at – than it is from yet another cobra. Venom has huge medical importance, but a lot of the time it’s just a grand excuse to keep having a lot of fun with these animals that I find so fascinating.