Harkening back to the early days of discovery, Pat Spain, 38, is a wildlife biologist, cryptozoologist, biotech expert and cancer survivor. Born and raised in Wynantskill, New York, he moved to Boston in 1998 to attend Suffolk University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in biology with a marine focus. By day, he works as a scientist for Vertex Pharmaceuticals and, in his spare time, he has hosted television shows such as Beast Hunter for National Geographic and Legend Hunter, currently airing on the Travel Channel.
Jonathan Soroff: Describe your day job.
Pat Spain: I’m the director of quality systems at Vertex Pharmaceuticals. The real short version is that I make sure we’re following the regulations in the most efficient way possible.
What do your colleagues think of the show? I get some really great reactions. The company’s been awesome about it. They promoted the show. They had me up on the screens in the elevators, and I gave a couple of talks internally. It’s led to some very weird exchanges. I’ll be on the elevator looking at my phone, and someone will just go, “Hey, I saw you on TV.”
Weirdest experience you had filming your new show? Almost dying in a helicopter. That’s the only time I didn’t really think I was going to make it. It’s the only time I called my wife, Anna, and said, “Hey, I’m really sorry, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to be in the hospital.” I was sure the helicopter was going down. We were in California on the Mexican border. It was the pilot episode for the series. We had a beautiful day, and then all of a sudden, the weather started to change. The helicopter was getting shot up by 300 feet and then it would suddenly drop 200 feet. We were getting real shaky, and the pilot said, “I’m going to take a sharp turn. The bad air is coming off the mountains.” He looks and says, “Well, that’s the Mexican border. We can’t cross into their airspace. I’ll go this way.” And there was a sandstorm coming. Then he tried to go another direction, and there was a U.S. base that was actively firing. He radioed them and asked if we could cross, and they said, “You might get shot down.” It was terrifying.
Deadliest animal you’ve ever come into contact with? The boring answer is mosquitoes, but that’s where the most risk is. The exciting answer is that I worked with a spitting cobra for an entire day. The whole goal was to shoot in slow motion and have the cobra spit in my face while I was wearing a mask. Unfortunately, the camera guys had this beautiful setup with a black velvet table, and the cobra couldn’t get a good grip on it. It couldn’t rear up far enough to shoot at me. So it was hitting me in the hair and the shoulders and all over my chest, and then it started striking. Their bite is more deadly than their spit. So I got soaked in venom. It was drying in my hair and it started to affect my breathing. I started taking shallow breaths, and the snake’s owner was like, “I think we’d better clear the room.”
What do you think when you see yourself on TV? It’s just so weird. I always think I look exhausted, and I usually am. I have a weird life. Two kids. Multiple jobs. So I always think I look tired, and I have a really weird voice. I sound like a Muppet or something.
Does being a cancer survivor make you more adventurous? Yes. Absolutely. The whole experience with being diagnosed and told I had a 50 percent chance of survival just made me realize that I was sleeping too much, both literally and figuratively, and that there’s so much out there to experience. We only stop ourselves from doing it. People get nervous, or have a fear of failure or embarrassment. It’s just not worth it. Do whatever makes you happy, as long as you’re not hurting anyone.
Most remote place you’ve ever been? It was probably a region of Mongolia that looked like Mars, or this place in Sumatra that was a four-day hike from a very remote village. We were way out in the forest. No signs of humanity at all. Most places you go, you’ll think you’re super isolated and then you’ll find a cigarette butt on the ground. We climbed a mountain that, according to our guide, probably less than 10 people had ever climbed. From the top, it looked like a child’s drawing of a rain forest. Three-foot deep moss covering every tree, and birds landing on your fingers because they’ve never seen a person before. This was that. Just so untouched.
Most harebrained thing you’ve ever done for a show or a story? Bullet ants. That was so dumb. I’m so glad that I did it, but my God, I don’t know what I was thinking. I was living with a tribe in Brazil and, in order to gain their trust really quickly, I decided to participate in their ritual tucandeira, which involves getting stung in your hands hundreds of times by ants with the most painful sting in the world. It’s the most intense pain you can imagine. It lasts for at least 24 hours. I’m a cancer survivor. My intestines have ruptured and went septic. I needed to be cut open from my sternum down to my pelvis. I was put in an induced coma for four days. I’d say that was a nine on the pain scale. The bullet ants were a 10.
How badly do you want to see a giant squid? It’s still my dream. It’s still absolutely the top of my species list. I don’t have a bucket list. I have a species list of animals that I want to interact with, and giant squid is absolutely number one. I got to see a dead one in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. I even got to hold it. And that was really cool. It was during a marine biology class I was taking.
Grossest thing you ever ate? Durian. The most disgusting food on earth. I’ve had stinky tofu. I’ve had rat, cat, all kinds of crazy fruits and veggies. Durian’s just revolting.
How does your wife deal with you and your life? I ask myself that frequently. I am consistently and pleasantly surprised when I wake up still married to her, but I don’t know. She just kind of expects ridiculous bullshit from me.
If you had a time machine, where and when would you go? I’d go back to see the dinosaurs, without a doubt. I’d want to see what they looked like, what colors they were. I’d go back to pretty much every era of humanity, too. I’d love to meet our earliest relatives. But if I had to pick one, I guess it would be the Pleistocene to see the giant mega fauna. I’m such a nerd. Giant sloths. That would be a dream come true.
Ever seen anything that you were initially 100 percent convinced was paranormal and then you later on got a scientific explanation? When I was 8, I saw Bigfoot walk through my backyard and then I realized it was my uncle.
Tell me about your ancestor, Charles Fort. The word “fortean” comes from his name? Charles Fort was one of the early paranormal and anomalous phenomena researchers. He actually created the term teleportation, and he was the first to document and explain, in any kind of scientific way, ball lightning and raining fish and frogs. He was the first to document that phenomena, which we now know does happen. At the time, a newspaper would print a story saying “these crazy locals are saying this,” “those bumpkins,” and he was the first to take it seriously, look at the evidence, and determine that it was a real thing. He proposed some pretty outrageous theories but at least he took it seriously enough to investigate.
Do you have anything of his? Yeah. So the crazy thing about my connection with him was that I was reading his books before I knew we were related. I was fascinated by this stuff as a kid, and my paternal grandmother would kind of scoff at the experiments I’d do, and catching all kinds of animals. She’d say, “Oh, you’re just like your Uncle Charlie,” and I never knew who he was. One day, she saw me reading his book, and she said, “You know, that’s your Uncle Charlie.” I was like, “No way!” And she showed me this whole collection of first-edition Charles Fort books that were hand inscribed to her various relatives. When she passed away, she left them to me. And I also have original tintype photos of him, and a cigarette case, which was probably his father’s because people don’t think he smoked. So I have some cool little artifacts like that.
It’s not like they’re handing out doctorates in cryptozoology. How do you become an expert in it? I forget what school it was, but a few years ago, there was a program that offered a college class in cryptozoology. But, yeah, it’s not something you can get a degree in. Being a cryptozoologist just means you’re interested in unknown animals or animals that are in the wrong places. You can be an armchair cryptozoologist. I’m also a reverend in the Universal Life Church, because I did it online to perform marriages for a couple of friends. [Laughs.]
Do you believe Sasquatch exists? Aaaah…I really respect Dr. Jeff Meldrum and all the research he’s done, but I find it very hard to think that we haven’t gotten really good scientific evidence yet of this creature. Do I think that people are seeing something? Absolutely. Do I think that it’s a giant ape in North America? I have a tough time with it, but not having done the research myself, it would be hypocritical to say it’s definitely not there.
How about ghosts? I have weird stories with ghosts and I’ve experienced some pretty bizarre stuff that I don’t have an explanation for. But the scientist in me tends to think that there must be another, logical explanation. Do I think that some type of “us” stays behind? Again, I can’t entirely rule it out, but I can’t jump in with both feet. I have to be a fence-sitter on that one.
How about the Loch Ness monster? I did a Loch Ness investigation that never made it to air. And no, there’s nothing there.
Favorite mythical or legendary creature? The Mongolian Death Worm is the coolest sounding. The one that I’d really be the most excited about is Orang Pendek, the little man of the forest. I went to Sumatra thinking it was probably some kind of mistaken identity for an orangutan or a different species of gibbon, like a ground-dwelling gibbon. But after talking to some of the scientists there and some of the eyewitnesses, I could not rule out the possibility that there was a remnant population of homo floresiensis. Hobbits that did survive well into the modern era. Hominids are always interesting. It’s kind of an innate fear or fascination people have, of another “us.” We have this idea that we’re so unique, when really, we’re just this hairless ape. And there were dozens of other hominids throughout history, so being able to find one and look it in the eye would be a humbling experience for humanity.
How many pets do you have? Three cats and a couple of hermit crabs. I started out last year with two cats and a pug. One cat and the pug passed away, and we got two kittens for my daughter.
One tribal ritual you’d love to participate in but haven’t? I’m fascinated by tribal religions, and I love to hear these old stories about things like Voodoo’s roots, where the line with reality starts to blur. I’d love to witness some of those rituals being performed.
Tropical disease you’re most afraid of catching? Ebola. And I know that is completely irrational. Ebola is not like what Preston wrote about in The Hot Zone. It isn’t an exploding disease where people melt and blood shoots out of their eyes, but I read that book at an impressionable age, and all that is embedded in my mind. I have an irrational fear of radiation, too. I worked in a hot lab, where there were radioactive chemicals. I freaked out every time I had to go in that lab, even though intellectually I know that I’m exposed to more radiation on a plane. But parasites freak me out. I got loa loa worm when I was in the Central African Republic, and that’s the one where an adult worm will crawl across your eye. Not fun.
What’s a real animal that’s most implausible? There’s an animal I’ve always wanted to find called a Baja worm lizard. I spent way too much time looking for one in California. The camera guys were getting mad at me. But it’s this crazy-looking amphisbaena. They’re usually legless but this has two front legs and this really creepy, kinda smiley face. It’s really weird.
How many undiscovered species do you suspect there are on the planet? Thousands. But we’re talking about mostly insects and a lot of them will be discovered through genetic testing, because they won’t look that dissimilar from other species but genetically it will be distinct. Large, exciting species? I’ll go with Darren Naish’s estimate of anywhere from six to 12 large species left to be discovered and most of them in the deep sea. ◆