My dissertation on biology of the green anacondas was sponsored partially by National Geographic. During the last year they send a film crew to make a documentary out of it. That is how I first got involved in film making. "The Land of the Anaconda" was an amazing success, the offices of NGT kept receiving letters and request of the audience that wanted to see more of my work. I was offered a position by NGT doing other films but I put it on hold until I finished my Ph.D.. I continued working in my dissertation until 1999 when I defended it. That very year (actually days after defending my dissertation) I was offered a job teaching Tropical Ecology for Boston University. It was a dream job and I took it without hesitation since it involved teaching advanced students, and traveling to the most exciting places in Ecuador with great resources for teaching and research. I did it for the following year until I felt that my long absences for work could endangered my marriage, so I quit that job and came back to the US and took the position with National Geographic.
In the middle of 2000 while we were working out the details of my contract a film opportunity turned up, a giant snake was on the lose in Arkansas terrorizing the neighborhood. This is how the "Arkansas Anacondas?" was born, we went and filmed it with great results in the ratings. This film was not about deciphering the life of a animal but more on the funny side, also addressing the problems that this family was in when a big snake showed up in their yard.
Then in February 2001 I talked NGT into an ambitious project to make a film about the Orinoco Crocodiles. Orinoco Crocs are a very endangered species of crocodiles, probable one of the most endangered in the world, mostly due to its small original distribution. Back in 1992 a popular upraise went off against the park officials and biologists involved in the conservation of Crocodiles, mostly due to poor management of the park. The situation turned violent and not biologist had dared to go back to the area. What happened were blurry events that for the lack of witness nobody could refer first hand. All the witnesses where actors of the upraise and where down in the river where nobody had gone. I put together a team with NGT and went to document what had happened. The film shows the interesting events along with other efforts for the conservation of Orinoco Crocodiles in the country.
On April 2001, as part of my
understanding the biology of anacondas, I wanted to start a new project
in a different location. I put together a recky that NGT filmed.
The interest of the trip was to assess the potential for a new location
to continue my research. Much to my chagrin, NGT chose to name
this film Supersnake!!
About the middle of 2001 we had
a number of projects on the making with the biology of other snakes as
well as featuring research done by other scientist in Venezuela and
Latino America. Unfortunately, after the 9/11 events NGT changed
directions dramatically and pretty much stopped on a dime all the
natural history films that were on the making to give priority to films
on terrorism, war technology and warmongering. We still did
some films then. One of them was a biography
of me and my work as
part of the series True Originals.
My following film was about the bad reputation that snakes have and whether it was
deserved. We visited the pentecostal religion sect that lives in
the Appalachians to address the issue. At some point the book
says that "he who believes... shall take up serpents ....and will not
be hurt". This sect takes the word literally and use venomous
snake in the services in church to show the power of God. We also
visited other people who work with snake behavior and made a good case
about how aggressive pit vipers really are.
On October 2002 we went to the northern
most province of Argentina to do some promotion for the National
Geographic Channel. In this area there is a good population of
yellow anacondas (Eunectes notaeus).
Since I had never worked with this species, I took advantage of this to
go and learn something about this other species. Upon arrival we
found out that the snake was being harvested for the skin and did a
investigative piece where we explored the ins and outs of the program
and learned a lot about the species, the habitat and the
conservation in action. The piece. Target Anaconda, aired on
April 2004 after a long editing time.
Since I started working in NGT we had been trying to make a good long, blue-chip, film about constrictors. Even though we had great ideas and plans the cost of most of the projects were prohibitive. It was at the end of 2002 when we finally got it approved and started and ambitious project presenting the life of representative large constrictors around the world. The Ultimate Snake is a very good film that presents in an engaging manner the life of the constrictors as a group
Along with the film with constrictors another film that we had been planning for a while came through. We went in an expedition to the the Tepuys in South America. Tepuys are flat topped mountains that occur mostly in Venezuelan but some of them also occur in Guyana and Brazil. We tried to visit the Tepuys in Venezuela but the permits were impossible to find and we had to end up doing it in Guyana that was a lot more cooperative with us, mostly due to the benefit of having NGT doing a film on the country.
In summer 2003, I was in a conference in Manaus, Brazil. Then I learned about a Island in Mexico, Cozumel, where Boa constrictors had been introduced accidentally. The paper presented the effect that the snakes were doing in the local fauna driving extinct some of the local endemics and endangering the status of many other mammals and birds. Three months later were were in the field doing a film featuring the problem as well as the work that a team of Mexican researchers are doing to try to understand and solve the problem. This was the last film I did with National Geographic.
Even though the Tepuy film turned out to be a nice
involved a lot of trouble and drove me to reconsider my whole approach
to film making and science. So far I had been able to do films
and address a giagantic audience with the conservation message and the
life of the animals and at the same time I had been able to use their
budget to sponsor meaningful research with the wildlife that I
love. It had been a win-win situation, although it was a lot of
work. However in this film I learned that the lasndcape had
changed and it was no longer going to be possible.
I had been planning this film for two years
and our plans were to make a good scientific expedition climbing up the
wall of the Tepuys collecting fauna and flora, as well as descending to
the bottom of the sink holes that are mostly unexplored and do a pretty
good assessment of the habitat down there. This expedition was
to be filmed which would have made a great report on a good piece of
scientific research. However, the policies in NGT had changed by
then. The ever increasing demand in lowering costs in the films
gotten to us. The high instances had decided that this was going
a film lead by somebody else as a presenter. The presenter
no experience whatsover climbing and they re-disigned the whole
expedition to accomodate the activities that the presenter could
The result is that the whole months that we had planned to do the
scientific research was cut down to 4 days (including transportation to
the places!!) and the science we could do was barely enough so they
can say that we did it, but not even remotely what we could have done,
or what we have been planning to do. Up to this moment I had been
to swing the demands of making films and take advantage of them to do
some meaningful research but this film brought it to me that it was no
longer possible. I saw myself forced to chose to between continue
a film making carreer that departed from the scientific world with NGT
or take a stand and try something different.
after this I stopped working for NGT, currently I am making films
independently and also trying to continue the research projects I
have. While doing science is appasionating and I love it, I
cannot bare the thought of spending time learning so much about the
animals and nature that will only be read by a select group of
scientist, without any hope that that information ever reach the
general public. Making films is the best vehicle to bring
attention to the animals and nature that I love, so I believe I will
continue forever try to do both activities to the best of my capacities
(hence the sections of the site intended to raise funds for my
research). Whish me luck, I need it!!!
Shot in 1997, the land of the anacondas was the first documentary I made and depicts the life history of anacondas by showing the life of Diega, a 14 foot long female anaconda that the film follows throughout the year. Diega had been one of my study animals for 5 years before the film and building the film around her was most exciting since I was genuinely attached to her. The Land of the Anacondas has won several awards among which we can count an Emmy nominations as well as the first award on the Animal Behavior Society Film Festival in 2003.
During the shooting of this film I learned my pitter-patters in wildlife film makings. I had the opportunity to be working with Carol and Richard Fosters. A husband and wife team that has worked for years making wildlife documentaries. He is an English man, told and strong (as many camera man), calmed and thoughtful. She on the other hand is short, skinny and short tempered. Typical Italian American, you get the impression that all 90 pounds of her can spontaneously combust any time her temper goes off. I not only learned a lot from them about the making films I also got to meet them well and cultivate a great friendship.
I was constantly impressed by they dedication and hard work. There was no challenge they would not take so long as they could get a chance to get the shots they wanted to obtain. In the middle of the filming Carol became ill of some unidentified problem producing cramps and numbness in her lower body. One good day her lower body was paralyzed and she could not get walk. They flew to Caracas to see a Dr. who diagnosed her with Multiple Sclerosis. The news were devastating to all of us, all except Carol. The next day she was back on the ranch on a wheel chair, hired a strong helper to carry her into de swamp, a bit of a human horse, and she continue doing the work, producing and sound recording as if nothing had happened. Every day we were in the field my admiration to her grew and I was very happy to see her recover and go on remission before he end of the film. That is why it never ceases to amaze me how the film turned out as well as it did.
The results of this film were so good, that NGT offered me a position doing more films of the same style. I did not take it in the first year since I preferred to take a teaching position in Boston University. After a year, I quit the job at BU and took up their offer. We did a number of other films in which I had the opportunity to do some science along the filming trips achieving a great benefit of putting together science and film making
In July 2000 I received a strange phone called from National Geographic Television telling me that a 30 foot long anacondas had been spotted in some lagoon in Arkansas and they wanted me to go a catch it. My first reaction was: "Wow, wow, hold it there. First of all let me tell you that whatever it is, it is not 30 feet long. Second if there is a very large snake in Arkansas it is probably an exotic but unlikely an anaconda because it is probably an escaped pet and anacondas are not very common in the pet trade for their large size, short temper and stinky musk. The most common large snakes in the pet trade are Burmese and reticulated pythons and boa constrictors". They still wanted to do the story disregarding my assurance that it was not the monster that it was being portrayed to be plus my explanation that it was one thing was to go into the swamp to look for anacondas, animals whose behavior I know well, in a marsh where there were several hundred individuals; and another thing was to go looking for one single individual of an unknown species, totally in the dark!! I agreed reluctantly and went to look for the snake.
The filmed turned out surprisingly well. I will not blow the ending of the film, here, suffice it to say that the trip was worthwhile and the film is entertaining and informative. There were many interesting and funny situations along with the possibility to report an example of the problem of irresponsible pet ownership.
Crocs are a very endangered species of crocodiles, probable one of the
most endangered in the world, mostly due to its small original
distribution. Back from 1988 to 1990 I helped out two scientist,
Dr. John Thorbjanarson and his apprentice Lic. María
in their studies with crocodiles. I helped them out in their
husbandry and caring of a dozen breeders as well as their descendants,
while I was doing my work on Iguanas in Hato Masaguaral. Later we
went to Capanaparo River where a relic population of crocs still
survived after having endured the commercial harvest on the 70s, mostly
due to its remote location and difficult access, along with limited
abundance of crocs to begin with. The area with crocodiles had
been included in a National Park and ten of the captive-born crocodiles
had been released there with transmitters in order to asses the
survival and mobility of this animals in the wild. Lic.
Muñoz followed the animals for the first year but after her
project was over, due to poor management of the park authorities, the
local cattle ranchers rallied the indigenous communities to raise
against the park, as the cattle ranchers feared that the park was
threatening their interests. The cattle ranchers then lead a
popular upraise against the park that ended up in the park rangers
being kicked out of the ranch and the field station (that belonged to
the Wildlife Conservation Society) was sledge hammered to the ground
burned down. The community saw a link between the biologists, the
crocodiles, and the park, that they opposed, and therefore vowed to
kill every crocodile in the area to prevent biologist to ever have a
reason to come back and working to reinstate the park policies.
No biologist, or much less park officials, had dared to come back to
the area in this remote, and lawless region and nobody new how the
population of crocodiles was doing.
suspicions were that people had not come through with their word of
killing the crocodiles and there was still a remnant population of
crocs that had survived any attempt of the cattle ranchers to kill
them, the same way they escaped the commercial harvest of the
70s. Many Venezuelan biologist had since the 1992 wanted to go to
the area but nobody dared to do it for the imminent risk that it
represented. I decided to go to the area to find out, (only half)
undercover as a National Geographic journalist, but not disclosing my
former links with the project or that I even was a biologist. The
times I had been there were 9 years in the past and I had a thick and
big black beard. When we went to do the film I was clean
shaven. My hope was that nobody would recognize this helper that
had come a few times a long time ago that now was surrounded by English
speaking film makers with big cameras and fancy sound equipment.
We put together the team with National Geographic and went there to
film the Indigenous village where the project was once carried
out. They plan worked nicely, although, I was very worry at times
that people could recognize me or cue on my special interest for the
animals. They gave us all the information we needed and confirmed
my suspicions that it had not been quite a popular upraise of the
indigenous people against the park but lead by the higher, and more
educated, economic class that had interests to loose if the park became
more effective and enforced restrictions in cattle farming, usage of
some lands and hunting. The film presents the situation in the park as
well as the status of the Orinoco Crocodile in the llanos
My data suggests
that anacondas may grow to
larger sizes if they live in more wet areas. With more water or if they
do not have to suffer an extended dry season, anacondas may grow older
and to larger sizes. The ideal place would be a forested area, with
deeper rivers and less seasonality but the same features that makes it
good for the anacondas would make it hard for me to find and capture
them. I thought of a point of compromise that had similar features as
the llanos where my knowledge of anacondas may hold but also with more
water in more forest. The place that I chose to do this was the Orinoco
Delta. It sits next to the llanos and is created by the same river the
travels (and created) the llanos. I wanted to go there in order to
learn about this area to start a project the following year. It was not
a field trip to collect data on anacondas but rather a logistic labor
in order to assess the quality of the habitat for the project. The film
if very instructive and worth watching. Despite my
opposition, NGT chose
to name the film Supersnake which is misleading because we did not
find, or even look, for a super snake. There is some snake action
however and the film to totally worth watching. (Click here to see a
Film on the potential for other wetter habitats to
hold populations of large snakes (Click here to
see a clip)
Yes, I do not get any saying on the title of the films that NGT does!! From the beginning I did not want NGT to make a biography of me at that time for several reasons, one of them is that I do not feel I have accomplish enough in my life to be worth it. I asked them to give me another ten or fifteen years. The series True Originals is about the people that make the documentaries and they want young people that are active and at the peak of their career. The other reason I did not want the biography made at this point was because I was in the middle of my divorce, I was about to move from San Diego to Knoxville and simply I did not feel that my life at that time was that good a film.
We went to the Appalachians to see how aggressive snake are. There I met reverend Jimmy Morrow. The serpent handlers is a most fascinating sect of Christians that handle venomous snakes in their services. Jimmy is incredibly knowledge about the biology of vipers without ever having any formal education other than having spend the last 45 years looking for them in the wild to use in the services. It was very enlightening to see this service. I had heard a lot about them. I had heard that they were fake and that snakes had been tampered with. None of this is true. The serpent handlers of the Appalachian are very legit, and a fascinating service to see and appreciate. By watching them I learned a lot about the biology of vipers and will be developing soon some formal research along with anther documentary.
service we went in a road trip to visit some friends of mine that work
with behavior of pit vipers and had the opportunity to film and present
clearly to camera what the temper and danger of pit vipers really is
We filmed in Venezuelan, Belize, Turks and
Caicos, Puerto Rico, South Africa and Australia. We
go from the largest snake in the world to the smallest and revise the
selection pressures that determine body size in snakes. Although
it portrays the life of the constrictors as a group, given that the
anacondas are by far the better known species, we come back recurrently
to present the new examples with it.
While we were in Johannesburg, we met the staff from a
main hospital that allowed us to us the X-ray unit at our
leisure. It was fascinating to use of their technology to show
how snakes constrict and how it works restraining blood flow.
Thanks to this, the film is loaded with great computer graphics showing
the composition of the skull of the snakes, the nature of the
constrictions and how they and how it works when the snake
swallows a prey.
original ideas was to make a scientific
expedition to the Tepuys collecting fauna and flora in this remote
locations that had never been studied properly. The plan was to
collect in the base of the Tepuy, climb up the vertical wall and
collect also the biota of the very wall and get to the summit where we
would do the rest of the collection. Some of these Tepuys have also
sinkholes created by the erosion and we were planning in going there to
collect and sample the biota of the bottom. It was a great plan
it had been approve for funding in NGT. Unfortunately the
in NGT changed and they decided to change the story completely to a
trek through the jungle with some climbing fairly unconnected with
anything else and some collecting in the area, the barely minimum
science to be able to claim that we did it!! Originally it was a
scientific expedition that was going to be filmed but it was changed to
a film about a fake expedition that never really happened.
Although the film is a good piece, fairly
entertaining and informative I was disappointed with the whole thing.
The change in plans was not informed to me until the very end and since
it still involved the possibility of doing some science I settled for
it. This film changed my position toward Geographic. Up
until then I
had manage to juggle science with film making always obtaining good
opportunity of funding research along with the films that were were
doing. However, this film show me the new direction that the film
making industry was taken and lead me more towards a more independent
approach of film making
is a beautiful island in the Caribbean close to the Mexican
shore. On top of its touristic value it has an amazing diversity
of endemic animals that do not occur anywhere else. Or it
had!!. Back in the seventies a film crew came to Cozumel to make
a film where they used the beautiful beaches of the island to represent
the scene where a galleon has sunk and the film was about their
survivors and their life after the wreck. As extras in the film
the included some boa constrictors that were used basically for the
purpose of showing that it was a jungle with jungle-like dangers.
However, there was not boas originally in the island. The
production crew brought a few from the main land and used them as the
needed (for five seconds in the whole film) but
when the film was finished, the turned them lose.
The island originally did not have boas or predators that could control them. The mammals and birds of the island did not have the defenses to deal with that kind of predator. The result is a huge density of boas that have eating pretty much every thing in the island. Most of the island is original forest that is incredible thick in the understory making walking through the forest next to impossible. To complicate things more the island based of coral deposits that develop deep thing holes in which the snakes can hide perfectly from humans. To eradicate the snakes from the island by physical removal is out of the question and there is little hope to solve the problem, unless the science being done pays off some important results.
http://www.nationalgeographic.co.in/ProgramDetails.cgi?UniId=AE117&SeriesId=349&date=2003/11/16&pdate=2003/08/03 (little bio of mine in Geographic but it has the wrong headings