Television Documentaries

              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 continue interest for 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 piece, it 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 going 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 had gotten to us.  The high instances had decided that this was going to be a film lead by somebody else as a presenter.  The presenter asigned had no experience whatsover climbing and they re-disigned the whole expedition to accomodate the activities that the presenter could do.  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 able 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 with a film making carreer that departed from the scientific world with NGT or take a stand and try something different. 

    Shortly 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!!!


The Land of the anacondas

       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

Arkansas Anacondas?

        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.


 The Crocodiles of the Orinoco

        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 from 1988 to 1990 I helped out two scientist, Dr. John Thorbjanarson and his apprentice Lic. María Muñoz 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 and 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. 

          My 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 clip)

Film on the potential for other wetter habitats to hold populations of large snakes  (Click here to see a clip)

The Trails of a Barefooted Biologist

                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 proceeded with the film anyway and it is a entertaining film to watch.  It has lots of action and interesting point of view.  It certainly feel go in one's ego to have a film made about you.  However I felt that the emphasis was done un properly in some aspects of my life while other more important were left aside.  In particular the part regarding my life as a fireman.  I was a fireman from age 16 to 24.  My coming of age!  I became and adult while being a firefighter and my experiences in the fire department has marked just about every aspect of my life and many discussions I took afterwards.  I was disappointed to see that in the whole film there is only one sentences stating that and nothing else is mentioned.  On the other hand they beat to death the situation of my divorce and come back over and over and over to the same issue that, although it was something important in my life it was a fairly short marriage which relatively smaller consequences in my life
(3.5 years, no kids).  I would have been more happy to see less of my marriage and more of the fire department.

Vipers Bad Rap

          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.

         From the 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 like

The Ultimate Snake

          The Ultimate snakes  presents the life of  the  constrictors beginning by Woma pythons, a very primitive fossorial species that occurs in Australia.  Then we go to Africa to see ground breaking research on African python and their behavior to incubate the eggs.  We also witnessed an amazing interaction of the females and their neonates that hand out with the mother for a few days after birth.

            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. 

The lost Worlds of South America

          My 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 and it had been approve for funding in NGT.  Unfortunately the policies 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

Devil Snake of Cozumel

          Cozumel 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.

                Shorter pieces featuring my work

Untamed mountain,  Discovery Channel 
1997 .
Secrets of Dragons. Germany, 1997.
Orinoco Crocodile. Nick's quest.  Channel 5 Available light and Discovery.  1998
Anacondas,  Nick's quest.  Channel 5 Available light and Discovery. 1998

Anaconda: Giant snake of the Amazon,  Discovery Channel. 1999.
Ssssnakes Alive.  60 Minutes Australia.  CBS  Summer 2003
Anakondas, Pro 7 Terra Nostra, Germany.  July 2003

 (little bio of mine in Geographic but it has the wrong headings