As a schoolboy, Donald Schultz was a bit of a weirdo. From the age of five, he talked about snakes, he did his school projects on snakes, he even played with snakes. Then he grew up to become an international television heartthrob. In his latest TV series, Venom Quest, he has what’s advertised as one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet. Collecting research samples from rare and deadly animals takes him into remote locations and hazardous situations. Alison Westwood spoke to Schultz and discovered that, despite the fame and glamour, he’s still slightly bonkers.
What first sparked your interest in venom and dangerous animals?
I grew up in Durban and, believe it or not, there are lots of deadly animals there. When I was five, my dad and I caught our first snake together and he introduced me to Fitzsimons Snake Park. I started going religiously and got a job there when I was 13.
I moved to the States in 2002 to become a veterinarian and worked in veterinary medicine for five years before I realised I was better at fieldwork. This spawned my passion for getting samples from difficult‑to‑work‑with animals. I’m definitely still a snake guy, but I work with everything.
Is it the danger that appeals to you?
The danger aspect is always there and I do have dangerous tendencies – I like to motocross, sky‑dive and base‑jump. But it’s the difficulty of what I do that makes it appealing. I enjoy working with animals that aren’t well documented or aren’t known at all. Thousands of people have done research on big animals because they’re easy to find. But when you start looking at small or deadly animals, there’s a huge void. Shooting the series, we found two new species – a sea snake and a chameleon.
What’s the main aim of your research?
My greatest wish is to help map all the toxins out there, to see what’s beneficial. Any toxin in the natural kingdom could be beneficial in small amounts. If a toxin can stop your breathing, it might be able to help with asthma or pneumonia in smaller doses. There are snakes in Africa that have such profound venoms they could help cure things like cancer or Parkinson’s. And if people are using medicine that comes from an animal, they’re more likely to aid conservation.
I’ve heard South Africa’s got some of the best anti‑venom treatment available. Is that true?
South Africa makes anti‑venom for the whole of Africa and the treatment of snakebites in South Africa is phenomenal. I’ve been bitten by a mamba and a rattlesnake in South Africa and I’d say the doctors are second to none.
Australia’s always held up as the country with the most venomous animals. Which is more ‘dangerous’– Africa or Australia?
If you look at the amount of toxic animals, Australia’s insane. When we shot there, we had the most toxic spiders, the most toxic octopus, the most toxic snake, the most toxic everything. But there are actually very few bites compared to continental Africa.
However, when you’re talking about people getting bitten and dying, Asia wins by far. In Sri Lanka, there are 32,000 snake bites a year because people work in rice paddies with no shoes on. India has over 100,000 bites. In Africa, because of the number of people in the bush, you do get a lot of bites, but there are relatively few deaths compared to Asian countries.
You travel a lot for your job. What’s your favourite destination?
Funnily enough – and I’m not trying to make South Africa love me more – I enjoy Zululand most. Hluhluwe is one of my favourite places and I’ve been going to Sodwana for the last 10 years. I love the diving over there, and the snakes, and the people are amazing.
You don’t seem that bothered about being bitten by poisonous snakes. Why not?
Unlike most diseases or injuries, snakebites have a cure. You can’t give someone an injection to fix a car accident or a gunshot wound, but if a snake bites someone, you can give them a drug and they can be fine. However, in a lot of countries, people just don’t have access to the drugs, which is heart‑breaking.
Are there any animals you’re afraid of?
I’m scared of spiders. I think it’s because I grew up in South Africa – baboon spiders are actually pretty evil, you know. I’ve worked with the deadliest spiders in the world, but they still give me the heebie‑jeebies.
First published in the September 2010 issue of Getaway Magazine.