Parasites deserve our respect
but deserve death even more

from: Room 3, Nam Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam

We use animals to advance knowledge and understanding, be it by testing make-up on a bunny or by teaching Gorillas sign language. The German Shepherd can sniff out people buried beneath a collapsed building and the baboon can offer his organs to prolong our lives. Be it Bessie the cow or Fido the Dog, there are animals that can become part of the family or part of the main course. Elephants entertain at the circus, the Spotted Owl becomes a symbol of a political movement, seeing eye dogs help the blind, rattlesnakes make good cowboy boots and sharks great soup. Almost every animal on earth has been harnessed, domesticated, yoked, caged, cooked or trained to make our lives better in some way. Then there is that certain strata of the animal kingdom that has escaped enslavement by the humans and therefore deserves our begrudging respect. Not only do they live their lives unmolested by us but actually use our bodies the way we use those of other animals. I speak of the parasites and despite the esteem in which I hold their abilities, I wish they were dead.

There have been many occasions after waking from a night's mauling by mosquitos that I have wondered just what purpose they serve in the grand scheme of things. Though they are food for the birds and bats they serve humans no purpose and the malaria they spread kills a million people each year. Kill them all I say. In fact were I able to wipe one species from the earth, Mosquitos long headed the list.

That was until the first time I had a tick embedded deep in a place too private for me to ask help in removing it. Not only do these disgusting pustules spread Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Fever, but they lack even the modest courtesy of the mosquito. Instead of visiting while you sleep and leaving unnoticed but for an itch, these bloodsuckers simply crawl up your leg and bury their heads into your skin to gorge. They have to be forcibly evicted from the buffet and removing them is difficult, often resulting in popping the swollen body or snapping the head off beneath the skin. Surely no other bug is more deserving of respectful disgust. And extermination.

The tick trumped the mosquito and for years sat at the apex of a pyramid of the repulsive parasites I have come into contact with. It beat all contenders until today. Until I walked through the Vietnamese Jungle and came face to no-face with the leech.

Now I know what you're thinking, 'yes they suck your blood but they are really only slow moving slugs and live in stagnant water. Don't bother them and they won't bother you.' I know this because it was the same thing I was thinking as the guide made us don silly "leech socks" and smear "leech repellent" on our calves. We were not planning on doing any marsh wading and surely bringing a little table salt will be enough to deal with the pesky little fellas. I thought then that it was just one more way for the park to extract another dollar from our unwilling wallets. Two hours later, back from the jungle and taking them off again I was thinking more along the lines of 'how can they let people traipse through the same zip-code as those beasts without a biohazard suit and a flame-thrower!?'

The first mistake was assuming I had to stand in water to be on the menu. The second was walking behind Julie and the guide. You see these leeches are extremely sensitive to vibration as they spend most of their evil little lives amongst the rotting leaves of the forest floor licking their lips and waiting for something or someone to pass by. Alerted by movement they head in the direction of the disturbance. It seems that the guides footsteps woke them, Julie's drove them mad with bloodlust and mine were just the homing beacon. Being last in line my legs were soon covered with these thin worms. The color of spoiled raw liver and ranging in size from 3 to 10cm long they have no features on their smooth wet bodies, nor even a discernible head until one end attaches to your skin. While their appearance is revolting enough, if you really want the bile to rise and the hatred to turn white-hot, you have to see the way they come towards you with their bloody single-mindedness.

Describing it would be like trying to describe the Beatles movie The Yellow Submarine crossed with the Japanimation film Akira. Such an exquisite culmination of hallucinatory horror are these animals, that only exaggerated cartoons from a fevered mind could capture the emotions their movements inspire. If they were any larger I think I would have run screaming in terror. Unlike their lowly cousins who lazily wait for their meal to come to them, this particular breed of leech barrels towards you like a college student to the all-you-can-eat pizza bar. These animals move with jerky determination, end over end almost like a tumbling acrobat and latch to your shoe with incredible ferocity. Occasionally pausing to sniff or feel or whatever they do, they move up your leech sock end over end and stamp your foot as hard as you like, they will not be budged. Try to wipe them off and they stick to your finger causing you to yelp with panic. All you can do is watch as the horde heads north to their promised land. As they approach the last line of defense your heart quickens as they tentatively finger the smear of repellent with their heads/tails. Thankfully they could not find a way through.

The rest of the way you try not to step over anything too high so your covered calves will not come near the rest of your body. You try not to stand still for more than a few seconds as the thin pieces of flesh charge mercilessly towards you down the narrow jungle path. You pray that the seams to where they have now retreated and are now fanatically burrowing are tightly sown. Despite this total preoccupation with precautions and constant vigilance, one of these pieces of pure evil made it through my defenses and attached itself to my belly. With this action the leech easily deposed king tick as the single animal I would wipe from the face of the earth without remorse.

~ Nigel



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