'Beast Hunter' bags great stories but no monstrous quarry


Doctors, esquires and even dukes, take note: No vaunted title is as much fun as Pat Spain's.

Spain refers to himself, quite accurately, as a "microbiologist, wildlife scientist and beast hunter."

Part adventurer, part explorer and all scientist, Spain stakes out legendary creatures in National Geographic Channel's "Beast Hunter," premiering Friday, March 4.

He searches for the "man ape" of Sumatra; a one-eyed, clawed, smelly monster in Brazil; a swamp monster in the Congo; a sea serpent in British Columbia; and a Mongolian death worm.

In the three episodes available for review, Spain does not find any beasts. Still, he remains optimistic.

"The goal of the show isn't so much the search for the creature but for the evidence," he says. "Capturing a live one is the gold standard, to have a specimen in a museum that can be compared to all other known species so you can define a new species. Without the body there have been new species named, based on incredibly good video and photographic proof that was not altered in any way. On a fish you would want to be able to count spines on a dorsal fin."

Spain's unadulterated enthusiasm as a lifelong naturalist, combined with his scientist's natural skepticism, makes the five-part series credible. He has this infectious optimism that lurking behind the next tropical frond or deep within the slate-gray waters off of British Columbia is some beast ready to emerge.

It's an optimism traced to observing wildlife in upstate New York.

"This has been my dream since I was a little kid," Spain says. "Ever since I was in diapers I was catching anything I possibly could, and catching and giving speeches. When I was 4 years old, I was catching venomous snakes. Anywhere I go I find myself immediately drawn to catching the wildlife, and a crowd soon follows. I went to school for marine biology and got people as enthused as I was. I realized that the largest audience was through television."

Spain was on Animal Planet's "King of the Jungle." He later set out to make his own wildlife show.

"I got myself seriously in debt," he says.With this series, he has National Geographic behind him. Like many who grew up reading the yellow-bordered magazine, Spain is thrilled."I loved all of it, even the bad stuff," he says. "Sumatra was the roughest."

That episode, in which he searches for Orang Pendek, a small primate, is the pilot. It does a solid job of setting the series' pace and reasoning. Spain endures great heights -- trekking 6,000 feet above sea level and into tremendous depths, shaking from hyperthermia in a narrow canoe as he traverses the water in a dormant volcano.

Spain finds other scientists also on the trail. The eyewitnesses, terrified by the beasts, don't want to discuss their experience, meaning there's not a reality show hopeful among them. Their accounts, from different vantage points and from people who do not know one another, are strangely similar.

Later on Friday, the episode "Nightmare of the Amazon" has Spain trying to find a vicious beast with sharp claws, one eye and a haunting howl. It's in this episode that one must question tactics.

To gain the trust of a local tribe in hopes of learning more about the beast, Spain dons what amounts to poison mittens -- gloves filled with more than 100 venomous bullet ants. He's stung so many times he hallucinates.

"It was the best and worst thing I've ever done in my life," Spain says at a press conference. "And what it did was it really endeared me to the tribe. It helped to kind of get me in with their culture and have them see that I'm respectful and I'm someone who they are willing to share their stories and legends with."

"You stand there in just the most incredible pain you can imagine, and then you have to dance for the next 10 minutes while they sing," he says of the tribesmen. "And as they are singing, you are kind of hallucinating and tripping out and not sure what's going on around you."

The pain lingered for days after. Despite this, Spain remains remarkably upbeat.

"I really hope it makes them take a second look," Spain says of viewers, "and helps them see the world is so mysterious and things we haven't found and how exciting that is. I think we have lost that sense of wonder."

He works as a scientist for a biotech company and hones his own sense of wonder by searching for these beasts. Spain notes that had someone described the megamouth shark before the deep-water breed was discovered in 1976, it would have sounded like a sea monster.

For now, all he can do is collect the stories, track evidence and aim to find a previously undocumented beast.

"I hope to show how unusual the world is," Spain says.

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