How do you transform a double–decker bus to a reptile room?
Mike has been involved in some of the most interesting and innovative television programmes of recent years, such as the aptly named Bite Me! So who better to be inspired by this type of challenge? How did this all begin though, and what are Mike’s goals in terms of conservation? John Courtney-Smith finds out.
Last spring, Dr Mike Leahy approached me to ask for some help and practical advice regarding a brand new and very exciting venture that he had decided to pursue. The end result can now be seen, in the form of his Zoo-Bus. Over the course of this period, I have been fortunate enough to get to know Mike quite well.
I have been constantly amazed not only by his knowledge of animals but also by his sheer energy and passion for whatever project he takes up. Simply spending time with Mike has also caused me to re-evaluate many of my personal husbandry practices and also, to view the world and its intricate bio-systems in a new way.
Dr Mike Leahy’s Zoo-Bus has now become in effect a mobile reptile room with a lecture theatre up on the top deck. The bus is fully equipped to house animals all year round and allow Mike to visit schools and universities all over the UK with ease. It is not every day after all that people have the opportunity to be hands-on with such animals and to learn from a world-famous television star and scientist!
Readers will have seen you growing tapeworms in your body and being stung by some very potent species, but what kicked off your obsession with reptile and amphibian keeping itself, at what age and what was the first exotic species that you kept?
I was brought up in a very loving but low-income family in rural Oxfordshire, and although I was always passionate about wildlife, it was usually the kind that I encountered when out and about in the local fields and woodlands. Television shows such as The World About Us on BBC and Survival on ITV captivated me, but I was really in my element when reading wildlife and adventure books.
Mike keeps leeches as study animals. He allows them to feed on his own blood and asks friends to “donate”.
A turning point came when I came across a battered 20 year old copy of Serengeti Shall Not Die, a book written by the zoologist Bernhard Grzimek, about the threats posed to the wildlife of north-eastern Africa in the late 1950s. I had already become a keen human rights and environmental campaignerwhen I first travelled abroad at the age of 24.
It was a trip to Nepal as part of an expedition that totally blew my mind. From then on, I became a restless traveller, always keen to see nature in its place, and later to film it for National Geographic Channel. However, I only began keeping exotic animals myself a couple of years ago, starting with a simple corn snake. I guess because of my television work, and because I was a biologist, people thought that I was an expert on that kind of thing, but the honest answer is that it has been a steep learning curve.
Viruses and Reptiles
Your television show Bite me reveals that you are a qualified virologist and attained a doctorate in the subject. Why did you decide that the world of microbes and viruses was right for you to study, and how did this topic help to further your understanding of nature?
I was always fascinated by biology. But when I left school, I felt that 10 years of involuntary incarceration within an educational establishment was long enough! By the time I was 26 though, I was finally ready to study again. Initially there was only one choice – environmental biology. I loved it, and graduated with a first class degree in less than two years. However, when I finished my degree course, there were very few jobs out there for environmental biologists.
I applied for a PhD studying the ecology of soil bacteria. Although I didn’t get the post that I’d applied for, a professor at the then Institute of Virology in Oxford saw my application. After a short chat, she gave me the opportunity to take a studentship studying the molecular biology of a tick-borne virus. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but it was still biology! Although I wasn’t to know it at the time, this was perhaps the best professional decision that I’ve ever made.
Viruses are just about biologically perfect. They’re incredibly small, relatively simple, but potentially devastating. It opened up a whole new world that I had been totally unaware of, including the chance to see the best-known and most respected biologists of their time giving lectures within Oxford University. I was soaking up so much information at that stage that I thought that my brain would explode!
At first glance, it may not seem that the study of viruses, or sub-culturing bacteria, is very relevant to reptile keeping, but right from the time I first started keeping exotic animals, I could see parallels. Each time we needed to grow fresh cell lines or a new strain of bacteria in the laboratory, we had to painstakingly work out the ideal conditions for growth, maintenance and survival.
This might involve pH, temperature, salt concentrations, micronutrients, and how often the medium needs to be changed. In order to grow some of the most basic organisms on earth, the conditions have to be spot on. Therefore it’s no surprise that vastly more complex organisms such as snakes, lizards, amphibians, or even invertebrates for that matter, also need specific diets and environmental conditions.
Providing the right conditions for each animal is always going to be a challenge, and on an old double-decker bus, even more so! As keepers, it is our responsibility to ensure that the conditions for our animals are optimal; therefore it is implicit that we strive for conditions as close to those encountered in the animal’s natural habitat as possible.
It is true that the solutions to these challenges can be found in the natural environment, but finding these answers is by no means simple. Thankfully, we’re getting there, particularly with regard to lighting and diet.
Bite me was an innovative and highly successful series. I believe that it really did help many people to understand some of the world’s most remarkable species. If you had to recall just one particularly memorable moment from the whole experience, what would it be?
It’s impossible to think of just one! There were so many amazing things that occurred during the filming of Bite Me, moments of pure magic that I will never forget, and that I feel privileged to have experienced. Sitting peacefully in a small boat at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Solimoes, where the white and black waters join to form the Amazon River, watching botos (river dolphins) play, and gazing across to the Amazon rainforest is difficult to beat.
Filming in the shanty towns or favelas of Rio De Janeiro was eye-opening and exciting, but for other reasons. In a tragic twist perhaps, I think the most “yep, this is really cool” moment was when climbing through the canopy of the rainforests of Borneo, which were unbelievable stunning, enchanting, exotic, and alive!
Sadly, it is very likely, that apart from the occasional ‘eco-park’ set up for wealthy foreign tourists, this natural gem will be pretty much flattened to develop palm oil plantations in my lifetime, with the associated loss of biodiversity and probable extinction of a host of species. This is an unforgivable tragedy of global importance that is now unfurling.
It is hard to describe the scale of this destruction already. When driving the five hours it took to get from Kota Kinabalu in the west to Sandakan in the east of the island, the only living things over six feet tall appeared to be palm oil trees. Plantations stretched for as far as the eye could see – driven by both the insatiable demand of developed countries, and the greed of the financial elite in Borneo.
However, as I was driving from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan I was contributing to this state of affairs. The activists’ paradox is that the greater your moral clarity, the harder it is to be morally consistent. I wanted to stop any more destruction, and shout to the world about what was happening, but while filming – and raising awareness, I was also responsible for supporting that destruction to some extent by filling my fuel tank. I’m still thinking about this and formulating ways in which we as a community can do something about it.
You say that it is not venomous snakes or the power of crocodiles that people should be worried about. It is the unseen threat posed by viruses and bacteria. I have seen you get bitten by various animals and deliberately acquire infections. Out of sheer curiosity therefore, what would concern you more: a bite from a bullet ant or the sting of a jelly fish, compared say, with being infected again with a tapeworm or encountering the candiru fish?
As a bloke, you just have to worry about the candiru fish – however daft the creature is! To swim up a man’s penis because it has mistaken the urethra for fish gills, then getting stuck there is a metaphorical and literal dead end for the fish. It may be able to feast on blood, until the unwilling host (potentially, me) dies, but then it’s going to die too. I’m glad that although I did catch one by using myself as bait, it didn’t actually get to parasitise me. Even I wouldn’t pay that price to make a television show!
You spent much of your younger life fighting for various conservation ideals. I know that you were very passionate about stopping deforestation by tackling the root cause of demand. What do you view as the biggest threat to our planet at the moment if we take global warming out of the argument?
In one word – greed. On a worldwide scale, the main threat to biodiversity, and the leading cause of potential species extinction, is undeniably habitat loss. Although climate change may have an increasing impact on habitat loss over the coming years, the biggest threat to biodiversity at the moment is being caused largely by deforestation, for timber and especially palm oil production.
Of course, there are other factors including subsistence farming, often by desperately poor people, but in my opinion, environmental destruction is almost universally linked to corrupt, unregulated and wealthy individuals or companies. Yet it must also be acknowledged that this is driven by an insatiable demand for oil and timber in wealthy countries.
It can easily be argued that we in the UK are as guilty of fueling environmental destruction as anyone else. Excessively big, air-conditioned executive cars, unnecessarily large centrally-heated houses, the consumption of water packaged in plastic bottles, and bins half full of uneaten food are inexcusable.
Even if people have the money to waste on that kind of thing, it’s the world’s resources that are being wasted too. Extravagance and wastage shouldn’t simply be financial issues; they are also moral issues. Plastic products are made from oil. That oil may have originated from palm oil plantations, so your bottle of mineral water may be directly linked to habitat loss, and the loss of biodiversity half a world away.
The Zoo-Bus conception
It is a really privilege both for Arcadia and me personally to be involved in the Zoo-Bus project. We feel that this is a fantastic way of presenting cold-blooded species, their lifestyles and environment to people both young and old in their own localities. What originally gave you the idea and what are your long-term goals?
I love the idea of the Zoo-Bus, and am totally committed to the project, so much so that I’ve spent every last penny I have on it! I also live on the bus, together with my animals because I can’t afford to live in a traditional house any more!
We’re an unlikely team, but I hope that others buy into what I am doing. I originally thought of living in a bus simply because I needed somewhere to live, but couldn’t afford a narrow boat, which was what I really wanted.
At about the same time, schools – mainly primary schools – were increasingly asking me to bring animals along to my existing educational talks. For a long while I held out, replying to them that I film wild animals in their natural environments, not pets, but everything seemed to fall in place over a few pints one evening.
I went to see a bus that was advertised locally. It was a total heap, but by then I was sure that the Zoo-Bus idea was a good one, and so the next few weeks were spent trawling eBay and Gumtree in search of a vehicle. My bus came from the north-east. I bought it unseen, which was a risk, but so far, I have had no regrets.
As for long term goals: I want to take the Zoo-Bus around the UK to areas where kids may never see a zoo. I want to teach good science at schools and science festivals, promote conservation issues, and ultimately, help to fund conservation projects. But along the way, I still need to support myself, and maybe one day I’ll get that narrow boat if things work out.
Reptiles came first!
Your vehicle is obviously what people would regard as a London double-decker bus and as such, it must have had many issues and limitations, in terms of converting it to a mobile reptile room. What were the biggest challenges in the build itself, and how did you overcome these limitations?
Well, I think I could write a pretty good guide on converting buses into zoos now, and I have learned a lot from my mistakes! I decided to prioritise the animals’ welfare first and foremost, above my own. I took the approach that I’m a tough mammal, with no need for running water, electricity, heating or cooked food! None of these are essential to survival, and after a while, I really didn’t miss them.
Dr Mike Leahy and a whip scorpion.
However, the reptiles and other creatures required ideal conditions. Temperature extremes were to be the most obvious challenge to overcome. The first step was therefore to create an insulated 5x3m (16.5x10ft) ‘survival cell’ incorporating much of the downstairs section of the bus. The windows were blacked out, and then a framework was constructed along each side of the vehicle. This allowed an air gap to be created, followed by a layer of super-quilt insulation, then another air-gap and finally boarding was put in place.
At the rear of the bus, I erected a studding bulkhead that I insulated with 20mm (0.8in) Cellutex. I then hung a series of curtains at the front, which separated the reptile room from the uninsulated cab and the upstairs of the bus, but still permitted easy access. I wanted to keep the animals warm during colder months, and cool during heatwaves. At the same time, my aim was to keep the energy consumption and carbon footprint of the Zoo-Bus as low as possible.
I then built platforms on which to place each vivarium, terrarium or tank, all of which were kindly supplied by Exo-Terra. Rather than placing temperature sensors in every single enclosure, I placed them in several representative vivariums and monitored the others with simple hygrometers and thermometers until the temperature, humidity and gradients were just right.
The essential ultraviolet lighting was kindly supplied by Arcadia, with lots of thought given to the individual needs of each animal. The lighting system was controlled by a number of simple time switches ensuring the correct diapause (day night) intervals. Lots of other equipment and advice came from two local businesses. Grove Pet Shop in Oxfordshire and particularly the team at Wrigglies in Dunstable helped me immensely.
The result is a reptile room that always remains between 18-22°C (64-72°F), with microhabitats for each animal set up to meet their individual requirements using low wattage heat mats and bulbs. These create ‘hot spot’ temperatures in the vivariums to whatever is required for each species.
At the same time, upstairs in the ‘mammal room’ (my bedroom!) temperatures fluctuate wildly. In the summer, it hit a high of 42°C (108°F), and the lowest temperature that I’ve experienced so far has been a few degrees below zero. That said, upstairs, the biggest challenges have been dealing with leaks (buses aren’t intended to be 100% water-proof, apparently!) and condensation. A cold night is one thing. A cold night spent in a soaking wet bed is an entirely different experience! But I’m getting there.
Aims and ambitions
How many species do you currently have on the bus and how long does it take you to care for them every day?
I have around thirty animals on the bus at any one time. In order to keep things relatively simple, I selected around twenty-five species that were commonly kept, relatively robust and with relatively basic needs. These include invertebrates, amphibians, and of course, reptiles. Some days I can ‘do the rounds’ in an hour or so. On other occasions cleaning out, changing substrates, and carrying out basic maintenance work can take all day.
How would you sum up your goals, setting up the Zoo-Bus?
I want to use the Zoo-Bus, and the animals on-board, to help in protecting and conserving valuable and disappearing habitats around the world. My aim is to achieve this by raising awareness, communicating good science, and by supporting conservation initiatives that really work. Along the way, I also want to promote good practice among reptile keepers, and work with like-minded people.
What are your plans for 2014, and what have you learnt about running the Zoo-Bus?
It looks like 2014 is going to be a busy year! I already have lots of school bookings, and will be at the NEC for the ‘Big Bang Fair’, and then at Earls Court for the London Pet Show in May. The bus will also be at a big ‘Dogs for the Disabled’ event, also in May, as well as supporting projects such as the Fenix Ecoparque in Mexico. Even the autumn already looks to be busy, with the schedule filling up with educational and community work.
I’m learning quickly. For a start, I have had to harden up when asked to work for no fee. The Zoo-Bus is expensive to run, and is now my main source of income, so I’ve had to start saying no to people who want something for nothing, even if they have the best of intentions.
I have also had to think about how to manage both the upstairs and downstairs of the bus when working on my own. It can be a logistical nightmare. Finally, I have learned quite quickly that even seemingly intelligent schoolteachers have little idea of the actual size of a 4.5m (14.8ft) tall double-decker bus in reality! I might be investing in a chain saw for 2014, so that I can cut my way into and out of venues.
There have been aspects of reptile care that you have had to re-learn for this project. How do you see modern reptile keeping?
Reptile keepers no longer consider it enough simply to place an animal in a vivarium and feed it crickets! They are aware that each animal has specific needs with regards to temperature, humidity, diet and lighting. They are also aware that products are available through suppliers such as Arcadia or Exo-Terra that address these needs, ranging from specialized lighting to dietary supplements.
Most reptile keepers I know communicate with other keepers and read widely about their chosen species. They may attend meetings or gatherings of other keepers, and most experiment to find the perfect conditions for their animals. In this respect, their work is identical to that of a conventional scientist – but a reptile room is far more interesting than the average laboratory!
Looking to the future
One final question, and I feel it is a very important one. How do you think “at home” reptile keepers can best contribute to conservation? This could include donating to a certain charity, helping to perpetuate the captive-breeding of species, or even travelling to a location to help in a hands-on manner?
I think that being aware of the origins of your chosen species, and the issues that affect it in the wild represent a good start. If buying wild-caught stock, I think that it is important to find out where it came from, and whether this might cause conservation issues. However, sourcing exotic animals from the wild need not always be a bad thing. In 2013, deforestation in the Amazon increased by 25%. Similar trends were observed in southeast Asia.
The evidence was gathered by satellite imagery – in this day and age, it is difficult to keep anything secret! I genuinely believe that collecting exotic animals which are locally abundant, such as scorpions, spiders, and perhaps certain reptiles, could provide a sustainable income for local communities, and give a commercial value to threatened forests. This can therefore protect them from deforestation in order to obtain products conventionally associated with such regions, like timber and palm oil.
It is something that I am working on right now, so watch this space and maybe follow me on Twitter (@ officialdrmike) to see if I am making any progress? With luck, I may be able to start a project in partnership with a university or charity in the next year or so. In the meantime, it is well worth looking at the Lemur Frog project (www.lemurfrog.org/) to see what captive breeding can do to save a species.
“Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences. I wholeheartedly support your project and wish you every success, and look forward to seeing how it evolves and develops over time. I for one would welcome a new era of reptile keeping where those involved in the care and study of species from all backgrounds work ever more closely together, with the common aim of sharing knowledge and promoting the survival of this fascinating group of creatures, and the ecosystems in which they live.”