Rob “Caveman” Alleva and co-host Adam Thorn get bit and stung by the nastiest insects, reptiles and fish on the planet—on purpose.
Rob “Caveman” Alleva and co-host Adam Thorn get bit and stung by the nastiest insects, reptiles and fish on the planet—on purpose.
Adventures in Audio

Getting Stung By the Nastiest Creatures on Earth

Rob “Caveman” Alleva and co-host Adam Thorn get bit and stung by the nastiest insects, reptiles and fish on the planet—on purpose.

On the new History Channel show Kings of Pain, Rob “Caveman” Alleva and cohost Adam Thorn get bit and stung by the nastiest insects, reptiles, and fish on the planet—on purpose. They’re following in the footsteps of entomologist Justin O. Schmidt, who Outside profiled back in the nineties while he was developing the first-of-its-kind pain scale for stinging insects. But for the TV show, Alleva and Thorn are pushing this brand of experimentation even further by subjecting themselves to the agony-inducing defense mechanisms of snakes, fish, and lizards, with sometimes horrifying results. Outside Podcast host Peter Frick-Wright wanted to know: What’s it like to be in so much pain, so often? And why were they willing to take this job?

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast.

Peter Frick-Wright (Host): If reality TV has been on any kind of mission the last 20 years, you can make a pretty good case that that mission has been to keep us from taking it seriously. 

[Begin clip from television show] 

Narrator: Austin and the Lizzes were going to be a target of mine regardless. 

[End television show clip]

Frick-Wright: I mean, if a show isn't blatantly artificial in its set up like Big Brother, it's probably going to come out that the producers go easy on the contestants, or host, like Man Vs. Wild.

[Begin Man Vs. Wild Clip]

Bear Grylls: I’m Bear Grylls. I'm going to show you what it takes to get out alive from some of the most dangerous places on earth. 

[End Man Vs. Wild Clip]

Frick-Wright: In college, I had a friend go on a reality show where an unpopular kid meets up with supposedly a stranger, who gives them a makeover and teaches them how to be popular.

[Begin reality show clip]

Narrator: Do you ever see someone on the street and wish you could have that person's life? 

[End reality show clip]

Frick-Wright: That stranger, in reality, was her best friend. Now, none of this is really a problem, because reality TV is not documentary TV. It can bend the definition of reality because the only rules it’s beholden to are the ones that get it more viewers. In the business, they don't even say reality. They call it unscripted. I think because making TV is logistically hard enough that you have to bend the rules, or it wouldn't be interesting to watch. 

[Dramatic music plays]

Frick-Wright: But then I heard about a new show on the History Channel called Kings of Pain, in which hosts Adam Thorn and caveman Robert Alleva attempt to catalog the experience of the various bites and stings that insects, reptiles and arachnids can dish out. They were picking up the work of entomologists, Justin Schmidt, who was actually profiled in Outside back in the 90s and had written a book about how he developed the original pain scale for stinging insects. The hosts were following in his footsteps, getting bit and stung on camera for science and viewers like you.

[Audio clip of Kings of Pain containing dramatic music and yelling]

Frick-Wright: So here was a reality show that was so dead simple in its concept that it didn't have to be faked. The pain was the point: like if the show Jackass had just no sense of humor. I had so many questions, and the History Channel is happy to connect me with caveman Robert Alleva. 

[Interview begins]

Frick-Wright: You know, on the show you’re, you’re a caveman. Um, do you me to refer to you that way or how, what do you prefer? 

Robert Alleva: Yeah, yeah. As silly as that sounds, I think it's a good way for people to remember me. Yeah. 

Frick-Wright: Yeah. Is there a, is there a story behind the nickname? 

Alleva: Yeah, just, um, I do a lot of hand fishing. I don't have the patience for rod and reel and things like that, so I started catching fish by hand, and they're like: You, you're a freaking caveman. And it just stuck. 

Frick-Wright: Uh, when you say hand fishing, you mean like, like sticking your hand in the water, wiggling your fingers, that kind of thing? 

Alleva: Yeah, yeah. I'm from Oklahoma, where noodling was always a big, big tradition. And, uh, I never did it there. And I moved out to California and I saw this big, like a... not a stingray, but a giant ray. And I just jumped on it, and I picked it up, and like looked at it in the eyes, and let it go. And I was like, dude, I am hooked. 

[Clip from Kings of Pain begins with dramatic music]

Alleva: It’s starting to hit home. We're actually here. 

Thorn: I always love entering rainforests. 

[Clip fades to background]

Frick-Wright: The show starts out in Bolivia with our hosts heading up river on a barge. Drone shots of the jungle, big music, and a teaser for what comes later, involving the largest species of spider in the world. 

[Clip returns to foreground]

Thorn: The Goliath bird-eating tarantula. This is an arachnid with fangs so big, it can take down birds and even mammals. 

[Clip ends]

Frick-Wright (Narrating): The format of the show is simple. The guys pick a species, go find it in its natural habitat then gathered back at camp to be bitten or stung on camera. The goal is to develop a more comprehensive pain index with more animals being rated in greater detail. They're not really Kings, but connoisseurs of pain. So what made them qualified to do this? 

Alleva: Yeah, it's definitely a weird career path. But, uh, I've enjoyed it. Um, yeah, definitely this, this probably goes back to where, you know, when I was a kid, and I've found out the same thing from Adam, we were kind of kindred spirits on the other side of the world. He's from Australia and we kind of had the same childhood, just on completely different parts of the world, running around, you know, catching animals and things like that. And of course sometimes when you do that you get bitten and stung. And I think I took some pride as a little kid being the kid with the crawfish dangling from his finger, or the snake, uh, attached to my arm, and just looking at my friends like, like what? Like not a big deal. Um, never thought that it would be any more than that. 

Um, and then I moved out to LA, I think it was 2006 or seven, and I got a job at a reptile store. And they're like, okay, we like you, you've passed the interview, but we got one test. I was like: Okay, what's this test? And they reached into this aquarium and they pull out the biggest Tokay gecko that they had. And these are like, I think the second biggest gecko on the planet. So, you know, they got jaws on them. And they're like, if you let it bite you, you're hired. I’m like, what?

So, um, you know, it bit me on my arm, and I didn't really know what to expect. And I was fascinated by these perfect V shaped jaw marks that are left in my arm. And I was like, that's freaking cool. And uh, so every day at work, you know, I would pick a different little lizard and let it bite me and start comparing. I'm like: Oh, okay. The monitor lizards, they bleed. The geckos have a crushing power. And this was just something that's actually not dangerous at all. It was just a curiosity thing. But looking back on it now, I kind of realize: Oh, this has always been in me. This is always, this is something, this is I guess a morbid fascination and like, okay, this animal's got jaws. What can it do? Uh, and whatever you think ahead of time is not always correct, you know? 

Frick-Wright: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it sounds like, like as a kid, you kind of learned that like these bites and stings aren't that big a deal. 

Alleva: Yes.

Frick-Wright: Like, this probably hurt, but they're, they're not, you know, life-altering. 

Alleva: They're not, but I think that was just luck. Cause as I got older, things got more serious. 

Frick-Wright: Oh yeah? Tell me, tell me about that. 

Alleva: Yeah. Um, I think in 2007, uh, a friend of mine, his girlfriend is like: Hey, I've got an extra ticket to Hawaii, and I was thinking, we should probably bring you, because I think you're just gonna catch all the cool animals. I think you're gonna just make the trip so much more fun. And I was like: You know what, you, you bring me, I'll even let everything bite me. And, and uh, so that's kinda, I got known as, as the bite guy a little bit. And, you know, we went there and I caught a, an invasive Jackson's chameleon and, uh, what else? Uh, some crabs. And then I caught, by hand, uh, a baby hammerhead shark, and then I looked at it, you know, it took a couple of pictures, you know, put it back. I was putting it back in the ocean and my buddy's like, Hey bud, you said everything. I was like, you're pushing it too far. 

But I knew that a shark that small actually couldn't really do any damage. So it's kinda cool to prove that you know what you think could cause damage might always not do it. And uh, yeah, it bit me on the arm, and all it wanted to do was get away. Sharks aren't bloodthirsty killers, you know, but, um, yeah, going on. 

Anyway, I got a job as a professional animal handler, uh, about 2008 and worked on a lot of shows and that's when the biting stopped. Because now, uh, I'm doing this as a job. This is not, you know, you don't mess around, you know. Took it quite seriously. 

Frick-Wright: Did the animals get more dangerous at that point? 

Alleva: Oh yeah. Yeah. I was working on this one show. We had cobras, we had fer de lance, which is a viper that you know, just destroys flesh. Um, we had... uh, I'm not a fan of spiders and we had this big box of 60 spiders all in these little deli cups. And then, and that was like the box of death to me. I hate spiders. But there's one in there called the Brazilian wandering spider. 

Frick-Wright: Hell no. 

Alleva: Have you ever heard of this one? AKA the banana spider?

Frick-Wright: It rings a bell.

Alleva: Yeah. Well, it’s made the news a few times. It's shown up in shipments of bananas in the United States, in grocery stores and stuff. So it freaks people out, but it's also extremely toxic. And, um, Oh, how am I going to say this on the radio? 

Frick-Wright: It's a podcast, so you can say whatever you want. 

Alleva: It's a podcast. Okay. So basically, when this thing bites you, it can cause a huge, uh, nitric oxide dump, same as Viagara does. And so you get hard on a level that you never done before, but it can be so drastic that you lose the ability to get an erection ever again. 

Frick-Wright: Oh, wow. 

Alleva: And obviously that scared me as a 20-something-year-old man. So, uh, I had, we had a big table that we built a fake habitat on to get real close up shots of it. And my job was to lay underneath this table while we spun a high speed camera at a high rate of speed above the table to get 360 shots. And my job was to lay underneath the table, and if the spider jumped off, I had to catch it before it ran away. And I don't think I've ever been so scared in my life. Um, the consequences of that, you can imagine. 

Frick-Wright (Narrating): So it’s not like Caveman is some sort of caveman, totally ignorant about what he's doing and how it could harm him for life. He's been bit and stung a lot, most notably by two stingrays and a rattlesnake, which nearly killed him. He did some bite videos and put them on YouTube. And the obvious next step was a TV show, but it wasn't an easy concept for networks to give the green light. 

Alleva: Um, I pitched it to a couple of places, to a couple of networks, and they pretty much told me to get out of their office because it's so dangerous. Uh, but History did something incredible. They found, uh, the most amazing medics, pretty much that we have in the United States, which are Dr. Benabo and uh, and Jason Rivera from Venom One and Venom Two in Miami. These are fire department venom units that take care of people across the state, and even across the country, with the most serious, uh, snake bites and things like that. So these guys know venom, they know animals. And uh… so History got these guys on board to do a pain index similar to the one that Justin Schmidt had done. And Justin Schmidt was an entomologist who as far back as the eighties—I remember hearing about this guy as a kid—this guy got bitten and stung by hundreds of different species of, of animals, and he put about 78 of them on the pain index that he created, which was a one to a four. 

And just for you and I to relate: like a little sweat bee that doesn't cause much pain would be a one. The honeybee is a two. And then things like the bullet ant, which is legendary, it was a four or a four plus. And then History thought: Well, Hey, you know, this is all bites and stings. This is not just, I mean this all... it's all insects that Schmidt did. There's a lot of other things out there, like lionfish and lizards and snakes, and why is there no pain index for that? And so when I heard about this, I was like, hell yeah, sign me up. 

Frick-Wright: Even after a rattlesnake bite?

Alleva: Well, here's the thing there, there's other, the other half of me like wishing that this would have happened back in my twenties. I'm 38 now. Um, I see the world very differently. I've survived a lot of close calls throughout life. Um, so there was a lot of... there was excitement for the show that I'd wanted to do for a long time, but there's also a sense of serious risk that I felt, because I have had a lot of close calls. 

But I just felt like if someone else did it, I'd be pissed off, man. Like it felt like my thing. And um, and then Adam... uh, Adam at first was like, he didn't want to do the show. And Adam's my co-host now. But when he found out the reason we were doing it and the fact that we're actually doing something for science and building a pain index, he was on board as well. 

Frick-Wright: Gotcha. And tell me as far as the pain index goes, I mean, what is that used for? Like why does the world need to know the differences between the intensities of various creatures? 

Alleva: Well, we're hoping to do two things with this. Um, first off, we just want to get people's attention for wildlife. Um, you know, there's a lot of wildlife shows out there, but we wanted to get something that really grabs people's attention. And so we're hoping if you see: Oh, this animal's a 25 on the pain index out of 30, maybe we should leave that thing alone. Maybe we shouldn't go poke it with a stick, or try to kill it. 

And also, uh, in my experiences with being bitten by a rattlesnake and things like that, um, not panicking was sort of the key to not making the situation worse. And we're hoping that people see us get bitten, they can look up, uh, what happened to us. Maybe that'll give people a sense of comfort, uh, if they're bitten by something accidentally. Um, we just... we just want to create a guide for people to know what to expect if they encounter one of these animals. 

Frick-Wright: Like, like if, if something hurts really, really bad, you know, your life might not be in danger. You don't need that $5,000 helicopter ride out of there, versus something where it's like: Oh yeah, like you need absolutely the maximum level of medical attention that you can get right away. Is that kinda what you're saying? 

Alleva: Uh, that, that wasn't the key. We were kind of hoping people would definitely go for medical attention right away no matter what. [Laughs] Because, uh, even something as harmless as, as a honeybee, which is just, you know, really low on our index, you could be allergic to it. So if you, if you're bitten or stung 100%, just go to the hospital, you know, hang out in the parking lot if you want to, if you don't have insurance and see how you're doing, you know, but go get medical treatment. 

Um, but yeah. I grew up in Oklahoma and what people told me growing up, if you get bitten by a rattlesnake, you could X's on it and try to suck out the venom. Um, I'm sure you've heard of that and things like that too. Um, and I hope people nowadays aren't, aren't that dumb, but you never know, man. And uh, so we're hoping people don't panic and start cutting themselves or, or, or smashing an animal over the head and trying to bring it in for identification. Um, we just want people to be a little more armed, uh, for when they're out in the wild. 

Frick-Wright: And tell me a little bit about like, just the, just so I have you kind of explaining it, like the format and the idea of the show. How does an episode work? 

Alleva: Yeah. Um, well what you won't see, there's a lot of really cool behind the scenes stuff going on before we even get out in the field. Adam and I put our heads together, we put a list of animals that we can get bitten or stung by. And it's a very weird list to make, because we want something that's going to hurt, but we don't want something that's going to cause long term damage. So something like a great white shark, it's not going to be on the list. Um, and something like a little gecko or something, it's not gonna be on the list cause it's not a big deal. Um, we're looking for that weird, painful gray area in the middle. 

Um, the most confusion is about, because... We all know that a great white shark could kill you if it bites you. We all know what to do. Um, but something like a giant Asian centipede, um, is scary, but does it really deadly? A lot of people think you're going to die. A lot of people think it's nothing. We want to figure out: Okay, well how bad is it? Really? What do you need to do? How long are you going to be hurt? 

Um, but we have to, we take a risk. Because every bite happens sort of on a spectrum. You know, like you ever have like a, like a, a jalapeno or something and they're all kind of like around the five or something and all of a sudden you get a super hot one. It's the same thing with these bites and stings. Once that's done, uh, we run it by the network, make sure that everything's approved. Um, we get out in the field and we start looking for these things. 

And, uh, the first place we went was Bolivia and [it was] just crazy, thick, virgin, primary rainforest full of wildlife. And we're looking for the giant bird-eating tarantula. And uh, we talked to locals and get information. It takes days sometimes to really get these things, uh, and then we'll catch a couple, and take them back to a controlled environment, and we'll get bitten or stung. And we take turns doing it. That's the scariest part. Once you have this animal in hand, it's like, you know, we're about to like, let this thing bite us. And you're staring at it. Sometimes you can see the animals weapons, like with the tarantula, they got these huge basically fangs, and you're staring at him, waiting to get bitten. It’s pretty freaky. 

Frick-Wright: It's a squirm-on-the-couch, stress-in-your-kitchen kind of show. And in true reality TV fashion, you really notice when they're doing that thing where they drag out the really crucial moments right before the sting and then cut to commercial. 

[Dramatic clip right before someone is bitten, with music]

Alleva: Okay. Yeah. He's ready to go. 

[Music heightens as someone is bit]

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Frick-Wright: So before our commercial break, we were just noticing how the show drags out those moments right before the bite. Makes you really feel the anticipation. 

[Clip of Alleva muttering after a bite]

Alleva: Yeah, I actually liked that the show sort of drags out the pre-bite and pre-sting. because you know, while the viewer gets a few seconds or minutes of that, we've been dealing with this for months or even years. Um, like, we did the piranha, you know. We all saw cartoons growing up when people go in the water and come out as skeletons, and just falling apart. Or, you know, I used to like history growing up. and I'd read about Teddy Roosevelt. And he would go to the Amazon and these things would strip cows down to the bone. Uh, so they're scary animals. 

And then next thing, we're doing research on them for a couple of months. And then we're thinking about it a whole plane ride over there. And, uh, then we’re out looking for them, and we just have so much time to think about how this could go wrong. And are we going to lose a chunk of our arm? Are these things going to strip us to the bone? We just don't know what's going to happen. So the anticipation on this is, it's just off the charts, man. It's just... by the time you get bitten and stung, you have pictured the worst case scenario over and over. 

Frick-Wright: Yeah. Yeah. So how, I mean, how do they keep you safe? Um, like how controlled of an environment is this?

Alleva: Yeah, we went to great lengths to make this controlled, but there's only so much you can do. I mean, we're getting bitten by some of the worst animals on the planet to get bitten and stung by. Um, but we have a great medical team. We have, uh, you know, Venom One or Venom Two onsite. We have a medical plan, we have evacuation plans, we have a helicopter on standby sometimes. We've done so much research on these animals, uh, not just Adam and I ourselves, but we call biologists. We talk to doctors. We do everything humanly possible to make this go safely as possible. But at the end of the day, like, it's a wild animal. We're in the middle of nowhere. And it's... we can only make it so safe. And we don't want to bring these animals back to the States or anywhere to do a bite near a hospital, because we feel like the bite or sting might not be as potent. You know, if the animal is tired, away from his home, you know, out of its environment, is it really going to be a natural bite or sting? We just feel like it's better right there where it lives, and we can also return it back to its home immediately. 

Frick-Wright (Narrating): So safety is relative. In the first episode, Adam Thorn's blood pressure drops dangerously low after the first thing, and suddenly, not just the medic, but a whole safety crew was on camera. Venom—especially repeated exposures to venom—can give people allergic reactions they've never had before. So no matter how many medics and helicopters you have on standby, you just don't really ever know how a particular individual is going to respond to a particular animal. 

Alleva: And to give you a really good example, um, the reticulated python we did in the final episode, uh, Adam and I had been bitten by a lot of pythons throughout our careers. It's not a big deal. It's usually this, a little nip saying: Stay away! Bleeds a little bit. It's not a problem. 

Uh, the way people really get injured by pythons is, uh, obviously they're, they're scared that this big thing's going to bite them. So they pull away and you know, the teeth, the python typically, uh, typically curve backwards a little bit. So you're pulling against that. When you pull away and you're making, you're making what would've been puncture wounds, uh, tears and cuts. And that's, that's where the real damage happens. But also sometimes a snake has a mind of its own. Sometimes it'll twist and it will shred you open if it does that. 

And uh, that's what happened to Adam. If you watched in the video, he doesn't pull away, he does everything correctly. But the snake readjusts jaws, starts twisting. And next thing you know, once we wiped the blood away, you see meat, you see fatty tissue. I mean, it's, it's horrible. Um, and then I went up next and, um, we're thinking, okay, this is a Python bite that's about as bad as they get. It’d be kind of cool to show people that, you know, even if you're bitten by a Python, it's not going to be a big deal unless you're extremely unlucky. But when I came up just at, uh, you know, horribly bad luck, the thing punctured my ulnar nerve. 

Frick-Wright: Oh jeez.

Alleva: And so, yeah. And I knew it immediately. I felt like I had, I had, you know, touched a live wire. It was unreal the amount of sensation that came through that nerve when that thing hit me and I just collapsed on the table because I knew, um, either hit a nerve or maybe hit an artery. And that's what it feels like when you have no, you know, profusion to the area. I didn't know, but I knew if I moved I was gonna make it worse and tear it worse. And so I just collapsed on the table. The medical team came in, they got the python off me. And, um, you know, I'm still dealing, still dealing with the injury. It's a dangerous job. 

But that's a freak accident. And I think most of the time we know how to be safe. And we know how to do this as controlled as possible. Um, and mostly the animals we deal with aren't going to be animals with huge teeth like that. They can cause trauma to nerves and things like that. We want to do defensive venoms. And defensive venoms is where the real bread and butter of Kings of Pain is. Defensive venoms aren't always honest. 

Venoms, they mimic pain. It feels like your arms falling off, but you're fine. And that's what you get a lot of things like lion fish, or sea urchins, or a lot of the wasps and bees. It feels like you have a huge injury, but really you're fine. And, uh, that's where the bread and butter of Kings of Pain is going to be, because that's where the variation happens. That's where you get all these weird effects. Um, that's where you have pain that lasts for seconds or days. And that's what we want to explore. It’s really fascinating to see how one animal to the next can affect your body so much differently. 

Frick-Wright: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, Justin Schmidt wrote that like the psychological aspect of pain is the actual defense mechanism. Like, the creature is teaching the predator that it's not worth messing with by causing this pain. 

Alleva: Yeah. 

Frick-Wright: And I'm curious, like, so as someone who is experiencing this over and over and over, does that experience change over time? Like does your experience of pain evolve? For lack of a better word? 

Alleva: I think on some level it will. AndI think a great example of that is we gave the honey bee a three out of 30 on the pain index. Um, it just wasn't a big deal. But I think the reason for that, I think—I think if it was our first time being stung by a honeybee, we probably would have given it something a little bit higher. Probably a seven. I really feel like an animal that you've been stung by a lot and obviously just going throughout life, looking for snakes in the wild, you get stung by bees all the time. And I think there is an element of getting used to it. And that affects the way you actually feel pain. I think fear can actually increase it and I think familiarity can actually decrease the pain. That being said, we had the opposite effect on a lot of these animals too, because we're going through pain so often that its fresh in our mind and so we're, we're not getting used to it. 

We had a very recent reminder that: Hey, last week you got stung by this wasp, and it fricking hurt. And now you're about to get stung again. And I think because we're doing so many back to back, it stays so fresh in our mind that we're still going to a pretty honest assessment of the pain. And that was a cool thing that we didn't really expect. We're like: Are we just going to get used to it where it's not a big deal anymore? And I didn't see that. I think because we were just getting hit over and over and over. So we're, we're not allowed to forget how bad that pain is. 

Frick-Wright: Yeah, yeah. Have you experienced that before? Like, I mean, I've had injuries and, you know, a year later I can't really remember what the pain felt like. Does that happen to you as well? 

Alleva: Yeah, 100%. You forget over time. And that's why we really like making this index, because we write down everything that happens and we can go back and look at it later. I'm like: Oh yeah, I forgot that it was four hours of pain, and that it, you know, moved around my arm, and didn't stay in one place. And that's what's really cool about this pain index. Uh, we can look back on it and see everything that happened to us. And the other good thing is we're doing several, uh, bites and stings per episode and we're going back to back to back. Uh, and that just keeps it fresh in our mind and that way we can compare them to each other a lot better a lot. And it's worked way better than we thought actually. Like this, this scale is like, okay, like we're building a big picture and I think the longer we do this pain index, the more accurate it's going to be. 

Frick-Wright: Gotcha. How, how long do you get between, uh, episodes? Like how long do you get to recover? 

Alleva: Um, lot of times we'll knock out two episodes in three weeks. So our bodies are trashed by the end of that. I mean just absolutely trashed. Uh, we tried to space out the bites and stings cause we don't want one bite or sting interfering with, uh, the one before or the one next. So we space it out the best we can. But we have limited time in countries. We, we don't always find the animal that we're looking for right away. Uh, schedules change and sometimes it gets pretty hectic and they're like: Hey, you got to get stung by this. And then hopefully tomorrow you're good, cause you gotta get stung by something else. It's like, it's like any other job, man. Things go wrong and there's crunch times and uh, and you just got to get it done. 

And then, uh, we were going to have two weeks of break in between shooting, but, uh, the schedule got messed up a little bit. So then we had one week of recovery and I think you can tell by the final episode that we're just exhausted. You need at least two or three weeks to recover. 

Frick-Wright (Narrating): Okay. So I should say I came into this interview very interested in what it's like to shoot a TV show where you're repeatedly asked to suffer, and not that interested in the science. I figured they were going to be doing research the way Bill Nye is a science guy: for fun and entertainment. Maybe you'll learn something, but for obvious reasons there's not a lot of comparative science being done on this topic. And so they have real questions. 

Alleva: Well, one of the things we were trying to figure out about why some bites and stings are different than others. Um, if you look in Schmidt's book, he goes into a lot of detail about that as far as social animals have more to protect. So they typically have a worse sting. So an ant, or sorry, like a honeybee would be the perfect example. It has young, and it also has honey to defend, so it's got a decent sting, but there's also a lot of them ready to sting. Um, what Schmidt didn't really figure out—at least I couldn't figure it out by reading his book—was why something like a tarantula hawk would have such a terrible sting because they don't have nests or hives. They dig burrows or even use a tarantula’s own burrow and lay an egg on the tarantula. So that's not a huge investment, uh, in offspring. So there's no reason for it to defend, uh, the young. So he doesn't really know why that hurts so bad. 

Uh, but what we encountered was the weird things like related species. Some could have a much worse sting than others. Um, different populations of the same species could have more potency. Uh, who knows? Like when's the last time the animal ate? How healthy is it? Did it sting something recently? Is it low on venom? Is it cold? Is it hot? Does it not feel that threatened because it's away from a nest? And then there's us as well. Did we get enough sleep? Uh, are we hungry? Are we tired? Uh, what would happen to the things stung, you know, a millimeter over would it have been a different amount of pain? There's just so many variables, uh, and the best thing we can do to sort of counteract that is both of us always get stung because everyone reacts differently. 

And, when possible, we both get stung by different animals or by different animals of the same species. Because if, say, I went first, and got the full load of venom, and then Adam got the scraps from the second sting, it's just not gonna be accurate at all. So we're doing everything we can to make this make sense, but there's so many variables. This has turned into probably the hardest thing I've ever done in my life because we're trying to make sense of something that is a wild phenomenon that people have been trying to understand forever, you know, and we're just scratching the surface. 

Frick-Wright: Yeah. I mean, it really sounds like you need more participants in your show. [Laughs]

Alleva: Yeah. No. You know, if we could do a hundred people per sting, um, I think we would have an amazing pain index. Because we could average it across a hundred people. Um, but that's just not possible and someone would probably die. 

Frick-Wright: That's the difference between TV and science, I guess.

Alleva: It is. It is. But the benefit of being on TV instead of a big study, you know, with a hundred people is that this will reach a lot more people. And so we're trying to get it as accurately documented as we can and reach so many people. And I just feel like, you know, with, you know... I've been stunned by stingrays twice, and the second time I was stung, even though I felt the pit of my stomach worse—because I knew the pain that was coming—I also felt a lot more calm because I'd been through it before. And I think if I had just seen someone on TV stung by a stingray, and had them talk through it, that would have been a comfort to me my first time. So we're hoping to just even just help one person that way. That would be amazing. I would be so happy just with that. 

Frick-Wright: I mean for the show to keep going, the standard TV model is that the bites have to keep getting bigger and scarier. How do you… does that worry you? And how do you do that? 

Alleva: That's a damn good question. Um, yeah. Cause the thing is we went pretty hard in season one and we, uh, we did animals that there's no way in hell I'd do today just because of how crazy it went. Um, I can't imagine doing another big Python, certainly not in my arms. Um, so we might have to come up with new strategies, um, different places to get bitten. Uh, it's still fascinating for Adam and I, because we're seeing how every bite is different. But to keep people hooked? I hope we don't have to take it too far. Uh, I want to keep doing this for a long time and all it takes is one bad bite or sting to ruin, you know, end the entire project. Yeah. And I promise people are going to love it. They're going to see it's in a lot of pay no matter what. So if you like us, you'll love the show, and if you hate us, you're still going to love the show cause we're in pain no matter what. So 

Frick-Wright: Yeah. Does the show feel a little bit, I don't know, like a deal with the devil? Like you're on TV, on this cool show, and this cool project, but your job is to suffer. 

Alleva: Yeah. It definitely feels like we're giving people the bloodlust that they want. But for me? I think if I was looking for a different type of TV show and I ended up on this one, yeah, I would have felt like it was a deal with the devil. But I've wanted this for a long time. This is the most fascinating television show idea that I've ever heard about. And there's just something about almost like being a pioneer, and just for me personally, just going into unknown territory, and we live in a time when that's very difficult. And so we're the first to step into a lot of these bites and stings. Hey, I think if, uh, even if there is no TV show, if I had a medical team, I would probably do some of the bites and stings still. Like I'm hooked, man. I'm just hooked on it. But there's also that fear like are you going to take it too far because you are on TV? Are you going to push it a little too far? And, uh, yeah. I hope we just, I hope we don't do that. I just want to keep doing this for as long as possible.

[Cut to Kings of Pain clip]

Alleva: Uh oh. Stings are out.

[Men yelling]

Alleva: Oh no.

[Clip ends]

Speaker 1: (39:00)

Frick-Wright: That's Caveman Rob Alleva talking to me from Los Angeles. This episode was produced by me, Peter Frick-Wright and Robbie Carver, with help from Michael Roberts. The Outside Podcast is brought to you by Avocado: organic, natural nontoxic mattresses. The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Integrated Media and distributed by PRX. 

We'll be back next week.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.