The Lord of the Rings alum talks weta catching, ant tracking, and why setting an insect on fire is never a good idea.
Travel Channel is debuting season three of Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan on January 27th, a documentary series that follows Monaghan around the world on the quest to find the most exotic—and at times dangerous—creatures on earth. But first, some background information on the host: Monaghan captured audience’s hearts as strong-willed hobbit Merry in The Lord of the Rings films, and was further catapulted to stardom through his portrayal as Charlie Pace on the hit series Lost.
What most folks may not know about Dominic, however, is his love—and more importantly, his knowledge— of wild animals and insects. We caught up with the star and talked about the time he was chased by an elephant in Kenya, his affinity for ants, and being designated as the “weta catcher” on the Lord of the Rings film (because, you know, every set needs one when filming in New Zealand.)
How did the concept of Wild Things come about?
"It’s kind of the way I go on holidays when I’m not working: I pick a country that I haven’t been to before and an animal that I want to see and I go to the capital city and I ask around. I try and stay in the capital city for a few days, ask around about their animals, where should I go, do I need to head north, do I need to head south, do I need to head for the coast—and then hopefully, I find a guide who will either drive me, take me, or meet me there. After that, I try and have an experience with the animal in a week or so, and I keep a diary.
I had been pitching this idea to my agent and he was like, 'You need to meet producers and talk to them.' So I met quite a few different producers, and eventually, I met one from Canada who liked the idea. Within about two months, we were in Ecuador looking for—arguably my favorite creature on the planet—the army ant. Since then we’ve done almost 40 episodes."
So ants are your favorite animal?
"I think ants are my favorite creatures on the planet. Army ants are kind of the bullies of the ant world—they live in communities millions strong and they spread out like a carpet all over the jungle floor. You can’t physically get away from them—they’re going to overpower you and kill you. Everything runs away from them in the jungle, which is impressive—jaguars, tarantulas and venomous snakes. I love ant communities; I love how they look after their young, they don’t cause a carbon footprint, they create fresh soil. There’s no rape, there’s no murder—there’s a lot of equality in their community. We can learn a lot from the life cycle of ants."
Where did this interest in wildlife come from?
"I think I’m just kind of naturally curious about stuff—how it works, why it works, why it exists, why its around. I never really got out of the 'why' asking phase. The interest in nature is great, because there are always new things to ask and new things to learn. I’m a novice in terms of what I know about nature—I don’t think anyone can truly call themself an expert. You’ll never reach the bottom because you’ll never even scratch the surface. In terms of insects and reptiles—I like all animals, I like dogs and cats and horses just fine as well. But I like the underdog.
I like the stories that haven’t been told, and I like the animals that need our help a little bit. And there are always going to be cats and dogs—and there are always going to be abused cats and dogs, and they need their story to be told, as well. But there are tens of thousands of animals going extinct on a daily basis that we know nothing about, and we’ll never learn about. To me, that is a much more tragic story."
What’s the craziest experience you’ve had while filming?
"We got very close to a fight that broke out in a food market in Cameroon, Africa, between two ladies in an outdoor food market, where they started hitting and beating each other. People were throwing stuff at them and it was a really sad and a little scary to see. It was really close to the meat market where there were knives and cleavers and axes, and I just thought, this could turn into an all-out war very quickly.
We’ve seen pretty horrendous car accidents. We’ve had people scream and shout at us. But in terms of humans, that’s probably the weirdest stuff. We were chased by an African elephant in Kenya—that was pretty crazy. Definitely a near-death experience. I was bitten by a Monitor lizard last year that opened up my forearm; I had about 25 or 30 stitches. The model of the show is, in some way, to be in the crazy, to live in the crazy. We’re not looking for a pedestrian standing in Vietnam or a tame understanding of Thailand—what we’re looking for is the underbelly, the rollercoaster ride. I like that."
Does the crew ever worry about your safety? Is there a medic on call?
"I’m pretty safe. I’ve been tagged a few times, but I never let myself in a situation with a truly dangerous creature to get bitten. With the lizard, it’s a mildly venomous lizard, and I knew it wasn’t going to kill me, so I was willing to take a few chances. I’m usually telling my crew to step back because they’re too distracted by doing their job—they don’t know if they’ve walked into the danger zone or not. We always talk about this catchphrase that I coined, called the circumference of safety. If you’re outside of it, you’re fine—if you’re in it, you’re in some danger, and I’m always saying to the guys like, 'You’re in the circle.'
There are times when I’m in the circle, but sometimes that’s because I have to be because I’m holding the animal—that’s the nature of my job. I’m very partial to all ten of my digits, so I never really want to get bitten."
Did you have to go through any type of training to learn how to deal with these types of animals?
"I think you should always go through some sort of training when you’re working with animals. I’ve kept lizards and snakes since I was about 10 years old—in my house we had tanks filled with different animals. It took me a couple of years or so of learning where they should be held, how they should be held, what happens if they bite you. I know a lot of herpetologists—people who have degrees in reptiles—who I work with, and over the years they’ve exposed me to different types of venomous creatures and shared the rules.
Whenever I’m in the field, I’m learning the rules about a new creature and finding out when it’s dangerous and when it’s not. But in terms of any animals that you see: you should never approach a snake if you don’t know what type it is. Always leave it on its own. It’s safer for the snake, and it’s safer for you."
What was your favorite place you visited during the filming of season 3?
"There are a few standout places. We went to Mozambique to swim with the whales, which was pretty special. We traveled to Belize and Bolivia, which were both pretty fantastic. The one that stands out the most now is Madagascar—it’s an island I’ve wanted to visit since I was a little boy, and I’ve read a lot about it. There are animals there that are unique to that island: all the lemurs of that island are very primitive primates that only live in that one area, and obviously chameleons come from Madagascar, so it’s a country where there’s wildlife everywhere. It’s almost like an alien planet. Everything you see has evolved separately from everything else on planet Earth. It was the place I was the most excited about."
You’ve filmed in some of the most exotic parts of the world, like New Zealand for The Lord of the Rings and Hawaii for Lost. Did you get up to any wildlife adventures in either of those places?
"Well, I was always the guy who was expected to clear animals off set if they happened to make their way on set. I was the weta catcher when we were in New Zealand. The weta is a large cave cricket, which managed to make its way onto the set in some of the leaflets they’d bring in, or different plants they’d bring in. Everyone was like, 'OK, Dom, can you grab it and take it out?' People would kill it or get scared of it. [Director] Peter Jackson was pretty scared of it. I would pick it up and take it out.
The same thing would happen in Hawaii—I’d always say to people, 'If you see one of these crazy looking centipedes, which are called Scolopendra, or if you see any scorpions or weird spiders, come and tell me and I’ll move them off set, instead of…' What the crew would do a lot, they’d try and cut them in half or set them on fire or something like that, and that’s the time you’re going to get bit or stung. Obviously that’s not good for the animal either, so, come get me—everyone’s a winner. I’ve always established myself as the person who, if you see an animal and don’t know what it is, come grab me and we’ll have some fun."
Are there any species that freak you out?
"There are no animals that freak me out, they’re too interesting to me. The thing about fear, and where it comes from—fear is based in ignorance. That’s the whole basis of fear. I’m scared of heights, and the reason I’m scared of heights is because I’ve not exposed myself to heights enough. My understanding of being up high comes from a place of ignorance. I don’t understand what’s going on, I feel out of control—my brain starts making decisions that are based on ignorance. What I need to do in my life is expose myself to that fear and start to create new connections in my brain that now understand heights based on positivity, or adventure, or my friends or a good experience.
So my challenge would be not only to watch Wild Things, but when you see an insect that scares you, put yourself in a position where you’re in control and the animal isn’t on you, or isn’t going to get on you, and just sit in that place of fear, control your breathing and remind yourself that you’re in the drivers seat. You’re in control of the situation and that the animal can’t hurt you. And then just go about your business, open the door and let the animal go free or take yourself out of the situation. What you’ll find is over the course of six, eight or ten times is that when you expose yourself to that fear instead of feeling out of control, you’ll be aware that, yes, the thing has the capability of being a little bit scary. But you know that you’re in control of the situation. And you’ll find that the fear is just a little idiot you don’t need—that thing will just die, and what you’ll then be exposed to is 'Am I in any danger?' Because danger is real. Fear is just this punk you don’t need in life."