TV host on a mission save bugs from sprays and shoe heels

Associated Press
Posted on Sat, Jul. 23, 2005

The article ran in several papers in the southeast including the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer and the Macon Telegraph.

FOLKSTON, Ga. – Beside a murky pond in the Okefenokee Swamp, Ruud Kleinpaste points proudly as six swallowtail butterflies land on a patch of darkened dirt where he’s lured them with his own calls from nature.

“I’ve been peeing in the same spot for days,” says Kleinpaste, host of Animal Planet’s new cable TV show “Buggin’ With Ruud.” “This ecosystem hasn’t got many nutrients. So when you give them extra minerals in the form of whatever, the butterflies will come back and suck it up!”

Whether relieving himself to benefit butterflies, donating blood to mosquitoes or filming himself getting stung by killer bees, Kleinpaste will pull almost any stunt to spread his love for bugs.

His mission: to blunt people’s killer instinct to spray, swat or squish any critter with six legs or more.

“Bugs are never our enemies,” Kleinpaste says. “I want the people of America to pause for a second before they use the aerosol can. If I can do that, I’ve already started to make an impact.”

Saving bugs, as opposed to right whales or spotted owls, may sound like the quest of a Quixotic conservationist. But the 53-year-old Kleinpaste (whose name is pronounced ROOD KLINE-pahstuh) is no newcomer to the cause.

Before his U.S. television show debuted June 15, he had spent 18 years honing his public persona – the Bugman – in his home country of New Zealand as a radio host and frequent guest on children’s TV shows.

Kleinpaste’s Animal Planet gig ups the ante with physical stunts and acts of entomological daring-do in the vein of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin. And the Bugman definitely suffers for his science.

While filming killer bees in Arizona, Kleinpaste forgot to tape his pants around his ankles before standing on the bees’ nest. Bees swarmed up his legs and stung him 30 times. The lesson: it takes 500 stings to be fatal.

To illustrate the amazing fact that fleas jump at nearly 150 times the force of gravity, Kleinpaste chartered a stunt plane to see how much force he could withstand. He was retching by 6.6 Gs, and blacked out at 8.5.

His right middle finger remains visibly enlarged months after he coaxed a venomous Australian bull ant to sting him for the camera.

“There were tears streaming down my face,” he says. “It was excruciating.”

Kleinpaste spent last week filming his eighth episode in the Okefenokee, one of the creepiest, crawliest spots in the United States. Among the peat bogs and lilly pads smothering the swamp, he was up to his eyeballs in water scorpions, whirligig beetles, millipedes and fish-eating spiders.

A ballcap shielded his bald scalp, while red scratches and bites covered Kleinpaste’s ankles.
He’s not fond of repellents.

“The difference between the Crocodile Hunter and me is I get my head bitten off all the time,” he says, grinning. “The bugs always win with me. And that’s the way it should be.”

Kleinpaste’s fearless fervor for bugs has even made an impression on his boss, Maureen Smith, general manager of Animal Planet in Silver Springs, Md.

“My family and I aren’t squishing spiders anymore,” Smith says. “I’m now scooping up spiders and helping them out the door.”

Animal Planet says nearly 2.7 million viewers caught “Buggin’ With Ruud” in the show’s first five weeks. And though Kleinpaste has no formal training in insect biology – he has a master’s degree in forestry – his budding U.S. fan base includes some admiring entomologists.

“You don’t often think of entomologists and macho in the same sentence,” says May R. Berenbaum, head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But there’s definitely an element of that in what he does.”

Berenbaum says Kleinpaste’s show has not only been a hit with her children, but the Entomological Society of America has invited him to its annual meeting in November.

“He’s very engaging and careful with his facts,” she says. “The majority of Americans get their exposure to insects from shows like `Fear Factor,’ where they’re being exploited for disgust and revulsion rather than for anything educational.”

Bug advocates are a rare – but growing – breed, says Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Ore.

Black’s group has 5,000 members across the United States – a small number, he says, but a giant step up from 300 in the 1980s. Bugs are a tough sell, he says, because they’re tiny enough to ignore, but also alien enough to fear.

“It’s a huge trial every step of the way – people have an aversion to bugs, lawmakers don’t think about them when they make laws,” Black says. “But 94 percent of all organisms on the planet are invertebrates. When you think about it that way, it starts to become important.”

The federal government recognizes 56 insects and arachnids as endangered or threatened, out of 518 total protected animal species.

Kleinpaste says he wants to show people how useful even the ickiest bugs can be.

Cockroaches, ants and maggots are nature’s trash collectors, eating rotten, decaying waste left by humans. Birds, fish and many other animals eat mosquitoes. So Kleinpaste calls mosquito bites “the most crucial drop of blood you’ll ever give.”

“What we need to save in this world is not just all the birds and all the whales,” he says. “There are many times more bug species than all the other animals. So let’s start looking at the groundworkers.”

“Buggin’ With Ruud” at Animal Planet

Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation