He breathes deeply, hands shaking as he extends his bare left arm, his other hand clutching a pair of forceps. Something unspeakably monstrous is trapped in its padded tips and wriggling in irritation.
‘I’m Coyote Peterson and I’m about to enter the sting zone,’ he solemnly announces to the camera. Seconds later he proves as good as his word, pressing a huge insect to his unprotected forearm until it sinks its stinger into his skin.
He stumbles around before falling to the ground where he lies, writhing and howling in agony, as he shows off an arm that is horribly distended due to the venom coursing through his bloodstream.
Astonishingly, Peterson, 39, has made dozens of such videos — for getting stung and bitten by the world’s most terrifying creatures is what the man in the leather Crocodile Dundee hat does for a living.
Coyote Peterson, 39, gets stung and bitten by the world’s most terrifying creatures is what the man in the leather Crocodile Dundee hat does for a living
And it has been lucrative. His global hunt for what he has called ‘the king of sting’ and ‘the beast of bites’ (the titles of his two books) has made the wildlife enthusiast and filmmaker a monster internet success — particularly with his core audience of children.
His videos are grim but, for millions, clearly gripping. They follow him capturing a creature in the wild (usually in a net), gently making it bite or sting him and then — through gasps, grunts and grimaces — describing how it feels. The insect is then dutifully returned unharmed to the wild.
His Brave Wilderness channel on YouTube has attracted more than 3.6 billion views since it launched in 2014, and now has 17.7 million subscribers. It’s estimated he earns as much as $294,000 (£228,000) a month from online advertising.
A film in which he gets stung by a bullet ant — an inch-long nightmare whose neurotoxic venom is said to be 30 times more painful than a bee sting — has been watched more than 57 million times.
That’s not so surprising when one knows that he ends up on his back in the rainforest, knees bunched up to his chest and teeth gritted as he contends with an agony that has been known to last 24 hours.
Another video, in which he gets stung by a tarantula hawk, has 56 million views. Not a bird, this is a giant wasp that paralyses a tarantula spider with its sting and then drags it back to its nest. The wasp lays an egg on its prey, and when it hatches, the larva eats the still-living spider.
Peterson recently announced he was moving on from stinging insects, and earlier this month released what he insists will be his last ‘sting video’ — a relatively minor encounter with a wasp called the Eastern cicada killer.
He said he wanted to highlight how the poor wasp was being mistaken in the U.S. for a far more terrifying invader, the Asian giant hornet.
He’s already been stung by the latter — which has been laying waste to America’s honey bee hives — on a visit to Japan.
‘Oh man, waves of dizziness really quick,’ he yelled after a two-inch-long hornet obliged him. ‘Agh! Searing pain! Absolute searing pain! My hand is completely seized up and locked in place.’ The camera captured his arm swelling to almost twice its normal size. But this hornet is not responsible for the most painful sting he’s received. Nor, indeed, are the warrior wasp and cow killer wasp, which he has also been stung by.
That honour goes to the executioner wasp. This can grow up to 1.3 inches long, but is thankfully native only to Central and South America, and not particularly aggressive.
Its sting hit Peterson with a second wave of pain so excruciating that, as he lay on his back hyperventilating, a member of his seasoned crew asked: ‘Do I need to be worried here?’
Peterson ordered the camera to be switched off. His arm was swollen for days and painful for six weeks, while the sting left a permanent pockmark.
He assures me he actually has an ‘exceptionally high pain threshold’, adding: ‘I like to think I’m pretty tough, but there are people that are way tougher than I am.’
Perhaps he’s thinking of the inhabitants of an Amazon tribe who, as a male initiation rite, wear special woven gloves full of bullet ants for ten minutes at a time.
He’s not exactly David Attenborough, but when I spoke to Peterson a few days ago he insisted his principal aim was to educate rather than entertain.
‘We want to show people these are not creatures you need to be afraid of,’ he told me. ‘We want these animals to be something people enjoy, respect and love.’
I can’t say I’m convinced, as fear seems to be exactly the response his videos are going to produce. And there’s precious little education apart from the obvious lesson: run away!
He is proud of the fact that he’s never sworn once on camera during his ordeals, which is rather commendable
Coyote Peterson (his first name is actually Nathaniel) concedes, however, that in the digital sphere viewers don’t have the patience to sit through an hour-long wildlife documentary. You have got 15 minutes and you had better make sparks fly.
A former lab technician who studied filmmaking at university in Ohio, Peterson had made dozens of wildlife-related videos for YouTube with his business partner Mark Vins before they struck on their winning formula by chance.
On a visit to Peterson’s mother in Arizona five years ago, Mark dared him to keep his hands on a nest of harvester ants in her garden for a minute. The ants not only have a highly toxic sting, they are also very aggressive and quick off the mark. It wasn’t long before they were crawling up to his neck, and up his trouser legs, too.
‘It was extremely painful, I think I got 50 to 60 stings and we didn’t anticipate how many ants would get on me,’ says Peterson. ‘I thought they’d just stay on my hands, but I had stings in places we couldn’t show.’
It was a viral hit on the internet — people loved seeing him hopping around in agony.
Peterson ramps up the drama of his crowd-pleasing videos with the breathless presentation style of a gameshow host and suspenseful music.
He admits his mother thinks he’s ‘a little crazy’ but says his family, including his 12-year-old daughter, are supportive.
He is proud of the fact that he’s never sworn once on camera during his ordeals, which is rather commendable.
But such self-control makes one wonder if he’s always in quite as much agony as he makes out on camera. ‘A lot of it’s pretty genuine,’ he says, conceding that his contortions are a ‘visual performance’ of what he’s feeling inside but cannot say without cursing.
Now he’s encouraging other members of the animal kingdom to take a shot at him — among other encounters, he’s been bitten by an alligator, stung by a lionfish and lost the top of his thumb to a snapping turtle. He recently tried his hand at piranhas (and kept it) but draws the line at rattlesnakes, whose bite is often lethal.
Next he’s off to Lake Huron in North America to let sea lampreys — eel-like parasitic fish with razor-sharp teeth — attach themselves to his body. ‘Our research team has reassured me they’re not going to dig into my stomach and suck out my guts,’ he laughs.
Better for him in the long run, no doubt — but what a YouTube ratings sensation that would be.