Does anybody love a leech? Beyond leeches themselves, I mean. Possibly a mad scientist or or even stranger, a celebrity or two. I don’t know any (mad scientists or celebrities who love leeches), but I may encounter some one day. At the moment, though, I’m sticking with the eeeeuwww-faction on leeches.
I was a kid when Bogart led Hepburn down some leech-infested river in The African Queen. It’s the first movie I remember seeing. I spent most of the movie counting the black Juju-bees under the theatre seats, a place where I huddled in the scary parts of the movie. For me, almost all the parts were scary. My mother loved the movie. I did not. Besides the licorice Juju-bees under the seats and my mother’s urgent whispered commands to cease scrabbling among them, the most memorable part of the movie were the huge engorged leeches. On Bogart, I recall, but I could be wrong. At 7 years old, given leeches and leading men, leeches were the more memorable.
The second time I saw a leech, discounting the human variety, of course, was on the linoleum floor of Woolworth’s, a chain grocery store in Byron Bay. Engorged, it had fallen off someone’s ankle and was oozing blood and flopping sluggishly looking for a place to ride out its excesses. You could almost see it wipe its mouth and rip a huge satisfied “BURRRP! Aahhhhh.”
Surfers and schoolies who crowd the store on holidays gave the leech and its blood puddle wide berth. The uniformed Woolies staff scurried to remove it before anyone thought that leeches were available in the meat section. I don’t often see leeches in the supermarket, but this is the tropics, and any odd creature might appear anywhere at any time, including 7 foot pythons and saucer-sized Huntsman spiders– but those are other stories. Truly, it’s a biologists dream-laboratory here.
The third leech encounter was surprisingly close to home. We’d stepped across puddles left by a tropical shower on the way home from dinner at friends, passed through our house, opening windows to let the breeze blow through. We found glasses and a nice bottle of Aussie Shiraz, sprayed ourselves down with mozzie repellant and for added insurance, lit the mozzie coils, and sat down on the back deck to enjoy a glass of vino and recap the evening.
Distracted by movement, my daughter glanced down at her foot. “Aaaccckkkkk! What is that?” A dark slimy creature undulated on her toe. She flicked the writhing critter off onto the deck. “I think it’s a leech,” I said, turning on the porch light for a better view. It looked like a slug, but more animated. Slimy. Glistening. It gathered itself, and like a skinny two-inch slinky, and probed the damp air for dinner. You could almost hear it humming, “Fee, fi, fo, fum. I smell the blood…”
It is unnerving to be so obviously hunted. The tiny predator stood on one end of it’s 2 inch-long brown
body, mustard and black stripes emphasizing its length, and probed the air this way and that, searching for the host of its next meal. An upside-down golf tee, long and narrow, moving like the tip of Dumbledore’s hat, searching. Searching. It waved on its stem, and then paused, sensing prey, leaning towards our body heat. And advanced. Top over bottom, bottom over top, it flipped across the deck towards our warmth. Attach, sniff, flip, attach, sniff, flip. Attach, sniff, flip — the stuff of camp fire horror stories, of anxieties and nightmares.
Leeches have circular mouth-parts on the ends of its body and attach both for feeding efficiency. They feed rarely — possibly every 3-4 months or longer — and this one was ready to eat. No matter what we did to it, it returned to the hunt. “HUNGRY!” it seemed to say. It’s amazing how a leech can focus your attention at an evening’s end and sober you up some, too.
We scattered, searching for weapons to thwart the advancing leech.
First we tried the flip-flop method. It soon became apparent that you can’t kill a leech with your flip-flop, no matter how many times you thwap it. Next, we tried Bee-gon, the flying insect spray. No joy. We tried a flame, but that’s for ticks, right? The leech just slipped below the deck to reappear when we ceased our cruelty.
I reached for the spray can of Rid, the tropical strength insect repellant, that lives close at hand on the back-deck dining table. There was no logic involved, just atavistic intention: fight off the attack. No way were we giving up the deck on a hot tropical night.
Bingo! The deet in Rid seemed to make an impression. The leech slunk away in defeat, slipping below the deck to seek prey elsewhere. It did not reappear.
Friends were shocked that leeches could be found in our little tropical neighborhood, but believe me, they have arrived. I wondered why they hadn’t made an appearance in years earlier?
When our houses were built, the Byron Shire Council demanded a green belt critter pathway from rainforest to rainforest through our development. No twig or snag was to be removed nor was the habitat to be modified in any way. You could hear the swamp wallabies thump through the rainforest at night and watch the bush turkeys, butterflies, and cockatoos forage by day. The only plants approved by the council for planting were those fire-loving natives.
Recently, the fire department checked up on the green belt and declared that all the twigs and snags must be cut away and drying brush removed to eliminate the fire hazard, except of course, the natives we’d all planted in our gardens, under the council’s guidelines. Naturally, the creatures that lived in the underbrush and the snags have thinned out too, and the leeches that lived there in the grey-water ponds have lost many of their hosts. They seem to have had a meeting and decided to move to more profitable hunting ground. Upslope, as it were.
Aussies are amazingly well prepared for the unusual. We received lots of friendly recommendations for leech removal. Just as amazing as the tropical animals themselves, the remedies bordered on the fantastic. My favorite is Dettol, an all-purpose household antiseptic, found on supermarket shelves. It cleans wounds, inhibits leeches, and, it has been noted, kills cane toads. Good to know. We have cane toads in our neighborhood too.
I’m not quite sure if Dettol belongs in the bathroom with other antiseptics or under the kitchen sink with the critter-killers, roach hotels, and mozzie coils. It just makes sense to have removal remedies at the ready when the leeches are on the prowl. Attach, sniff, flip.
For more information about the biology of leeches: http://www.austmus.gov.au/factSheets/leeches.htm
And for cautionary notes on leeches and their removal: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leech