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Pick Your Poison
MAY 2005
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Video: Fatal Attraction
Video: Deadly Delicacy
Audio: Botox & Piano
Online Extra: Toxic Tale 13
In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Mark Thiessen



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Poison






    The opportunity to work with National Geographic staff writer Cathy Newman was great. It is rare that a photographer and writer travel together on a story. Normally the logistics just don't work. But early on Cathy and I decided we would try to marry the text and photos by doing a series of short stories instead of one long one. So we traveled together around the world. I sat in while Cathy conducted fascinating interviews. And poor Cathy got to find out what it is really like to travel with a National Geographic photographer. She never complained as she helped me schlep ten cases of heavy equipment during a hot summer. As she said later, "It's all about the baggage." We really knew we were in this together when it came time to taste fugu, a popular fish in Japan that happens to contain a deadly toxin and is highly dangerous if the fish is not prepared properly. We toasted with a Japanese beer and downed the fugu. I eyed Cathy to get her first reaction. "Tastes like chicken," she said.
    It was hard to witness the pain and fright experienced by children as they received injections of Botox. Dr. Donna Nimec of the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston had graciously invited me to be present while she treated several children who were suffering from muscular contractions that made it difficult to walk. One child had a stroke at the age of three. Another had complications from being born prematurely. All of the children were trying hard to be brave, knowing that the botulinum toxin would make their lives a bit easier. And Dr. Nimec gave lots of encouragement and support. Still, when the syringe was full and the needle entered the flesh, it was clear there was a lot of pain. One girl received 18 shots of Botox in her legs. It was hard on her, hard on her mom and Dr. Nimec, and hard on me. 
    I had been reading about scorpion bombs in Adrienne Mayor's book, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. I was fascinated by the early use of biological weapons. In the second century, the inhabitants of the fortress city of Hatra—in what is now Iraq—managed to hold off an attacking Roman army by hurling pots full of deadly scorpions onto the legionnaires. With Adrienne's help, we were able to track down several archaeologists who gave us an idea of what kind of pot might have been used as a scorpion bomb at the time.
    Archaeologist Fred Hiebert told us how the clay would look and what the rough dimensions would be. Ben Ryterband of the Massachusetts College of Art took on the task of reproducing the bomb as we imagined it. But where to get scorpions? It turns out that people keep these deadly creatures as pets. They're sold in plastic takeout containers, but you're on your own if you take home a scorpion. Luckily I was able to find some Iraqi Death Stalker scorpions and Fred SaintOurs, an entomologist who was willing to be a scorpion wrangler. Fred wrangled. I stayed behind the camera.
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