Leeches on a Plane, and in Other Sundry Places

June 14, 2019 § Leave a comment

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For most people, an uneventful international flight is a good international flight. That wasn’t the case for Ontario native Ippolit Bodounov when he traveled from Russia to Canada last October. His problems started when a Canada Border Services Agency beagle sniffed out a strange scent in his luggage. Actually, his problems started pre flight, when he decided to load a grocery bag with 4,788 wild leeches and put it in his carry on.

Bodounov’s story made the rounds last year when he was caught, and then again in May when he was fined C$15,000 for the illegal importation. Importing leeches, in and of itself, isn’t wrong—they’re often used for medicinal purposes (their saliva contains blood thinners, anti-clotting agents, blood-vessel dilators, and an anesthetic). But the species of leeches brought in by Bodounov are internationally regulated and he lacked the necessary permits. So remember that the next time you think about . . . nah, just forget it.

Hearing about leeches brought to my mind a passage in the book Exodus to a Hidden Valley, which tells the story of the Morse family, missionaries to the Lisu in Burma. They were ordered by the military government to leave the country by the end of December 1965, but rather than leave the Lisu behind, the Morses relocated to a remote area in Burma near the Indian border, away from government control. In describing their trek through the jungle, Eugene Morse writes,

There is no really effective weapon against the leech, Instead of keeping them away, bundling up often tends to hide leeches from your sight. During the rains we learned that even wearing shoes can be a hazard, because leeches hiding in a shoe can turn your foot into a bloody mess before you feel their bite. Leeches dread fire and ashes, and many American British soldiers virtually chain-smoked their way through the Burma campaign of World War II in an effort to keep them at bay. But we learned the Lisu technique of scraping them off with a sharp machete, a process that had to be repeated every few minutes to keep them from sucking blood. On one occasion my brother Robert helped his wife scrape 102 leeches off just one of her legs after she had been walking only five minutes. The mobility of these wormlike creatures is incredible. You can look at what seems to be a totally quiet area of jungle foliage, wave your hand, and suddenly find leeches crawling out from under every leaf, where they have been hiding from the rain. They almost seem to jump the last half inch or so to reach any available piece of warm flesh. If a man opens his fly to relieve himself along a jungle trail, later he will very likely find that at least two or three leeches have managed to make their way to his groin.

Once a leech has attached itself to you, it injects an anticoagulant into the surrounding area of flesh. It drinks until it swells up like a miniature sausage and then falls off. But because of the anticoagulant, you continue to bleed, and anybody who gets a number of leech bites is likely to suffer seriously from loss of blood. Nobody who has lived in the jungle during the rainy season underestimates the danger of leeches or ignores the importance of seeing to it that everything, from houses to latrines and other buildings, is made as leech proof as possible.

In the jungle opening one’s fly can be dangerous. Got it. But as it turns out, opening one’s mouth—or nose—can be risky, too. In 2017, a young Australian man claimed that while eating a pre-packaged salad from a Coles supermarket, a leech attached itself to his tongue. And he has video evidence. “I tried to get it off with a fork,” he tells The Daily Mail Australia, “and it just exploded in my mouth.”

Want more visuals? A report in the Turkish Archives of Ortohinolaryngology shows a leech on the base of a young lady’s tongue, the result of drinking unfiltered spring water. BBC published photos of a leech removed from the nose of a backpacker from Edinburgh, who came back from Southeast Asia with the unwelcome souvenir, which had grown to three inches long over a month before the traveller realized what was going on. And a YouTube video shows the extraction of a veeeery large leech from the nostril of a man from southern China. It had possibly latched on while the man was swimming in a river.

All this got me wondering if anyone makes a habit of putting leeches in their mouths on purpose, as in, for food. From what I’ve found, the answer is a definitive Maybe. In season four of Dirty Jobs, host Mike Rowe spends time with some some leech trappers in Minnesota. After they walk him through the collection and sorting process of the soon-to-be bait, Rowe asks them if there’s anything else he needs to know. “We occasionally eat ’em,” one answers.

Rowe later asks Jason, son of one of the leech wranglers, “Now look, man. Be honest with me. Leeches, are they served in fine restaurants up here in northern Minnesota, or anywhere for that matter?”

“Not too much in the United States just because of the whole food standards and everything,” Jason replies, “but over in Asia, it’s good to go.” He then proceeds to de-vein some leeches and deep fry them. Jason and the cameraman eat some raw, while Rowe waits until they’re cooked, claiming, “You know what? It’s pretty good.”

“But over in Asia, it’s good to go.” Really? Actually, I’m thinking probably not. Asians do eat a lot of things that aren’t normally on Western menus, but it’s a too easy go-to to claim that they eat anything and everything.

In truth, if you’re looking for a good leech recipe, look no farther than Europe. In one episode of Heston’s Feasts, British chef Heston Blumenthal hears from a Transylvanian historian on how to prepare “leeches swollen in goose blood.” Good may be stretching it a bit. After sampling the chewy result, Blumenthal declares, “That’s just congealed goose blood with a leech-membrane casing, and that to me, no matter how I try and wrap that up, it’s not appetizing.”

Dina Fine Maron, “Why Was This Man’s Luggage Stuffed with 5,000 Leeches?National Geographic, February 10, 2019; “Leech Smuggling: Canada Fines Man after 4,700 Carried on Plane,” BBC News, May 28, 2019; Eugene Morse, Exodus to a Hidden Valley,  Reader’s Digest Press, 1974; Nic White and Josh Hanrahan, “Man Says He Found a LEECH in a Coles Salad—and Only Noticed when the Creature Attached Itself to His Tongue,” Daily Mail, January 14, 2017)

[photo: “Bush leech,” by Doug Beckers, used under a Creative Commons license]

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