Vancouver bug wrangler Brad McDonald loves cockroaches, fears babies

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photo by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

Here’s my piece that ran as the cover story in the Georgia Straight‘s Halloween 2000 issue.

By Steve Newton

The first time I sat down for a meal in a New York City restaurant, a cockroach scurried across the table. One of the people I was with, the managing editor of North America’s top horror magazine, made a shrill sound of disgust and flattened the pest with a napkin. Considering that this guy’s occupation requires him to spend hours studying full-colour pictures of gruesomely realistic makeup effects, I found his frantic reaction rather surprising.

But such is the magical effect of la cucaracha. It can bring out the worst in people.

Or, as I discover after spending time with Vancouver bug wrangler Brad McDonald, simply the best.

I first encounter McDonald while on assignment for Fangoria magazine, covering a killer-cockroach TV-movie called They Nest that is being shot at Versatile Shipyards in North Vancouver. (This is the same place where The Mummy director Stephen Sommers shot much of his unfathomable ’97 sea-beast saga, Deep Rising.) Almost as if to make up for how inept the much-ballyhooed Y2K bug proved last New Year’s Eve, the makers of They Nest are doing their best to make real-bug paranoia an issue. The US$4-million flick includes scenes of huge cockroaches crawling over people and using their insides as breeding grounds.

That may sound kind of gross, but it’s all good news for McDonald, who makes a living providing creepy-crawlies for the burgeoning B.C. film biz.

In one section of the sprawling set, a stunt double in a police outfit lies still on a cement floor while McDonald and his crew of roach wranglers dispense three-inch bugs onto his outstretched hand. “There’s one by your foot,” warns one cautious onlooker, concerned about collateral damage to the film’s scurrying costars.

The bug wranglers tread carefully as the camera pans across the unfortunate lawman and the wee beasties that are about to make him their new home. When the director yells “Cut!” and McDonald gets a breather, he heads toward an indoor tent where the roaches, stored in half a dozen plastic tubs, are being kept cozy and warm with electric heaters.

Anxious to show off his garbage-loving charges, McDonald peels open one of the containers for a closer look—and you won’t see this in any Tupperware commercials. When the “flavour seal” is broken, the smell of those varmints instantly fouls the air. Undaunted by the stench, McDonald casually reaches in with his bare hands and snags a couple of cuties, all the while expounding on how some perform better than others. He’s got somewhere between 500 and 600 of them on hand for the day’s shoot.

“The most we’ve used so far [in one shot] is 200,” he says, “but I’ve heard today we’re gonna have 300 out for one of the scenes, so that’s a fair chunka bugs.”

Not just any plain old everyday roaches get the opportunity to star in They Nest, mind you. Those pesky midsize ones you sometimes find in Manhattan pizza joints wouldn’t even make it past the audition for this colossal bugfest.

“We have two types of cockroaches in this film,” McDonald points out. “We have the Madagascan hissing cockroach, which is about a three-inch beetle that lives in the rain forest in Madagascar, and we have what they call a Brazilian cockroach, or a giant cave cockroach, and they’re found throughout Central and South America. And they have wings; the hissers don’t. These guys have wings and they’re a little larger than three inches. They’re pretty big.”

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McDonald knows his roaches. He knows his spiders and snakes, too. During his career in the busy Vancouver film biz, he’s wrangled rattlesnakes for Dead Man’s Gun, tarantulas for Highlander and Poltergeist: The Legacy, and some “lovely maggots” for The X-Files and Millennium. Needless to say, nature’s creepier creatures are his stock-in-trade, and he doesn’t like to lose them to the dangers of the set. Things happen, though.

“There’s been the odd casualty,” he admits, “but not too many. I mean, they’re only cockroaches, and people would kill ’em on sight anyway, but they’re all little creatures, so we try to keep it down.”

McDonald’s obsession with things that go hiss in the night began at an early age. He moved from Saskatchewan to B.C. when he was seven, and at that time saw his first live snake. His parents tried to foster in him a respect for all living things, and it must have taken root, because McDonald was never the type of kid to pull the wings off flies. He had a much more benevolent plan for the little buzzers.

“I would occasionally feed hungry spiders in my yard,” he recalls. “If they looked like they’d built a web in a bad place, I’d go catch crane flies and feed them to make sure they stayed alive, but that was about the extent of it.”

Like most kids, McDonald was big on dinosaurs, which led to an interest in their modern-day representation, lizards. He took out every book in the library he could find on reptiles and the like, then kept whatever critters he could find as a hobby. “I was always bringing worms in the house,” he says, “much to my mother’s chagrin. And it just got worse as I got older.”

His pastime ultimately blossomed into a career when, in 1987, he found work on a Davy Crockett film being shot here for Disney. The show’s animal wrangler needed somebody who didn’t mind getting bit by a rattlesnake, and, as would be expected, the lineup of volunteers for that job was short. Good thing McDonald was around.

“Fortunately for me—or unfortunately, depending on how you look at things—I have an artificial limb and I’m not afraid of snakes, so I was able to take a rattlesnake bite. They dressed me all up like Davy Crockett, and I walked by the snake and the snake bit me in the leg and it started from there.”

A proud owner of more than 100 snakes—including a prized, four-and-a-quarter-metre Burmese python—McDonald is quick to offer his services as a professional snake handler. But it’s his eagerness and enthusiasm for working with bugs that make him such a valuable commodity in the local film world, where fantasy shows such as Night Visions, First Wave, and Dark Angel are liable to require freaky insects. The business card for McDonald’s company, The Fright Stuff, sports images of a spider, scorpion, and snake.

“I do enjoy working with tarantulas and scorpions,” he stresses, “and basically anything in that vein is sort of right up my alley. They’re always challenging, and the nice thing is, if things don’t go right you can always just say, ‘Well, you know what? You can’t train a bug.’ ”

That doesn’t keep McDonald from trying, though. As well as coaxing cockroaches and spiders to perform on film, he’s even wrangled flies for TV’s Cold Squad and the horror film Bones. (Hopefully, word hasn’t gotten round among the shit-eating set about his youthful spider-feeding habits.)

“I’ve done a fair amount of fly work,” he says, “and the trick with flies—and a lot of the animals I work with, actually—is knowing the right species to use. There’s a certain species of fly that is a lot more docile and slower-moving than most flies. They’re very large, so they’re impressive for film, and they aren’t as quick to take off on you.”

Some folks might think that getting up close to huge, hairy spiders and filthy scavengers would be the most revolting job in the world, but it’s nothing compared to dealing with maggots, and McDonald’s done plenty of that. He recalls one particularly nauseating “maggot moment”, working on an episode of The X-Files in the middle of summer.

“It was stinkin’ hot outside,” he says, “stinkin’ being the optimum word, and we had tubs of rotten fish and rotten chicken, and there was maggots everywhere. They got loose inside our truck; it was disgusting. And scooping maggots off of rotten livers in the hot sun is just not the most fun task. Everybody shuns you because you’re ‘the maggot man’; no one wants to go near you.”

Fortunately, not everyone in the world is so repulsed by McDonald’s career choice that he has to live like a recluse. There’s his wife, Hope, for one. Oh, so you didn’t think that a guy who spends his time scooping maggots off rotten livers could ever have a special someone? Welcome to the club.

“Everybody asks me that,” McDonald says. “Like right after they meet me on a set or something, it’s like: ‘Are you married?’ ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ They seem quite surprised. But, yes, I do in fact have a wife, and she doesn’t complain about the bugs. The only thing she complains about is when I spend too much money on them.”

McDonald—who points out that you can spend hundreds of dollars on certain types of beetles and thousands on various reptiles—says that his wife is “quite a trooper” when it comes to helping him wrangle critters around the house. That’s more than he can say for some of the bug-bothered actors he’s had to deal with over the years.

“Sometimes we have fun with them,” he explains. “We’ll be working tarantulas or something and we’ll kind of mumble amongst each other, saying, ‘Oh, that’s the nasty one, don’t use him.’ Then their eyes kinda bug out when I take it out of the container. But I’m not using nasty animals on an actor, because that would just get me fired really quickly. I just want to tease them a little bit, like, ‘Hey, where’d that real grouchy one go? He’s missing.’”

Although there’s little chance of any of his multilegged beasties getting loose on a movie set, there are plenty of opportunities for them to bite the hand that feeds. But McDonald claims that in his 15 years of bug-wrangling, he’s never once been stung by a scorpion or bitten by a tarantula or—apart from his coonskin-capped run-in with a pit viper—a venomous snake. Nonvenomous snakes are another story, though.

“I’ve been bitten by nonvenomous snakes numerous times,” he relates, “because I don’t have to take the same precautions. They tag you once in a while, but it’s usually not a huge deal. Although about two weeks ago, I did get bit in the back of the head by a large python, which was kind of a surprise. I was bleedin’ like a stuck pig, but it was nothin’ serious.”

At six foot two and 220 pounds, with long hair, goatee, and black leather biker jacket, McDonald doesn’t resemble anyone you’d want to meet in a dark alley—with or without his arsenal of arachnids. But although the 36-year-old heavy-metal freak seems like a real brave guy in the face of oversize insects, it wasn’t always that way. He can remember being filled with dread as a child while watching a movie about giant praying mantises on the rampage.

I, too, have been turned into a quivering mess by bug movies, even as an adult. Sometime back in the early ’90s, I rented Arachnophobia with a few buddies, and during the climactic scene, when an enormous South American spider scoots along the inside of a pipe towards arachnophobe Jeff Daniels, I got so rattled that my Lynyrd Skynyrd baseball cap fell off my head, causing hilarity amongst my beer-guzzling peers.

“I usually find shows like that amusing,” McDonald notes, as if to rub it in. “I’ve seen Arachnophobia and Anaconda and other supposedly frightening shows, and most of the time I wind up chuckling through the whole thing. I’ll watch the bugs from a wrangler’s point of view and try and figure out how something was done, whether it was CGI [computer-generated imagery] or if they used real bugs, that kinda thing.”

McDonald’s job doesn’t always keep him in the company of creatures that are prone to inhabit other people’s nightmares. He was recently compelled to work with house cats on a feature-film version of the popular kids’ cartoon Josie and the Pussycats.

“Once in a while, I have to work with icky mammals,” he whines, making it clear that he’s much happier in the uncuddly company of roaches. Although They Nest provided the best excuse for him to go cockroach-crazy, McDonald also got down with the putrid pests on an episode of TV’s The Outer Limits about a team of Arctic researchers who become infested by polar mites and are driven mad. The show, which is scheduled to air in Canada sometime this season, also featured McDonald’s first acting role.

“I got the part because I’m crazy enough to actually put live cockroaches in my mouth,” he says. “There’s a scene in the show when I’m lying dead on a gurney, my mouth is open, and roaches come teeming out of my mouth. It’s a very gross moment, and, of course, no actor would want to do that, but it’s like, ‘Good old Brad, yeah, he’s nuts.’”

At one point during the filming, one of the roaches, perhaps troubled by the consistency of his tongue, started burrowing down McDonald’s throat, causing him to sit up, cough, and ruin the take. The director wasn’t impressed, but what can you do? Still, even the prospect of having a large, live cockroach in his tummy isn’t enough to give McDonald the heebie-jeebies. Only one thing on earth is capable of that.

“You can put me in a sleeping bag full of snakes or spiders or cockroaches,” says McDonald with a laugh, “but bring a baby by me and you watch me cringe. I don’t know what it is. My wife takes great delight in trying to foist infants on me whenever she can and take pictures. I’ll be holding it out at arm’s length like it’s gonna explode or something.”

I guess the makers of Daycare Dung Beetles can forget about acquiring McDonald’s services.

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