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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Two caveats before I start describing in the column below an amazing book written by a scientist with deep connections to Niagara Falls:

One, the author is one of my very best friends, so don't be surprised when praise for his work rolls forth.

Two, if you are easily grossed out, you will find the subject matter of the book icky and alarming in the extreme.

There, got your attention? Read on.

Stephen Spotte, one of the country's top marine biologists and a native of West Virginia, from the mid-to-late1960s worked at the Aquarium of Niagara Falls -- quickly rising to chief curator and director of the then-new and interesting tourist attraction perched along the American side of the Niagara Gorge on Whirlpool Street.

Spotte is a prolific and accomplished writer -- the author of more than 80 scientific articles, eight non-fiction books, and several works of fiction. His prose is notably readable, whether scientific or in the vernacular. Spotte -- currently a marine scientist at the famous Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. -- a few months ago came out with a new book that is the talk of the ichthyological scientific community: "Candiru: Life and Legend of the Bloodsucking Catfishes" (Creative Arts Book Co., 321 pages, $24.50).

Bloodsucking? Sound a tad scary? What's a candiru? Well, let Spotte tell you in his own words, from the book's introduction:

"I first heard about candirus on a late afternoon in January 1965 in Niagara Falls, New York. Bill Kelley, my boss at the time, was discussing South American rainforests in a setting that couldn't have been more antipodean (Columnist's note: A topic directly the opposite of surroundings). Outside the motel window lay a bleak, arctic landscape -- snowdrifts mounded like sleeping bears, screes of dirty snow collapsed against buildings, glittering snowflakes turned sepia by the street lights."

The motel room was serving as a makeshift office while the new public aquarium was slowly going up along the gorge during that very cold winter. The aquarium itself, recalls the author, "consisted mostly of a cavernous hole in the ground and a roll of blueprints."

Spotte and several of the newly-hired staff were listening in the motel room to Kelley, in my memory of Niagara during that era, a garrulous, adventurous man who had come from the Cleveland Aquarium.

Spotte, in his introduction, continues: "Bill had been discussing administrative matters, but lost interest. He held a kitchen match to his pipe while the rest of us waited impatiently. To me, this was all very exotic. I was 21 and just out of college. I would take care of the animals and plants once the facility was built." The rookie staff passed around a bottle of bourbon. Kelley snuffed out his match.

Spotte goes on: "Bill blew smoke at the ceiling. 'What we need,' he said, 'is a candiru exhibit.' Having gotten our attention, Bill settled into his chair. 'Candirus are little catfishes, very thin.' He held up the blackened match. 'Thicker than this, and somewhat longer. In South America, you hear stories about candirus swimming up somebody's (Columnist's note: Naughty word for penis) or (Columnist's note: Naughty word for anus). Then they erect their gill spines so you can't pull them out. If you're the victim, that's a helluva problem. They're like leeches. They latch on, suck blood for a few minutes, and drop off. You could use big carp to feed them."

Spotte was entranced. Egad! Was there really a tiny fish you can hardly see that could "penetrate the urethra, vagina, or rectum of an unwary bather and lodge there" -- particularly, as lore had it, if the bather surreptitiously started urinating beneath the surface? Kelley had written an inconclusive but cogent report on the subject, and Spotte filed it away in a big cardboard box. Over the decades, he would toss in anything new he read about candirus. The stack grew thick.

Four years ago, Spotte -- who frequently takes off to distant jungles and ice floes to prove for himself what others have told him -- "decided to investigate the subject myself."

Among his biggest questions: "Are stories of attacks on human beings really true? The answer to this last question is yes, but ferreting out the evidence wasn't easy."

The very first report in scientific literature Spotte could find was written in 1829 by a German botanist who had traveled in Brazil, but "his words have the hollow ring of someone offering hearsay instead of proof."

It all sounded like one of those infamous urban legends -- or in this case, remote country legends -- that gain momentum in spooky gossip and are so popular these days. Where was the smoking gun -- or in this case, the smoking fish?

"In Brazil, as things turned out," writes Spotte. "Although by the time I arrived two years after the only confirmed attack, the odor of cordite was barely perceptible."

In his book, Spotte recounts his arduous search in scientific structure -- footnoted and all that -- but it reads like a mystery novel.

The scientist travels to Brazil and hooks up with another candiru expert, conservationist and tropical ichthyologist Paulo Petry. Together they catch candirus and study them. They find them slender and wormlike -- invisible in darkened waters -- but capable of growing to the length of a human finger, and with spines near the gills that can be opened to prevent extraction by pulling the fish's tail. The tiny candiru -- loosely translated as "pest" along the Amazon -- prove voraciously attracted to blood, not urine. What the pair of scientists needed was a dead fish and a live victim. So far, however, they could find no candiru allegedly removed from a human urogenital or rectal orifice preserved in a reputable museum, hospital, or academy for scientific identification.

Until 1999, that is.

In October of that year, Spotte traveled to the Amazon city of Manaus in Brazil, where he and Petry located and visited Anoar Samad, 35, a respected urologist who trained in Boston's renowned Lahey Clinic, and who in 1997 had operated for two hours on the urethral canal of a young man referred to throughout by the initials FBC.

FBC had been bathing in the Amazon near Itacoatiara when he removed his swim trunks to urinate in the water. A candiru had entered the urethral canal through the penis, made its way through, taken a hard lateral turn and bitten into the spongy tissue of the scrotum. The boy, presenting symptoms five or six days after the incident, was greatly swollen and in severe pain.

When Dr. Samad had first heard of this, he thought he was "being baited" by some of his colleagues. But his examination of the lad wisely included use of an ultra-sonograph to document the location of the fish and record the procedure. Sure enough, there it was. To avoid cutting, Dr. Samad used a TV-equipped endoscope to locate the little bugger, then teeny forceps to pull it out from the urethral canal. The candiru -- about five inches long -- was already dead and soft, starting to decompose, so the infamous spines may not have come into play. Photos and videotapes of the procedure exist. After five days in the hospital -- loaded up with anti-inflammatories and antibiotics -- the patient was discharged, and shows no long-term effects from the candiru attack.

Dr. Samad showed Spotte the records and told the story.

Spotte writes: "Evidently, FBC's penis had not been submerged in the river at the time of the attack. According to FBC, he was standing in the river and had taken his penis out of his swimsuit to urinate. The water level reached to his upper thighs, but not to his scrotum or penis. The fish had darted out of the water, up the urine stream, and into his urethra. Startled, FBC grabbed the fish and tried to pull it out, but its body was too slippery. He had only one chance -- a fleeting chance -- then it was completely inside."

Franz Kafka, where are you?

Spotte remains somewhat skeptical of the candiru-leaps-up-urine-stream aspect of FBC's ordeal: "I was stunned at the news that FBC had been urinating above the surface of the water when attacked. We have only FBC's story filtered through Anoar Samad."

Nor does the tiny fish seem attracted to urine. A better scientific bet, the researchers believe, is the only way the fish could enter the urethra is while it's expanded during urination, and has somehow evolved to sense that. Despite the gruesome topic, Spotte kept his sense of humor intact while writing the book. In his last chapter, he suggests "Candiru World," a grotesque theme park which would parody Disney World or Sea World, and would feature bloated candiru fish draining live carp of their blood before riveted children while recorded chants of Jivaro warriors waft through hidden speakers festooned with shrunken heads amid film-enhanced Amazon River scenes.

If you want to learn more about Spotte, pick up his recent and brilliant short story collection called "An Optimist in Hell." He draws on his coal-country youth to explore the ironies of modern science and medical ethics. The candiru book is harder to classify. It's neither all science, nor all journalism, nor all essay, nor all research report. A freelancing Internet reviewer named Gary Adams may have pegged it best: "The science is detailed, but the readin' is easy."

And so it is. My old aquarist pal -- who used to hang out at Jeff Mahlstedt's saloon and nightclub called "The Speakeasy" in the North End -- has turned into one helluva scientist, and one helluva wordslinger.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 26 2002