Instead of using sedatives, Fredeking and his cohorts emerged from their hiding places with long forked sticks and one long pole designed for catching crocodiles: an extendable pole with a wide noose at the end. The noose was slipped over the dragon’s head and pulled tight. Before the befuddled creature could react, six men jumped on him. The Cincinnati Zoo’s Jon Arnett held the dragon’s head and began wrapping duct tape around it. Others wrapped tape around its extended claws. Equally important, a ranger grabbed the dragon’s powerful tail. Fredeking reached for the long Q-Tips he’d brought for swabbing at the dragon’s saliva. He looked at the dragon’s furious eyes and, then, startled at its third eye: a “parietal” eye in the roof of its cranium, which acts as a lightsensing organ. He dabbed at the saliva, shocked at how thick and viscous it was—like Vaseline. One sample was slipped into a vial, then another. Fredeking began to feel euphoric. That was when he heard one of the others say, in real terror, “Oh my God.”
Fredeking looked up and felt the paralyzing fear of the hunter who has gone from being predator to prey. More than a dozen Komodo dragons were advancing from all sides. Drawn by the noisy struggle of the dragon that had been captured, the lizards had converged with the quaintly Komodian hope of eating it—along with the men around it. Panting with adrenaline, the men pushed at the dragons with their forked sticks. With their length, body mass and sheer reptilian power, the dragons easily could have pushed right up to the men and started chomping away, either at the duct-taped dragon or at the hors d’oeuvres plate of tasty human legs. But the sight of tall men with sticks seemed to confuse them. One of the park guards—an old hand at dealing with the dragons—aggressively advanced on one of the larger lizards, and pushed him away with his forked stick. For a tense minute or so, the outcome remained uncertain. Then, one by one, the dragons turned and clumped away. Fredeking took a long breath. “Man, oh man,” he said. “What we do for science.”
On that first trip, both of Fredeking’s cohorts incurred deep scratches on the insides of their calves by sitting on the dragon’s back to help restrain him. They knew that the dragon’s scaly skin—as scaly as chain mail—was rife with bacteria too. Within hours, they were infected and running fevers. Fredeking was running a fever too. All three took Ciprofloxacin and soon felt better. Not surprisingly, the dragon’s bacteria were susceptible, given that the bugs had probably never encountered commercial antibiotics.
Along with saliva swabs, Fredeking came away with samples of blood from the dragon’s bleeding gums. Flash frozen in liquid nitrogen and stored in Thermos-like containers, the samples were flown back to Texas, where Fredeking’s researchers got to work. They counted 62 different kinds of bacteria in Komodo saliva. The most potent of the lot was Pasteurella multicida, common in many domestic animals, thoughin far less virulent strains. They found antibiotic peptides, too, along with a small molecule that did an even better job of killing bacteria. In vitro, the molecule knocked out three of the worst bacterial pathogens: methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE), and E. coli 0157:H7 or Escherichia coli. Don Gillespie, a veterinarian in touch with Fredeking because of his work with Komodos at the Nashville, Tennessee, zoo, worried that the peptides might not last long in the human body. But this new small molecule, he thought, might not be recognized by human antibodies, and so be a perfect candidate for a new class of antibiotic.
First, the researchers would have to try the peptides, and the molecules, in mice, then guinea pigs, then primates. And even the gung ho Fredeking knew better than to make any predictions. “If it makes mice grow long green tails and crave human flesh, we’ll know it’s not good,” he said. “Basically, anywhere along the trail here, this thing could fall apart.”