Ray Duckler: Laura Zerra of Belmont steals show on Discovery’s ‘Naked and Afraid’
Think you’re tough? Think you possess an adventurous spirit?
Well, you’re not, and you don’t. Not compared with Laura Zerra, whose home address is Earth, but whose mind-set is out of this world.
For our purposes, she lives in Belmont and Groton, where she bunks with friends now and then during her lifelong quest to avoid boredom.
Zerra appeared on a new Discovery Channel show called Naked and Afraid. My editor told me to write about her, so I rolled my eyes and called her.
I hate reality TV, especially shows featuring people who have nothing to offer but who make lots of money. Wooki comes to mind. Or is it Snooki? Can’t stand her.
I owe Laura an apology. I didn’t know the show’s premise, about spending three weeks in conditions and places that would knock Rambo into the fetal position.
I didn’t know she was chosen because of her survivalist skills, with mental toughness, resourcefulness and humor, all rolled into one, all translating so well on prime-time TV.
Zerra went to Panama, then appeared on a second show, in the Peruvian Amazon. No water, no food, no clothing, no shelter, lots of bugs, lots of crocs, lots of snakes, plenty of harsh sun, high temperatures, low temperatures, rain, rain and more rain.
Then came Day 2.
And no monetary reward at the end. Nothing. You leave with something else, something I suspect only Zerra and others like her can understand.
“I’m addicted to adventure,” said Zerra, while kicking around Florida with her Australian boyfriend. “I love new things happening and pushing my edges and pushing my limits of what I thought I could do. That’s when growth happens.”
She’s 5-foot-4, but as tall as a mountain. She grew up in Western Massachusetts, in a normal family. Her father is an electrical engineer. Her mother is a pre-school teacher. One of her sisters is a doctor, the other an attorney.
Laura, the youngest? The girl who scooped up roadkill – raccoons and beavers – as a teenager and learned how to use their brains to create an emulsified solution to tan them?
Who hunts with a bow and eats her prey? Who skinned a road-killed deer in the center of her school, Connecticut College, hung it on a tree, then told a security guard that nothing in the rulebook forbade her from doing it?
Who’s hitchhiked through every nook and cranny in the world? Who hopped freight trains in Mexico and didn’t sleep because sinister eyes, hobos, on the other side of the car were watching her? Who ran into the woods after a trucker gave her a ride, then turned down a lonely dirt road for no reason? Who is going to Australia at the end of next month with her boyfriend, who catches kangaroos with his bare hands (YouTube Andrew Uclesk)? Who boiled animal skulls as a taxidermist to support herself? Who shoed and trained horses to support herself? Who has no money and likes it that way?
‘She has no rules’
Define her occupation any way you want. Her family thought it was all just a phase. But Zerra is now 28.
“We’re beyond that,” said her father, Steve Zerra. “We have been dealing with this for years. We’ve just learned to accept it. She has no rules.”
Said Zerra, “They think I’m completely crazy. But at this point, there’s nothing I can do that will really shock them.”
And that includes appearing on Naked and Afraid, whose creators found her on Facebook and received a “Yes” to their invitation before you could say, “venomous caterpillar.”
That’s what stung Zerra shortly after she arrived on a Panamanian island last year. She said it felt like an electric shock and left her hand numb.
A rerun of the episode, originally aired last summer, ran last weekend, followed by Zerra’s adventure in the Amazon rainforest.
A crew of three filmed during the day and left at night; Zerra isn’t sure where they went. She had a phone in case of an emergency. She said she never came close to using it.
In Panama, she took her clothes off in front of a stranger, Clint Jivoin of Indiana, got stung by that caterpillar, then accidentally cut her knuckle with a machete, a wound that hounded her for the entire 21 days.
Then there were the mosquitoes. Zerra’s feet inflated like freshly pumped basketballs. She called her toes “little sausages” in the episode, and that’s exactly what they looked like. She and Jivoin couldn’t start a fire at first. It rained for five straight days.
“There was never a point where I was panicked,” Zerra said. “Animals and creatures that go bump in the night don’t scare me. Hunger was more of an issue. And dealing with the cold, soaking wet with no clothing.”
The show’s highlight, Zerra’s happiest moment, came when she swam through angry surf to check the homemade lobster trap she had created, built with the two bamboo baskets she pieced together.
She found two lobsters inside, enough meat to hold her and Jivoin for a while, cooking them on a fire that took days to ignite with intense friction.
Later they saw a caiman within a few feet of them. They built a raft and paddled 2 miles into open sea, to the extrication point, where a speedboat picked them up.
Zerra lost 17 pounds. She lost 12 in the Amazon, where she went after several participants, including a veteran of the Afghanistan war, quit before the three-week window had ended.
“Of course I was going to be out there again,” Zerra said. “I knew that as soon as they asked me.”
The rainforest proved more difficult than Panama. Temperatures were nearly 100 degrees during the day, below 50 at night. The mosquitoes choked their breathing, moving in and out of their mouths as they inhaled and exhaled. Their shelter, made of branches and leaves, kept the rain out, but hypothermia was never far away.
They killed an eel for food.
Before her partner, E.J. Snyder of North Carolina, killed the eel with a piece of wood, he and Zerra had an awkward moment.
E.J. showed no respect for the eel. Zerra told him she was offended by that.
“When you’re starving and about to get food, the sense of gratitude was so overwhelming,” Zerra explained this week. “It’s more than me just wanting to slaughter something. I appreciate this so much. I wish I felt that appreciation every single meal. When you’re starving, you’re touching on something really powerful.”
This time a chopper met them at the extrication point, after a 2-mile hike and a climb up a steep hill made of rock.
Wave of attention
Since her return, Zerra’s intelligence, guts, spirit, survival techniques and swimsuit-model good looks have earned her lots of attention.
She said magazines have called to photograph her nude. Artists have called to paint her nude. Nudist colonies have called, asking her to speak at their conventions.
“People think I’m going to be frolicking around naked now,” Zerra said.
Also, people want to hire her to guide them through their own versions of roughing it.
She’s turned down everything, fearful of disappointing people, of getting locked into some type of schedule.
“They make plans six months out for back-country trips, and I can’t,” Zerra said. “I don’t know what six months from now will bring.”
And the money she’s forfeiting? “Not important to me,” Zerra said. “Definitely not.”
She’s back in the States, moving across the country with her boyfriend, driving in a truck with 160,000 miles on it, zigzagging from Florida to Oklahoma to points north, making her way back to New Hampshire.
She’s lived here for four years, discovering Belmont while hitchhiking from Vermont to visit a friend on Cape Cod. She calls it home, a term certainly used loosely in this case.
“It’s the spirit of the people in New Hampshire,” she said. “People go out and do stuff.”
But nothing like what Zerra does. And she’s not done.
Remember, Naked and Afraid is still on the air.
“If they asked me a third time,” Zerra said, “there would be no hesitation.”