Bonding with Leeches

31st August 2008, Sunday

I was pond-dipping with a group of Brownies at RSPB Dungeness the other day, when they began to catch large Medicinal Leeches (Hirudo medicinalis), attracted by our movements into the shallows, where they hoped to meet a suitable host.
As the leeches suckered, stretched and shrank their way round and round the collecting trays, the girls were fascinated and could barely be dissuaded from touching them.
This struck me as an odd contrast to their revulsion at finding spiders in the bird-watching hides, especially since the spiders were just quietly sitting there, indifferent to the presence of the children, whereas the leeches were actively seeking to suck their blood.

I could think of two ways to explain these contrasting attitudes.
Firstly, they had long previous experience of spiders, inheriting a negative predisposition towards them from other people, whereas they had no learnt attitudes towards leeches. (It has been pointed out to me that spiders have been very unfairly portrayed in horror films, but I have also discovered discriminatory representation of leeches – see below.)
Secondly, I’ve often noticed that children respond warmly towards those animals which take an interest in them, such as dogs, cats, horses, squirrels and swans. (Cattle, less so). Most creatures in the pond had been neutral towards or fearful of the Brownies, but the leeches had a positive attitude, which was being reciprocated.

While reading up on the historic and current medical applications of Leeches, I had come across the following passage:

“Frequently, the more anxiously the patient focuses on the leech preparing to bite, the higher the pain perception. The leech therapist should keep this in mind during the preparation phase and during treatment. A diversion can sometimes be helpful. It is also helpful to allow the patient to “get to know” “his” or “her” leech and to reassure the patient by handling the leech in a confident manner.”

The idea of bonding with a leech seemed bizarre to me, since I have to confess that they still give me the horrors. However, I could see some of these children might have no problem with it.