Wil Marlow finds an animal expert who is afraid of rats
It may come as a surprise that Nigel Marven despises rats. The wildlife adventurer has made his name in television for his unashamedly enthusiastic, seemingly unconditional, love of animals.
But, he says, those rodent pests are the one animal that will draw out some disgust in him.
"If I saw a rat run across the floor, I wouldn't eat any of the food in the building," he says with a grimace. "I'm not phobic about rats, I'm not phobic about much - snakes I love, spiders I love, any animal I love.
"But I genuinely wouldn't like to have a rat in my house, a wild rat at least. When it comes to animals, though, I'm not really very scared of any of them."
He's not kidding. This is a man who has allowed a tarantula to walk across his face, stuck his head between the open jaws of an alligator, and seen a colleague have a huge chunk of his calf bitten off by a bull shark.
But he was so undeterred by the latter experience that he went on to swim with great white sharks - outside the diving cage of course.
"They can obviously bite you in half with a single bite," says the 45-year-old matter-of-factly. "But they don't because, while they might be a top predator, they can't just attack anything.
"Great whites have actually got sensitive eyes and worry about being injured. They always check you out before attacking."
That said, now he's a little older, and has a young son, Theo, from a relationship before his current marriage to TV presenter Gill Impey. As a result, Nigel says he does consider such antics more carefully these days.
"I don't think I'd do the stuff I did with sharks in the past," he admits. "You try to take calculated risks but all these animals are unpredictable. When my colleague got his calf bitten it was very scary to see what sharks actually can do."
But still Nigel has a good word to say about that bull shark.
"It wasn't attacking," he insists. "Sharks haven't got tentacles or hands, so they're like babies - they put everything in their mouths.
"But if your leg gets in there it really spoils your weekend, so you want to be careful with that."
Nigel's insurers breathed a sigh of relief when they heard about his latest series. Prehistoric Park is ITV's £6 million answer to the BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs, a fantasy natural history adventure that sees Nigel jumping back in time to retrieve dinosaurs for a fictional wildlife park.
"My life insurance people were very pleased with this one," nods Nigel.
"They have seen shows in the past and said to me after that they didn't realise they were insuring me to put my head inside an alligator's mouth," he laughs. "My premiums went right up."
So after years of working (and sometimes wrestling) with various animals on an array of wildlife shows for pretty much every channel from the BBC to Animal Planet, Nigel is now making time-travelling dinosaur hunting his speciality.
He's already ventured into pre-history with the BBC shows Chased By Dinosaurs and Sea Monsters, and is now doing the same for ITV in this entertaining family series.
Of course, in working with animals that have been extinct for millions of years, Nigel faced a new challenge in bringing his interactions with them to the small screen - acting.
"I've done a bit of it before in Sea Monsters," shrugs Nigel. "But I wasn't even in a school play, I was too shy. But I got trained very well for this. We would rehearse with a tennis ball on the end of a stick and that would be the T-Rex's eye.
"I think I did all right because in my day job I work with animals like monitor lizards, and I have wrestled with alligators, so I can imagine what it's like to be around dinosaurs. You just scale up your emotions."
Nigel first fell in love with animals at the age of eight when, encouraged by his mother, he fished his first great-crested newt from a fish pond in north London. As he grew up the house turned into a veritable menagerie that featured a boa constrictor and even a baby crocodile.
After gaining a degree in botany and zoology at Bristol University, he landed a job at the BBC's Natural History Unit, where he came to the attention of David Attenborough who enlisted him as a researcher.
In 1999 he made his own debut in front of the camera, presenting the ITV nature series Giants. Where David Attenborough sat back and observed, and Steve Irwin got in there and wrestled, Nigel's presenting style landed somewhere between the two - a hands-on approach backed up with an almost e ncyclopaedic knowledge of animals.
He's a hit in the US as well - thanks to shows on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet - where he regularly appears on talk shows. He once upstaged fellow guest Pierce Brosnan on America's Tonight Show by rolling up his trouser leg to reveal a host of leeches sucking on his calf.
Due to his success he's away from his sprawling estate in Bristol - where he lives with Gill and an array of animals including seven giant tortoises, a flock of baby turkeys, a great horned owl, geckos, lizards, snakes, "and a cat," laughs Nigel - for 300 days a year.
"I have it in my contract that my wife can come with me," he says. "Otherwise I'd never see her at all."
Nigel's hoping to make more of Prehistoric Park, but in the meantime will be risking head and limb once more to make wildlife shows to be shown around the world. His love of getting up close and personal with all nature has to offer shows no signs of diminishing.
"I just love animals," he says. "I love seeing animals up close and I'm not doing anything that I consider dangerous. I'm taking calculated risks, and I've never been attacked. Yet."
* Prehistoric Park is on ITV1 from tomorrow.