Pocatello couple braves jungle in reality TV show ‘Naked and Afraid’
Crews didn’t film the most dramatic storyline that transpired in the South American jungle where Pocatello couple Star Torres and Tony Wheeler competed in Discovery Channel’s reality TV series “Naked and Afraid.”
A young boy, who’d been bitten by a venomous Labaria pit viper, was bleeding from the gums, and members of his remote, primitive village in Guyana ran to the show’s medic, Beth Hammons.
Her producer authorized her to treat the child with fluids and medicine, before she helped make arrangements to send him to the nearest town to be airlifted to a hospital in Brazil for life-saving treatment, according to a Discovery Channel statement.
The next morning, Torres and Wheeler were turned loose in that same Guyana jungle — in an area even the villagers protested was especially dangerous and should be avoided. And they were prohibited from wearing any clothing or bringing any supplies into the harsh environment, where they were tasked with surviving for three weeks.
Torres, 32, and Wheeler, 47, have been asked not to give any spoilers regarding how long they endured their tropical test, or about the creative approaches they employed to trap food and purify water. Those answers, however, will be forthcoming at 6 p.m. May 5, when their episode of “Naked and Afraid” will air on Discovery.
The show typically pairs two strangers in coed teams. Torres and Wheeler were the first couple ever allowed to brave the wild together.
“They wanted us to go on separately; Tony put his foot down,” Torres said.
The producers ultimately agreed to try something new. In the press release issued prior to the current season, Discovery begged a question about the Pocatello couple: “Will the challenge strengthen their relationship or break them apart?”
They moved to Pocatello in January from Raleigh, North Carolina, so Torres could take a job at the city’s expanding FBI data center. Wheeler is still searching for work in information technology or welding. They also still own an automotive mechanic shop in Raleigh.
Both Torres and Wheeler, who have been dating for four years, are experienced at wilderness survival, as well as living together in cramped quarters.
They met in Afghanistan while serving in the military. For a year, they made a home together of a shipping container at Bagram Airfield. Torres believes she was further prepared for the experience by the training she received as a child, when she was part of the Young Marines, and during a brief period of time in which she was homeless.
Nonetheless, life in the jungle was harder than she expected.
“Everything about the environment was difficult,” Torres said. “We tried to build a shelter with razor-sharp palms, and they were cutting my hands.”
They were also eaten alive by mosquitoes and got bad sunburns, without any clothing for protection.
“It’s a lot more difficult being out there without clothes on,” Wheeler said. “In the military or anything else, you have all of your equipment. There, you’re totally exposed to the weather.”
Wheeler was raised on a small farm in Georgia, where he said he learned the value of hard work. He followed his father’s footsteps by joining U.S. Army Special Forces.
They’ve long recorded every episode of “Naked and Afraid,” critiquing the actions of the competitors against how they would personally handle survival situations. From Afghanistan, they interviewed with the program’s staff via Skype, answering questions about their survival skills. They were later flown to Los Angeles for physicals and psychological interviews.
For several months, they studied suitable traps, edible plants and potential hazards associated with several different environments, not knowing where they would be sent. In the South American jungle, for example, some of the trees have toxic sap. They were alerted they would be headed to Guyana a week in advance.
The jungle provided them with a diet of fish, worms, insects and palm hearts — and miniature pigs were a harder-to-trap delicacy. The film crew was usually hidden behind a blind, and Torres and Wheeler paid them little mind, though it was nice to know a medivac flight was available, if needed.
“A lot of people want to know if the show is fake. There is nothing fake about it,” Wheeler said. “You go out there and you’re on your own. They’ll do everything they can to keep you alive, but they’re not going to help you in your challenge.”
Wheeler would like to see more couples take on the challenge, but he warns couples should have “no chinks in the armor,” as the stress both highlights a couple’s strengths and exacerbates weaknesses.
They plan to invite friends over for a Cinco de Mayo party, with tacos and margaritas, to watch the episode.
“Naked and Afraid” offers no prizes or cash rewards, but both Torres and Wheeler agree the bragging rights are well worth the discomfort.
For the time being, they’re enjoying backpacking around Scout Mountain and exploring the outdoor life in the Pocatello area.
“I don’t think anybody ever regrets (being on the show),” Wheeler said. “You’re a lot more thankful for the little things — even creature comforts — and then when you get to go hiking with clothes on, it’s best thing ever.”