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‘Naked’ native faces ultimate test of survival

Date: 8/2/2013

By Carley Dangona

AGAWAM – Laura Zerra, an Agawam native, managed to survive 21 days on Cayo Agua Island in Panama on sea urchin, caiman and lobster; naked and in the company of a stranger. She was featured on “Naked and Afraid,” the Discovery Channel’s extreme survival program that tests the endurance of even the savviest outdoor enthusiasts.

For each episode of the show, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m., a man and a woman that have never met before are dropped off in a remote location, naked, with only one personal item each to exist for 21 days in the wilderness.

The Discovery Channel contacted survival schools in search of willing participants. Having traveled extensively, Zerra’s name kept appearing, so the network extended an invitation, according to Zerra.

A skeleton TV crew is on hand to film the show; the contestants are left alone at night with hand-held cameras and a satellite phone for dire emergencies. There is no prize offered for the journey.

“You still feel alone in the situation. It was a surreal feeling; like being in a zoo,” Zerra said.

“There was never a question of no in my mind,” Zerra said upon receiving the invitation from the Discovery Channel. “I thought [my participation] would provide a totally unique experience,” she added.

Zerra was paired with fellow primitive survivalist Clint Jivoin for the fourth episode of the show that originally aired July 14. She brought a machete; he brought goggles. They were to build shelter, find food and water and construct a raft to reach the extraction point at the end of the journey.

The waters surrounding the beach habitat – and that the two had to cross for rescue – were swarming with more than 30 species of shark, including bull and tiger sharks.

Directly behind the beach was swampland inhabited by caiman, pit vipers and boa constrictors. The lack of clothing meant no protection from insects or the elements. Without shoes, hiking became difficult due to the lack of traction.

While most would consider a stay on a tropical island an ideal getaway, the duo quickly discovered it was actually hell on earth. Within hours of the first day Zerra cut her finger to the bone while splitting a coconut. She called the injury “a rookie mistake that was a huge challenge [to deal with].”

Zerra told Reminder Publications, “It was an amazing experience. It wasn’t always pretty, but I still loved it.”

Due to days of consecutive torrential downpours, creating a fire was delayed, exposing the pair to the wrath of sand flies that left no area of skin unbitten. Zerra’s feet swelled like sausages in reaction to the bites. She was unable to relieve the pain and swelling until a fire was started for her to steam medicinal leaves.

Zerra describe the ordeal. “It was like trying to start a fire from a sponge,” she said.

“Hypothermia became a very real threat,” she admitted. “It was very wet and cold during the day – you just didn’t want to leave the shelter.”

Zerra said that she was also stung on her other hand by a venomous caterpillar during construction of the shelter. As a result, her lymph nodes swelled greatly. Zerra noted the swelling and cut on her finger did not heal until weeks after she returned from Panama.

Jivoin faired better than his partner, for the most part, but that is because he took fewer chances than Zerra. He left her in the middle of the water because he was afraid of what he couldn’t see. At one point he refused to eat a sea urchin despite it being the only meal to be had. Overall, he seemed more concerned with conserving energy.

“He wasn’t willing to take the risks I was,” Zerra said. She explained that her counterpart preferred to “play the safe card” and “conserve calories.”

It was Zerra that found a clean source of water, built a trap that caught two lobsters, speared the urchin and caught a juvenile caiman for them to share.

She credited Jivoin for getting them through the stint with his sense of humor.

Both suffered weight loss. Zerra lost 17 pounds and Jivoin lost 40. Zerra said that she never felt hungry, but would suddenly have to lie down to rest.

“Food was not guaranteed,” Zerra explained. She added that much of their calories were spent regulating their body temperatures. A cotton sheet to cover them while sleeping would have provided much needed comfort, she said.

Zerra has loved the outdoors since childhood and has served as a survival instructor since the age of 10.

“For me, it’s more about being comfortable about situations where most people aren’t. I love to be outdoors, it makes me feel human,” she said.

Zerra was born and raised in Feeding Hills until she moved away in 2003. Her dad would take Zerra and her two older sisters hiking on a regular basis. Once she was old enough, Zerra would venture into the wilderness alone.

Some of her earliest outdoor memories include climbing into a coyote den and sneaking up on a heron, only to be surprised by the sight of a bobcat that was hunting the bird.

“I’m so addicted to having these crazy adventures,” Zerra admitted.

Zerra said she always knew she would work in the outdoors because of the love and passion she has for the wilderness.

Her website outlined her experiences, “Zerra began spending summers working at Great Hollow Wilderness School in Connecticut teaching primitive survival and in 2004 obtained an internship with the Buffalo Field Campaign in West Yellowstone, Mont. There she documented the slaughter of the last wild herd of bison and continued to expand her knowledge in primitive survival in the harsh West Yellowstone winter. In 2007, she moved to Vermont to teach at Roots School, focusing on brain tanning [processing leather] and meat processing.”

“During the winter of 2008, Zerra bought a one-way ticket to Mexico. She hitchhiked and hopped freight trains south to Oaxaca, then up the west coast of the country, studying jungle survival. When not teaching survival, she worked seasonally at various jobs including mushroom hunting in Oregon, tree planting for the Forest Service in Idaho and leading horse treks at the Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm.”

It concluded, “In 2010, Zerra spent a year apprenticing as a farrier with Sharp Shoeing in Belmont, N.H. She worked nights processing wild game at the Baker River Deer Farm and had a brief stint on an offshore crab boat out of New Bedford. In 2011, Zerra moved to Colorado to further her knowledge of animal preservation at A Lasting Memory Taxidermy.”

She now lives in Belmont, N.H. and owns Zerra Expeditions, a company that offers survival training and expedition leadership.

For more information about Zerra, visit or

To learn more about the show and to watch past episodes, go to