We've all heard the werewolf legends: When the moon grows full, so goes the legend, a man is transformed into a beast - he grows hair, and acquires awesome powers.
But what if it weren't the light of the moon but rather genetics that gave the werewolves of legend all that hair? The powers, though, remain the stuff of myth.
For Danny Ramos Gomez, 23, genetics is the reason people call him "the wolf man." Danny has a condition called hypertrichosis, which causes his body to produce an abnormal amount of hair everywhere.
Danny's 26-year-old brother, Larry, also has hypertrichosis. The brothers are known for their daredevil feats in a Mexican circus.
But when they were little, it was different. They were both part of a freak show, exhibited like animals and called "wolf children."
"They kept them locked up, and they wouldn't let them come out until show time," said Betty Tampa, a circus performer partner of Danny's. "They were locked up inside a trailer. They couldn't even go near the curtains." Danny said he was too young to remember how it felt being in the circus. But Mundo Campo, whose father owns the circus in which Danny now performs, will never forget.
"So [the brothers] were in a cage inside, and they were sitting in two chairs," Campo said. "I told my father about it and said, 'You know, the saddest part of this is they're never going to be out of this cage, right? They are going to be in the cages forever.'" Campo convinced his father to hire the boys and train them in the circus arts.
"We began working as magicians. Then I started on the trampoline, and from the trampoline I went to become a trapeze artist," Danny said. "Someday I want to work in the large circuses in order to be more popular, not with the public but with the circus people."
Except for his excessive hair, Danny is by all other accounts normal. But there are still people who view him as a freak.
"They perceive him as a wolf - actually, as a person from another world, and they insult him," Tampa said. "They say things to him and they howl at him."
Danny said some people do treat him badly. "I don't take it seriously. I know who I am inside."
Danny is perhaps the least affected by the way he looks, and he said he's just a normal guy. "I play football, I play video games," he said. "I go to the movies. I am the same as everybody, except what you see on my face, that's all."
One of his closest friends is Robbie, Campo's 5-year-old son, who accepts him inside and out.
Robbie remembers the first time he saw Danny. "I thought something was gonna happen," he said, "because first I believed in monsters and wolves and everything."
Children are Danny's greatest fans. During his performances, he mesmerizes them with his skills as much as his appearance.
One of his youngest spectators, a little girl named Gaby, said Danny deserves to be respected - that he's not an animal, he's a human. "They shouldn't call him[wolf man] because then they stop treating him like a person," she said.
Geneticist Dr. Luis Figuera, an expert in hypertrichosis at Mexico's Center for Biomedical Research, has studied people with the condition for more than 20 years.
"Hypertrichosis has no connection with the moon or any connection with wolves," Figuera said.
Figuera's research on why his patients can't stop growing hair could one day help those who can't grow it at all.
"If we could identify the factor, or the reason why hair grows beyond what is expected, it would be another step into understanding and perhaps help solve the problem of baldness," Figuera said.
Detecting the Gene
Over the years, Figuera has collected blood samples from Danny's family to map the hypertrichosis gene.
"This kind of hypertrichosis as shown in this family is very rare," Figuera said. "As far as I know, there are two or three families in the world [with it].
"We believe that this is a gene which was functioning a long time ago in the evolution of man when primates were becoming men," he said.
According to Figuera, as humans evolved, certain genes that were unnecessary for survival mutated and were turned off. Figuera believes that, in Danny's family, the gene for hypertrichosis was somehow accidently turned back on.
"In his family, there are at least five generations [of] people with this problem," he said. "I would say that there are about 20 affected persons in the family, including men and women." Danny's grandmother does not have hypertrichosis, but she carries the mutation and passed it on to her children.
Genetic research has linked the condition to the X chromosome. That means if a woman carries the gene, she has a 50-50 chance of passing it on to her offspring, whether she has a boy or a girl. If a male carries the gene, 100 percent of his female children will be affected, but none of his sons.
Case in point: Danny's brother, Larry, who also has hypertrichosis, has a son who was born without the mutated gene. However, Danny passed the gene on to his 6-year-old daughter, Daniela.
Danny's cousins, Lili and Carla, his sister, Jamie, and his daughter, Daniela, all have varying degrees of hypertrichosis.
Lili said people just stare at her. But she said she still doesn't do anything to remove the hair. "I have gotten used to being this way."
Carla said she never wished for a face and body with less hair. "This is how I was born and how I am going to be."
But Jamie removes her excess hair constantly - she waxes every three days. She is pregnant and said if her baby is born with this condition, she'd "love him the same."
Danny's Love Life
As for Danny, he is loved by his 21-year-old girlfriend, Lucy, and they've been together for three years.
"Well, people always say we are different, and a girl like me ... deserves something better," Lucy said. Despite what people say, Lucy insisted she doesn't care, adding, "I love him." Lucy said she's most attracted to Danny's eyes. "They show great tenderness." Lucy has never seen Danny's face without all the hair, and she said she doesn't want to. "I know him this way," she said. " I love him, and perhaps if he had no hair, well, then he would not be the same."
For now, there is no treatment for the condition of hypertrichosis - only for its most obvious symptom, the hair.
Tuesday, September 16 2014 7:31 AM EDT2014-09-16 11:31:48 GMT
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