For TV Reptile Expert Brady Barr, Work Bites

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 7, 2003
Wrestling a giant python, riding in a truckload of deadly cobras, suffering a bite from an Indian gharial—it's all in a day's work for Brady Barr, reptile expert and host of the National Geographic Channel's Reptile Wild television series.

What will he do for an encore? En route to more reptile adventures in Africa, Barr spent some time with National Geographic News to answer that question and talk about his career and love for reptiles.

Why do you think reptiles elicit strong reactions from people—that combination of terror and fascination?

That's especially true for snakes. Nobody sits on the fence when it comes to snakes. The snake shows on National Geographic Television always seem to draw more viewers than other animal films. I think one big reason why is that the majority of people have a realistic possibility of coming across a snake. Most of us aren't going to see a crocodile or an alligator in the wild. Everyone has a snake story, no matter who you talk to. That may be where the fascination comes from. Also from the fact that such a relatively small animal can kill you. Even though the average person's chances of coming across a dangerous snake are incredibly small, people really don't want to know that. [A] part of them wants to have that dangerous encounter.

You said that everyone has a snake story, and it seems that everyone also has a giant snake story. What have you learned about the world's biggest snakes?

In so many of the places we go there are stories of giant snakes. But there has never been a documented snake over 30 feet [9 meters] long. In fact, there are some very long-standing rewards offered for the capture of a 30-foot [9-meter] snake. Yet nobody can do it. Believe me, lots of people are looking. Big snakes are hard to find, and there aren't a lot of them out there. But don't get me wrong: There are some real giants. In India, some kids told me there was giant snake eating their goats. That snake turned out to be 16 feet [5 meters] long and it darn near killed me and another guy who tried to capture it. It immediately wrapped us up and started throwing us around like rag dolls.

The big snakes out there are impressive. They're a novelty. Not many people see them, and when you do it's hard to believe that they could get so large. I'm sure that there are a handful out there approaching 30 feet [9 meters]. I'd love to see one. That's one of my dreams.

What have been your most dangerous reptile encounters?

Snakes are stressful and working with them is a mental grind. No matter how careful you are, no matter how many precautions you take, every time you interact with them it's a role of the dice. They strike so quickly that you're bitten before you know what's happened. With crocs, you can sometimes afford to make a mistake. But with some of the snakes, you make one mistake and you're history. If you work with venomous snakes, no matter who you are, at some point your number is going to come up. I'm really, really careful when it comes to snakes. Many times we're in dangerous situations because we work in remote areas where there is no chance of getting to medical attention. In any case, we're often dealing with new species where there is no antivenom to be had.

Anytime you receive a bite from a venomous snake, it's a very dangerous encounter. In Florida, more people are probably bitten by pigmy rattlesnakes than by any other poisonous snake. They're cute. So people pick them up and don't realize that they're pit vipers. On one trip someone I was with was bitten by a pygmy. Before I could even finish a sentence, he was unconscious. He had an allergic reaction to the venom, which is very common and very dangerous. That's a reason why we rarely have antivenom in the field, it can be as dangerous as the venom itself—because you can have an allergic reaction and die. Your best bet if bitten in the field is to get to a hospital.

What's the status of reptiles around the world?

Well it depends, of course, on the area of the planet. But generally they are under siege for many reasons. Large carnivores or venomous snakes are often killed out of fear or ignorance. People like to kill dangerous animals.

In parts of the world, the illegal pet trade and medicine trades are huge and can have widespread effects. For example, in places like Maryland, you don't see a lot of box turtles anymore. Many have been captured to be sold as illegal pets or used in Asian medicine. Lots of the North American turtles are being captured and sent to Asia for medicinal purposes. The Asian trade in reptiles is a big problem. All across Asia I see people collecting reptiles for food and medicine.

Also, of course, increasing human populations and habitat loss are affecting all animals. Sea turtles can't find nesting beaches anymore because they all have condos on them. Snakes need a lot of land, and they don't have it. There are many problems that reptiles face. They are hit from all directions. And their plight is compounded because they tend to grow and reproduce slowly.

How important are reptiles to the Earth's ecosystems? What we can learn from them?

Lots of reptiles, like crocodiles, are what we call "keystone species." That's analogous to a keystone in a building—remove it and the building collapses. If you remove these species, the ecosystem collapses. Crocs are just that important. Lots of snakes are the same way. They regulate the populations of other animals and also provide an important food source. Crocs regulate the populations of just about anything that walks, swims, or flies. But as babies, they are just the size of a candy bar and everything eats them—birds, fish, and other animals. Also, crocodiles actually modify their environment. Everglades crocs, while nesting, create land for other animals to live on. In the dry season they dig "gator holes" which are just about the only aquatic habitat left during the dry season. That habitat is crucial for lots of animals. There are lot of reptiles that are keystone species.

One of your goals is to become the first person to capture and study all 23 crocodilian species on Earth. With the help of your fellow scientists, you're getting close. Why this quest?

For the past year it's really been my focus. Nobody has ever captured all 23 crocodilian species in the wild. I need seven more, and over the course of the next season I should get all seven. I refuse to capture an animal for television. There has to be a scientific reason for such an undertaking. We always work with local scientists on research. Some of these crocs are critically endangered—like the Chinese alligator. Maybe only 100 individuals remain. It's so rare that we wanted to get a DNA sample to be sure that it's not lost forever. Several species are also so rare that almost nothing is known about them. So any data you can gather is vital. With other species, we might document research that people have already done—but I'm not just out there trying to capture for the sake of capture.

How did you become interested in Reptiles?

Well, I was a little kid who was into dinosaurs and all kinds of reptiles—like a lot of kids. I grew up in Indiana where there weren't many reptiles. But what we had was a really good children's zoo in Indianapolis. I'm really a product of America's zoos and museums. I followed my passion and brought home lizards, snakes, turtles—whatever I could catch. I [eventually] became a biology teacher. But then went back for a masters and Ph.D. at the University of Miami where I started looking at the diet of gators in the Everglades. After working with gators, I became obsessed with learning as much as I could about them. The more I found out, the more I realized how little the scientific community knows about crocodilian species—and they are some of the largest carnivores on the planet.

What kind of reptile adventures will people see Sunday nights on Reptile Wild?

We travel to encounter lots of interesting reptiles and learn about the scientists who are studying them. Some pretty incredible things happened as well. In a span of 10 days I was bitten in the face by a snake, our plane crashed in the middle of the Brazilian wetlands, and I was pulled overboard by a crocodile. They captured it all on film—you get to see me get injured a lot this season.

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