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.

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