Croc-Catching, Snake-Wrestling Brady Barr Talks About His Work

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Photo of Brady Barr with giant salamander courtesy National Geographic Channel

Brady Barr, we once reported in National Geographic News, is a man whose work bites.

“I’ve had so many bumps, bruises, and broken bones, it’s sometimes hard to get out of bed in the morning,” he told me earlier today.

He’s also been bitten a few times – including last year, when a 12-foot-long python plunged its fangs into his leg.

Herpetologist Brady Barr (46) is the star of National Geographic Channel’s “Dangerous Encounters.” Four episodes included encounters with sharks, giant salamanders, crocs, and 22-foot-long snakes.

Sometimes known as “Gator Doc,” he’s being doing this work for National Geographic for 21 years and has appeared in more than 70 National Geographic films, including in the earlier series “Reptile Wild With Dr. Brady Barr.”

I asked Barr what he thought was the most dangerous moment in a career of wrestling crocs and catching giant snakes by the tail.

“It’s a really tough question,” he said, “because it always seems like the most recent experience was the most dangerous.”

 

 

Apparently there have been many such moments, including when a hippo, reputably the most dangerous animal in Africa because it kills more people than any other animal, chased Barr. “I was out in the open, no trees, and the hippo was bearing down on me. I thought I was going to be killed. It’s a miracle it didn’t get me,” he recalled.

Barr is very aware that the animals he captures for measuring and for extracting blood and tissue samples are wild and dangerous, and that many people, including close friends of his, have been killed by them. “I always have that in my mind. I am really scared and really careful.”

Fear is what keeps him safe, Barr believes. “I have worked with crocs for twenty years and I’m comfortable with them. But I am scared every time I work with them because I know what they are capable of doing. I know that if I make a mistake I will die.”

This conversation makes him remember the time when he eased out of a boat into the water to approach a large Nile crocodile. He found himself sinking waist-deep into mud, which trapped him. “The crocodile exploded toward me. I braced for attack. Everyone in the boat was screaming. I thought this was it. But instead of attacking me it went right by me. It happened so quickly that members of my [film] crew didn’t really know it happened.”

It’s little missteps like this that can lead to catastrophe in Barr’s line of work.

Barr uses lots of gadgets in his films. In one episode he puttered around a swamp inside an artificial hippo, so he could sidle up close to the real wildlife. He’s adapted a video camera with lasers so he can calculate the size of animals from a distance, by measuring between two fixed points of light. He’s tinkered with everyday devices to measure the bite force of crocs and the strike speed of snakes.

“I’ve used a lot of remote-controlled cars to look inside burrows for snakes and toy boats to get closer to animals in the water. I’m a big kid. I love the toys. What really appeals to me about my work is trying to find new applications for technology in the field,” he said.

One thing I’ve always wondered about Barr’s television work, I told him, was how much of it was entertainment and how much of it was science. I get that there has to be drama to make it interesting for millions of people to watch, but what’s really in it for the benefit of the animals other than mobilizing awareness of their existence and circumstances?

 

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Photo of Brady Barr with Kruger National Park crocodile courtesy National Geographic Channel

“Only a few minutes ago I logged on to my laptop to see where the crocs are,” he responded. He was referring to an episode in the current series of “Dangerous Encounters” in which he helped South African scientists tag crocodiles with satellite-tracking transmitters in the Kruger National Park. The work has real merit because these particular crocs are threatened by a dam downstream that has flooded their ancient habitat.

Barr continues to take an interest in their fate and monitors their progress regularly.

“I am first and foremost an educator,” he continues. “Then I am a scientist. And only then am I working on television. I do not put myself in harm’s way only for television. It has to be about science. It has to find answers to questions.”

The most frustrating part of his work, Barr adds, is that because of his television duties he is a lot more involved in starting science projects but does not have the time to do the follow-up and publish any findings. For this reason he works with scientists who can continue with the work and make a contribution to science.

“I view what we do as pilot projects which we turn over to other scientists. In many cases these scientists might not have received funding for their projects had it not been for National Geographic. Satellite transmission, for example, is very expensive, and our work tagging the crocs in Kruger paid for that. Everyone benefits from this.”

In the four new episodes of “Dangerous Encounters” airing on the National Geographic Channel this month, Barr encounters some animals not ordinarily associated with the work of a herpetologist.

He spoke excitedly about the episode in which he encounters the elusive sixgill shark. Little science exists about these sharks. In the episode, Barr uses a mini-submarine to visit them in their habitat 1,700 feet below the surface of the ocean.

“They live in the abyss. They’re the third largest predatory shark. It was a privilege to spend five hours with them on the ocean floor. More people have been on the summit of Everest than have been on the ocean floor,” he said.

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Photo of Brady Barr with giant salamander courtesy National Geographic Channel

Then there is the episode in which Barr goes in quest of the world’s largest salamanders, some of which can grow up to five feet long and weigh 80 pounds.

While on this expedition, Barr was bitten underwater – by a giant snapping turtle.

“I don’t know how much longer I can keep on doing this work,” he told me. “The snakes and crocs seem to be getting younger and faster.”

Changing Planet

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn