Brady Barr holds a python for the kids to see at the National Geographic Explorers Camp.
National Geographic Explorers Camp
Playing with crocodiles, alligators, and monster pythons—a typical day for Dr. Brady Barr, world-famous reptile expert, and the lucky few of us who were at the National Geographic Explorers Camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., on June 13.
I probably learned more there in one day than I would in a week of school.
This summer, National Geographic and the Scottsdale Fairmont are putting on a camp for kids ages 5 to 12 who stay at the resort. The camp runs from late May to early September. (For more information on plans for the 2010 camp, go to www.fairmont.com/EN_FA/Property/SCP/Vanity/ExplorersCamp.) The camp is open from Tuesday to Sunday each week, but the best day to go is Saturday, when they may have a guest explorer from National Geographic. Like the day I went.
Meet the Reptiles
In the morning, outside on the lawn, Brady Barr introduced us to some of the reptiles he has worked with. We first met an 18-foot reticulated python, by far the largest snake I had ever seen—or touched. Surprisingly, the python wasn't slimy, just very smooth. Then Dr. Barr brought out an American alligator that had its mouth duct-taped shut. He managed to flip the alligator onto its back and then rubbed its belly, which seemed to have a hypnotizing effect on it. Finally, we saw a Nile crocodile, which gave us a chance to see the differences between a crocodile and an alligator: An alligator has a wider, duckbill snout and a crocodile a narrow, pointed snout. Another difference is that when an alligator closes its mouth, you can only see its upper teeth. With a crocodile, you can usually see both uppers and lowers.
In the afternoon, Dr. Barr told us about the animal costumes he has built inspired by an elementary school class at P.S. 16 in Staten Island, N.Y. Later, he helped us put on a 60-pound crocodile suit, which features a shell made of Kevlar, a bulletproof material, and a head molded off a real crocodile skull. Though the suit was heavy, it didn't smell horrendous—shockingly, considering it had been covered with hippo poo when Dr. Barr used it to put a transmitter on a croc.
Catching a Crocodile
He showed us another idea he borrowed from the kids at P.S. 16: approaching a crocodile with a remote control car that has a noose attached to it. He gave us a chance to catch the croc suit with a remote control car and noose. Only two campers managed to snare the suit's head. After that, camp was over, but I stayed around to interview Dr. Barr. See the interview below.
Q&A with Brady Barr
Brady Barr is a world-famous herpetologist (reptile and amphibian expert) who works for the National Geographic Society as a resident explorer and hosts his own TV show called Dangerous Encounters with Brady Barr. He was born in Texas in 1963. After graduating from Indiana University, he worked as a high school science teacher. He returned to school and received a PhD in biology from the University of Miami. He currently lives in Severna Park, Md., with his wife and two young children. Barr specializes in crocodilians, which include crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and the gharial (long-snouted, extremely endangered), and he is one of the first scientists to have captured and studied all 23 species of crocodilian.
Claire: What inspired you to work with reptiles?
Brady: When I was a kid about your age I was crazy about dinosaurs. I just loved dinosaurs. When I got older, I became more interested in living animals. I got tired of going to the museum and looking at skeletons and fossils. So I went from dinosaurs to crocodiles because they look kind of like dinosaurs and they get huge—over 20 feet long and weighing one ton. I got crazy about crocs and I've been crazy about crocs ever since. I've worked on crocs for over 20 years and I love it.
Claire: What has been your most exciting experience working with reptiles?
Brady: There are 23 different types of crocodiles on the planet, and no one in history had captured all 23. Except me.
As a kid, I grew up in Indiana, which is just cornfields as far as the eye can see. I didn't have the ocean and exotic animals like crocs, and I never dreamed I would do something no one had ever done before. To capture all 23 species of crocodiles is a monumental achievement.
Claire: What was the hardest crocodile to capture?
Brady: There's a handful that are really hard to capture because they're not just endangered crocodiles, they're some of the most endangered animals on the planet, with just 20 or 30 left.
If you're chasing only 20 individuals, they're hard to capture. The Philippine crocodile is really hard. The Chinese alligator is hard. But the hardest one is the Siamese crocodile. I caught it in Cambodia. Before I captured it, it was thought that it might be extinct in the wild. So I'm going after an animal that was extinct and I actually got lucky and I caught it. That's what made it possible for me to go ahead and capture all 23.
Claire: Do you keep reptiles at home, or is that a busman's holiday?
Brady: No, I do. I have a little girl who is 4 and the reptiles and amphibians are really hers. She's got two box turtles, a python, and two big salamanders. She had 20 tadpoles but they all turned into frogs and jumped out of the tank and now they're all over the house.
Claire: What are the best reptiles for kids to keep in their homes?
Brady: Ball pythons are really good. It's a type of python that doesn't get very big and they're friendly and they're nice. That's what my daughter's got. She's only 4 and she had it when she was 3.
Snakes make good pets in general because unlike a dog or a cat or a goldfish, you don't have to feed them every day, you don't have to clean up after them every day. You might feed them every two weeks or once a month. You only have to clean their cage every few weeks. You can go on vacation and you don't have to have anyone take care of them. They don't need much, but they're not warm and cuddly and lovable like puppies or kittens.
Claire: What are some of the best places for nonspecialists to go see reptiles?
Brady: I'll tell you what, we're sitting in one of them. Arizona is incredible. They have all sorts of rattlesnakes. They have the only venomous lizard in the U.S.—the Gila monster. South Florida, with the Florida Everglades, is a good place.
Claire: You were recently attacked by a python while you were waist-deep in guano. How'd you get into that position in the first place?
Brady: That was in Indonesia in a cave. I'd gotten a report at National Geographic that someone had discovered a cave and they were terrified to go in it because they saw all of these giant snakes.
I went over there with another scientist to investigate. As soon as we got in there, we started capturing these giant snakes. And one of them captured me.
It wrapped me up and—bang!—bit me on the back of the leg. It was ready to pull me under the river of bat poo. It was terrifying.
Thankfully, I got away from it. It was like a shark attack. Those big pythons have over a hundred teeth, needle sharp. They get them in—and it's a big snake, really powerful—and it just starts ripping. I was lucky to get out of that cave alive. (To view a video of this incident, go to youtube.com and type in "barr giant python attacks" in the search field.)
Claire: Was that the worst bite you've ever had?
Brady: Crocodile bites are worse than snakebites. I've never been bitten by a poisonous snake. Crocodiles have the strongest bite on the planet, well over a ton of biting force. So if a crocodile gets you with a bad bite, it's going to take off whatever it bites. Take your arm off, bite your foot off. I've been lucky: I've had a few bites, but they've just bitten me and released. They didn't hang on. And you see when crocodiles bite—do you know what they do?—they roll. They go into that death roll: They just bite and hold on and rip off whatever they get ahold of.
Claire: What would you still like to learn about reptiles? Are there reptiles left to be discovered?
Brady: Absolutely. They discover new reptiles all the time. I was just in the country of Mozambique and they just discovered a new snake there, like a python, which I've never seen before. I want to go back over there and see it.
But crocodiles are my specialty and you'd think that since these are such big animals that we as scientists would know just about everything there is to know about crocs. But it's just the opposite. We know hardly anything about crocodiles. The reason is because they're dangerous. Not many people work on crocodiles.
I can work the rest of my life, every day, on crocodiles and still not even make a dent in terms of what we need to know about these animals. A good example is you can capture a crocodile and you can take it somewhere else miles away, drop it off, and it will come right back to where you captured it. And we don't know how they do it.
Some people think they use the stars to navigate. Some people think they use the magnetic fields of the earth. Some people think they use their nose but we don't even know.
Claire: Wow. Thank you so much.
Photography courtesy of Adrienne Helitzer
This article was first published in September 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.