He has wrestled pythons and encountered crocodiles but a herpetologist tells Loong Wai Ting it’s the hippopotamus that scares him most
YOU are doing some spring cleaning at home and you see a snake coiled up in a corner! What do you do — beat the snake to death or back away slowly and call for help?
For most of us, option two seems like the most practical thing to do, but there may be a few who will go for the former.
“Snakes are peaceful creatures. They will not bite unless you step on or disturb them. There is actually only a small percentage of venomous snakes in the world,” said Dr Brady Barr of National Geographic’s Dangerous Encounters fame. Barr, who was here recently, spoke about his experiences as a herpetologist (the branch of zoology concerned with the study of amphibians and reptiles including snakes). His visit also coincided with the premiere of Dangerous Encounters (Season 7).
A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Barr became the first known herpetologist to have captured all 23 species of crocodiles. His hands-on method of educating the public about dangerous and endangered animals, particularly crocodiles and alligators, as well as his enthusiastic nature, allows him to share his knowledge and interact with people around him, especially children.
“I am passionate about reptiles and amphibians. There is such a natural beauty to them and it is amazing that Malaysia is home to some of the finest and most unique species,” he said.
His passion has taken him to five continents and over 70 countries. In Indonesia, he had a close encounter with a four-metre anaconda that left him with a nasty bite on his left thigh.
Barr was in Malaysia in 2005 to film an episode of Dangerous Encounters, in which he wrestled with a huge python and was chased by a hippopotamus in an enclosure in Zoo Negara.
“Malaysia is an amazing place for a person like me. I love the wildlife here. There is so much to see, like sea turtles, venomous cobras and large monitor lizards,” he added.
Having seen and tackled some of nature's most dangerous animals (he was bitten on the nose by a tree-gliding snake in one episode), Barr confessed that there’s one creature that he would not mess with - the seemingly gentle hippopotamus. “Those guys are the meanest! They kill more people in Africa than any other animal there. These hippos can run really fast,” he said, with a chuckle. “As you can see from one of the (previous) episodes in Dangerous
Encounters, I was chased off its enclosure by one of the hippos, here in Zoo Negara.
“Part of my job as a herpetologist is to educate kids about wildlife. In most episodes, I would dress up as an animal, whether as a hippopotamus or a crocodile, just to get as close as I could to the animals,” he said.
In Season 7, you will see Barr disguised as a baboon to scare off a group of baboons. “One of the rangers at the National Park Board in South Africa called me to help solve the baboon problem in the area. The animals were a threat to visitors and they would steal things, particularly food from camp sites. The team came up with the idea to put live cobras in plastic containers and place eggs on top them to entice the baboons.”
“It worked because baboons are afraid of cobras. We used some rubber snakes, but that didn’t work after some time. The baboons were smart.
“After a while I came up with the idea to dress up as a baboon that showed off its large teeth. Every time a baboon came near the site and saw me, they had the shock of their lives,” he said. “The idea works because besides cobras, baboons are afraid of their own alpha males which will show their large teeth, a sign that they mean serious business."
A total of 120 students from various schools were also present at Zoo Negara to watch Barr demonstrate how to handle a snake safely, without harming it. His visit has also received support from the Ministry of Education, the Academy of Science Malaysia as well as the Malaysian Nature Society.
Barr also invited journalists and bloggers to the premiere launch to join him for a close encounter with two large pythons- in a small enclosure. Handling the snakes looked easy for Barr but his “assistants” had a tough time trying to prevent the snakes from wrapping themselves around their human handlers.
“Snakes are better than mice or rats because rodents carry diseases. The best thing to do when you encounter a snake, is to back away real slowly and leave them alone. It is absolutely crucial that people realise that snakes should only be handled when there is a need, like when they are sick or for educational purposes,” he said.
His years of dwelling with animals in the wild is not without a price. “I have broken a lot of bones in my body. I broke my back three times and I have broken some bones on my hand. I have also been bitten by animals,” he added.
Yet, his passion and love for animals have not abated. “You need to have passion in whatever you do. Anything is possible. You know, I am 49 but at times, I feel like I am 109!” he said with a laugh.
Dangerous Encounters (Season 7) airs together with an episode of Most Dangerous Encounters on Wednesday (June 27) in a two-hour simulcast at 8pm on National Geographic Channel (Astro channel 553) and Nat Geo Wild (Astro channel 550). New episodes of Dangerous Encounters will be shown every Wednesday at 8pm on Nat Geo Wild.
IN the light of a recent crocodile attack on a woman in Saratok, Sarawak, (Harian Metro, June 21), Barr has offered some tips on how to avoid crocodile attacks.
1. Do not go fishing while wading in water and never attach fish you have caught to your body.
2. Do not let your kids or pet play at the water‘s edge and avoid any activity along the water‘s edge, especially at dusk.
3. Never approach a crocodile. If you see one, maintain your distance and back away slowly.
4. Never feed crocodiles! This is very dangerous because they become conditioned to associate people with food.