A few years back, Brady Barr found himself face to face with death. The wildlife program host, herpetologist (reptile expert) and conservationist had climbed deep inside a cave to get footage for a documentary about snakes when a cobra lunged at him from the shadows. “I grabbed its mid body and threw it and it came right back at me. I grabbed it and threw it again. For about three or four seconds we did the dance of death.”
After that kind of close call, the average person would probably have said, “that’s it, no more.” But Barr, 49, is not your average person. In a television career spanning more than 15 years, including seven years as host of National Geographic’s Dangerous Encounters With Brady Barr, he’s scuffled with pythons, chased polar bears, and, perhaps his greatest claim to fame, captured all 23 extant species of crocodile. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be an animal that Barr isn’t willing to wrestle into submission. But with kids at home and a wife who often wonders if he’s “nuts,” he’s decided to slow down — if only a little.
Barr enters a glassed-in room at Fox Broadcasting Company’s swanky offices in Taipei’s Neihu (內湖) District on a sunny Thursday afternoon, a knapsack over his shoulder and clutching a plastic case. Inside the case is a boa constrictor, which Barr’s handler keeps a close, though nervous, eye on. “It’s a partin’ gift,” he jokes in his appealing down-home Texan drawl. He looks slightly haggard — not from wrestling with the snake, but because he’s on a whirlwind Asian tour to scout out locations and make contacts for a new series of documentaries about Asia’s wildlife and spread the message of wildlife conservation.
“Some of my most memorable dangerous encounters happened in Asia. So it occurred to me: What am I doing spending all my time in Africa and South America. I need to get back to Asia. That’s where it’s at,” he says.
For his Taiwan stop, Barr met up with local animal researchers in the hope of documenting some of the nation’s endemic species, such as the pit viper and pangolin (a kind of scaly anteater).
“[Taiwan] is one of the most beautiful and wild places on the planet and people don’t know that,” says Barr, who has traveled to more than 70 countries. But there is a shadier side to Taiwan, and Asia generally, he says, one encapsulated by Taipei’s Huaxi Street (華西街). Better known as Snake Alley, the street is famous (some might say infamous) because it’s where visitors can watch vendors kill snakes, take a shot of snake blood or sip some venom. Barr last visited the street when he was here seven years ago.
“It’s like a train wreck,” he says as he recalls watching a snake being skinned alive. “You want to see it, but after you see you think, man, I wish I hadn’t seen that.”
Conservation and cultural awareness have become Barr’s twin themes. Whether the excessive consumption of his home country or perceived cruel practices abroad, no lecture to audiences or interview with the media passes without its mention. But when abroad, he is careful not to offend his hosts.
“It’s a delicate dance,” he says. “A lot of these practices are tied up in cultural beliefs that go back hundreds or thousands of years, and it’s hard to change people’s attitudes. But we’re gonna have to change our ways if we want to or not,” he says.