When it comes to field work, wildlife expert Brady Barr prefers getting his hands dirty.
“I’m not like these guys that will crouch in the brush and study animal behavior from hundreds of yards away,” Barr said. “The kind of science I’m into, you’ve got to get up close and personal.”
“Luckily,” he added, “it makes for good television.”
As the host of Nat Geo Wild’s “Dangerous Encounters,” Barr has come face to face with everything from polar bears to platypuses to piranhas. He’s crossed paths with a cobra in an aardvark’s burrow, gone undercover as a hippopotamus to collect sweat samples, and traveled 1,700 feet underwater in a homemade submarine to catch a glimpse of the massive six-gill shark.
Barr will discuss his experiences Friday at Cal Poly’s Spanos Theatre in San Luis Obispo, part of Cal Poly Art’s ongoing Speakers Series.
“Very few scientists can actually say they’ve been on the same level as their subjects,” he said. “I just feel so privileged whenever I’m up close with these animals and interacting with them.”
A passion for animals
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, and raised in Bloomington, Ind., Barr credits his parents with fueling his passion for animals. “I’m a real product of American zoos and aquariums,” he said.
After graduating from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in science education, Barr spent a few years teaching in the Indiana public school system before earning his master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Miami.
It was in southeastern Florida that Barr developed a fascination with crocodilians, an order that includes alligators, caimans and crocodiles.
On his first trip to the Florida Everglades, he managed to capture a baby alligator.
“All a sudden, I hear something coming through the underbrush … like a freight train. It’s the mother,” Barr recalled.
Jumping in his Jeep, he carefully placed the baby alligator on the ground and watched as it was carried away in its mother’s jaws.
“I had no idea these were complex, intelligent animals that were actually very good parents,” said Barr, who decided to dedicate his career to the study and conservation of these scaly creatures.
“They’ve been on the planet for so long — 220 million years — essentially unchanged,” said Barr, the first person to capture and study all 23 known species of crocodilians. “What that says it they’re really good at what they do. They’re the ultimate predators, the ultimate survivors.”
Barr’s graduate work studying the contents of alligators’ stomachs caught the attention of National Geographic Television, which invited him to become its resident herpetologist.
Starting in 1997, Barr has appeared in more than 100 National Geographic documentaries, including several “Explorer” episodes and the children’s videos “Comets and Asteroids,” “Earth Alive” and “Where Storms Begin.”
“Dangerous Encounters,” which premiered in 2005, finds Barr and his camera crew traveling across the globe investigating such subjects as the strength of an Alaskan brown bear or the power of an alligator snapping turtle’s bite. So far he’s visited more than 70 countries.
Although Barr signed on as a reptile expert, he said he’s gone “out of my comfort zone” to encounter wild animals of all species.
“That’s been the most enjoyable thing, to interact with animals that I never dreamed I’d see, let along work with,” said Barr, who can now cross elephant, lion, shark and giant squid off his wish list.
Less enjoyable have been the bites, bumps, bruises and other injuries that Barr has sustained over the course of his career. He’s lost a finger and broken his back on three different occasions, as well as his right leg, arm and wrist.
One of Barr’s most publicized run-ins with reptiles came in 2007. While wading through waist-deep guano in a pitch-black Indonesian bat cave, Barr was bitten by a 12-foot-long reticulated python, putting him at serious risk of infection.
In the last three years, “I’ve had one catastrophic, surgery-requiring injury every year,” the researcher said. “It’s the result of not being young and fast when these animals are young and fast.”
A message for the young
Barr, who turned 50 earlier this month, said he’s ready to spend more time touring and talking about the importance of preserving fragile ecosystems and at-risk species. In particular, he wants to take his message of conservation to children.
“We as a society are raising a generation of kids that are out of touch with nature,” said Barr, whose young daughter and son are avid animal lovers with a bustling menagerie — snakes, salamanders, tarantulas, turtles and so on — at their disposal. “It’s a real problem. These are the stewards of our planet.”
According to Barr, shows such as “Dangerous Encounters” are essential to spreading that message.
When he went from teacher to television host, “My classroom just went from 30 kids to 300 million viewers,” he said. “I’m still teaching, but I’m teaching on the television.”
IF YOU GO
8 p.m. Friday
Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly
$23 to $30
756-4849 or www.calpolyarts.org