crocHave you ever felt like you were in the belly of the beast? Well I sure have and got to actually experience it on a recent expedition to Tanzania.  I’m a scientist who’s research involves capturing wild crocodiles, a very dangerous pursuit, dangerous for me but also dangerous for the crocs.  Subduing crocodiles is extremely stressful to the animal, so I am always looking for alternatives to this “hands-on” approach.  Not long ago I was speaking to a group of children and explaining to them what I do and one small boy raised his hand and said, “Dr. Brady why don’t you dress up as a crocodile and just join their club?”  I laughed and continued my lecture, yet couldn’t shake this crazy idea form the back of my mind.  Could it actually work?  There was only one way to find out.

I had the engineers at National Geographic build me an incredibly life-like crocodile disguise, for my venture into the reptilian world.  The “croc suit” consisted of a protective metal cage covered by a Kevlar shield, and topped off with a life like latex cape.  It really looked like a croc and it better because the plan was for me to wear the suit and crawl up to a group of basking wild crocs, close enough to attach a scientific device to their backs!  This is a procedure that normally requires me to rope a croc and then wrestle it in into submission.  This was a bold and scary experiment.

A few months later on a stifling hot African day, I found myself in the country of Tanzania with a fellow scientist, a bunch of big wild crocs, and of course the “croc suit”.  Today was the big day…deployment day.  The temperature was well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as I started to contort my body into the tight confines of the suit.  The thermometer I had mounted inside the suit read 120 degrees; I might cook in this oven if this procedure took too long.  My heart raced as I thought about the large number of dangerous crocs a short distance away, as well as the gauntlet of hippos (Africa’s most dangerous animal) that I  would have to navigate before I even got to the crocs.  Once inside the suit a wave of claustrophobia and nausea gripped me.  It was a very tight fit inside, and the apparatus was heavy at over 80 pounds.

DSC_2228I was super nervous as the crew left me all alone, and I started my 60 meter crawl to the basking crocs.  An immediate concern was that I could only see straight ahead, I had no idea what dangers might be approaching from my behind me.  I was in radio contact with my crew but that seemed like little comfort.  As I approached the first croc was heart was pounding, my mouth was dry and my body tense, yet my senses seemed razor sharp, keener than they had ever been before.  I held my breath and inched closer not knowing what to expect.  The crocodile was now directly in front of me and is had its gaze transfixed on me.  I had never seen a croc from this vantage point, and boy did it look big.  Seeing it on their level, the animal was simply beautiful in an awe inspiring primeval way.  Within arms length the big croc just stared back at me then calmly closed its eyes.  Wow, a huge sigh of relief escaped my body, because this was a sure sign that the animal was comfortable with my presence.

It was simply amazing that I was within 3 feet of a wild unrestrained croc and that it was accepting me as another croc.  I got caught up in the special ness of the moment, realizing that I was doing something that had never been done before, when suddenly I was jolted back to the seriousness of the task at hand.  My cameraman radioed to me that there was a large croc moving towards me from behind.  Once again my heart raced and I held my breath expecting the worst, all the while wondering if my little croc suit could withstand an attack from a half ton reptilian giant.

The seconds seemed like an eternity as I waited for the big croc.  I could now hear his heavy feet and lumbering body as he got closer.  The attacked I feared never came; instead he sidled up beside me and lay down.  He too was accepting me as just another croc.  I definitely wanted to make history on this day not become history, so I quickly deployed my data logger onto the back of the croc in front of me and made a hasty retreat.  As I crawled away I was lost in the euphoria of my successful experiment.  On this day I literally became a crocodile, the animal I have dedicated my career to studying.

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BB B&WI recently received a phone call that we all dread.  One of my family members was sick, really sick.  Fortunately it wasn’t one of my immediate family members, but rather my extended family…my reptile family.  I have worked closely with a population of croc in the country of Costa Rica for almost a decade.  I know these crocs as individuals and they are truly like family to me.  I was terribly upset when I discovered that something was terribly wrong with them.  Sadly they were going blind.  I was determined to find out was horrible thing was causing this condition in my beloved crocs, so I immediately organized a “Dream Team” of scientists, biologists, toxicologists, and wildlife veterinarians, to accompany me to Costa Rica and research the problem.

Diagnosing an illness in a croc is similar to one in a human; it all starts with a physical examination.  The only problem is that gigantic wild crocs usually aren’t cooperative patients!  Croc physicals, as do humans, involve gathering important data such as length, weight, overall appearance, and visual inspection of eyes, ears, nose, and throat.  The most difficult part of the operation by far, is getting the weight.  Big crocs are unwilling participants and will not simply step upon the scale when asked.  Furthermore, there are few scales that can register such tremendous mass as a big croc, especially in the field upon a muddy river bank.  Therefore, this data is sorely lacking in scientific literature.  It is just too difficult/dangerous to get, though vitally important.  I was determined to overcome all obstacles and acquire this important data, especially if it could help my crocs.

My team attempted to do something that has rarely been accomplished: weigh full grown wild crocodiles in the field at their capture site.  We armed ourselves with strong climbing ropes of the finest quality, lots of cargo netting, chain, tackle, winches, and an industrial sized scale, normally used to weigh automobiles.  It would be quite an operation and definitely a spectacle.  Our first patient was a monster, literally, at over 16 feet long.  It was one of the largest crocs I have ever captured, there was to be no learning curve here!  The big boy was also blind in one eye, exactly the patient we were looking for.

hand injury 027After an epic battle, and one that cost me my right index finger, the croc was ours.  Unfortunately my finger became entangled in the rope during the battle, and as my Doctor described it, I experienced a catastrophic spiral fracture in my finger.  It was literally pulverized by the size, power, and mass of the croc.  Fortunately, a long surgery later in the day, and multiple titanium screws, rebuilt and saved my finger.  Undaunted by the mishap, me and team continued our directive.  We staggered, stumbled, and struggled through the thigh deep mud along the shoreline as we prepared the croc.  We drug, slide, pushed, and tugged the big croc across the mud towards an enormous tree that we felt could support his massive weight.  Positioned directly beneath its branches we fought to get the cargo net beneath him, that would act as a sling to hoist him into the air.

DSC_0297After a long, long, time and seemingly endless struggles, we were actually able to get the netting underneath the croc, the heavy chain, scale, and block and tackle into the tree, and miraculously in position to attempt this big experiment.  Everyone held their breath as we ever so slowly started winching the giant off the ground.  Our fascination soon became terror as the team ran for cover, in response to the creaking and splintering of wood above our heads.  The strong old tree was groaning behind such weight.  The ropes sang, chain clattered, cargo net popped, but lo and behold the behemoth lifted off the ground.  The monster was airborne!!  Only by a few inches but this baby was swaying in the breeze!

As crew members frantically screamed to check the scale, check the scale, and accurate reading was barked out.  The croc was quickly lowered back to the ground before the tree or our gear gave way.  Wow, we had done it.  The weight of our croc was 1600 hundred pounds one of the largest living crocs ever weighed in the field.  This was a great start to an epic research expedition.  If we could conquer this monumental challenge, I was fully confident that my Dream Team could correctly diagnose the problem and come up with a successful treatment for the eye affliction.




BB with snake cave captureIt was day three for our team in the snake cave on the Island of Flores In Indonesia.  On the previous two days we had seen many reticulated pythons but all small, so we weren’t expecting to see anything unexpected on day three.  We were only going in to get some pick up shots and move to the next filming location.  The cave was literally a chamber of horrors, probably the worst place I have worked in the ten years I have been at National Geographic.  The cave was filled with the usual customers (scorpions, roaches, maggots, spiders, millions of bats, lizards, and snakes), but it was the unbelievable amount of bat guano that made it unbearable.  There were places where you had to wade through a chest deep liquefied guano slurry.  The stuff was like quicksand almost sucking you down and making progress very slow and cautious.  This guano soup along with low oxygen levels  eventually prevented our expedition from going deeper into the cave.

red3On day three, about 60 m into the cave, walking along the right side wall where the fecal soup was the most shallow, I spied a large python partially exposed in a crack in the left wall, on the opposite side of the cave across the deepest part of the fecal river.  I immediately yelled for cameraman Eric to start rolling the camera, which was already rolling at the time, and shouted big snake three times.  On the third “big snake” it started to retreat into the crack in the wall, so I frantically waded across the middle deepest portion of the fecal river (waist deep on me) and to the other side of the cave were I was successful in grabbing the last few feet of the snakes tail before it escaped into the wall.  By this time Dr. Mark Ayoula, python expert working with me on this project, arrived to assist me in pulling this large snake out of the wall.  I handed over the tail to Mark while I attempted to free more of the large snakes body from the crevice as Mark pulled.  After a brief power struggle the python popped out of the crack in a blur of coils and quickly started to wrap us up.

hippo-python shoot 009In the waist deep fecal soup, the darkness of the cave, and myriad of coils it was difficult to locate the head which was our major concern.  With Mark still holding the tail, the big snake wrapped its powerful coils around Mark’s body once and around both of my legs down low at least once, and maybe two coils.  The snakes head was horrifyingly all over the place, popping in and out of the fecal soup and making securing it almost impossible.  Before we could formulate a plan to get out of the quicksand-like fecal soup, where drowning was a serious issue while trying to subdue a giant snake, it bit me.

I felt the snake attach to my leg right below my left buttock, which sent me literally through the roof with pain.  These guys are armed with dozens of strongly recurved razor sharp teeth.  After securing its hold it threw the weight and power of its muscular body into the bite and started ripping downward.  The power of these snakes is beyond comprehension…remember they are constrictors and power is the name of their game.  Since the bite was occurring underwater no one but me really knew what was occurring, and I was in such indescribable pain I couldn’t convey much information, other than guttural screams.  I was so completely incapacitated by the pain I couldn’t even attempt to remove the snake from my leg.  I was super scared that the snake was going to pull me off my feet with its coils around my legs, and drag me underwater, yet after what seemed like an eternity the snake released its bite yet continued to hold me with its coils.  It most likely needed to get a breath of air, since the bite occurred under the water.

After letting the team know that It released it’s bite, we still could not locate the head after frantic searching.  This was the time I was most concerned, and without doubt one of the scariest moments I have ever been a part of, because the horror of taking another bite was simply overwhelming.  I really did not think that I could remain conscious if I took another bad bite, and I knew that another bite was coming for someone if we didn’t secure the head.  Prayers answered, the snake relinquished some of its coils, and I finally spotted the head at the surface of the water a long ways away.  Mark quickly dragged the snake to the opposite side of the cave, the shallow side, and I threw a bag over its eyes and quickly secured the head.  We immediately placed the large snake into a capture bag, and then Mark inspected my wounds.

Flores Brady Barr 266They were bad.  It was a horrific bite.  When my wife Mei Len saw them last night, she gasped and said that it looked like a shark had attacked me, and that is a pretty good analogy.  They have so many teeth, which produce these deep ripping wounds, it’s just bad if you are on the receiving end.  When the team discovered how severe the injuries were we immediately exited the cave and cleaned the wound.

Infection was really the biggest concern.  Snake bites are always bad because they have such unclean mouths, but to receive a bite in a cave environment in a liquefied slurry of bat feces simply has to be the absolute worst of all septic situations.  We were in a very remote area, so I had to hike out many kilometers to our truck, up and over a very large mountain.  After an hour or so we reached our vehicle were we had another hour on bumpy dirt road before we got to the first village.  The village medical facility was like a medieval torture chamber, so we refused to let them do anything but clean the wound, which sent me through the roof.  The next closest medical facility was another 2 1/2 hrs drive so we headed off to there.

IMG_0265Arriving late at night we found a young Indonesian doctor that cleaned my wounds again, gave me many shots, and placed a few stitches in each major flesh tear just so they weren’t just hanging open.  He advised it best to leave the wound somewhat open since it was such a dirty bite, which turned out to be very good advice.  He also advised us to get to Bali as soon as possible.  Following a few hours sleep and around five hours of driving time, (producer) Simon and I got to the airport where we successfully got on a flight for Bali later that morning.  Nat Geo’s Medical Office informed us that it best to forgo Bali treatment and instead get to Singapore as fast as possible.  We did this, arriving the night following the bite, around 27 hrs after it happened, to the hospital where I was admitted and received good treatment from two doctors, one being a tropical infectious disease specialist.  I am now home and resting comfortably.

The entire sequence was filmed.  It is chilling footage to watch, like a train wreck so horrible you don’t want to watch yet simply cannot remove your eyes.  It was an epic snake capture, one to go down in the history books.

The support and logistic help I received from NGCI personnel, mainly the Singapore office, was truly instrumental in minimizing the ill effects of such a snake bite.  The field crew I was with acted professionally and efficiently.  Truly the support, direction, advice, and encouragement I received from everyone at NGT, NG Medical Office, NGCI, NGCUS, was phenomenal.  Thank you to all involved.  It truly was a team effort to get me out of the wilds of Indonesia, get me proper treatment, and back to the US.  For this I am eternally grateful.