The waitress at Cafe Alley had just slid the appetizer of fried green beans onto the table when Brady Barr launched into his first story.
"During my Ph.D. work at the University of Miami, I studied alligators. As part of the research, we had to examine the contents of their stomachs," said Barr, crunching on a bean. "I'd go out into the Everglades at night and catch alligators. You have to be careful because when you make an alligator regurgitate, you never know what's going to come out. I've had everything from trash to live snakes. One time I had an otter pop out. He must have just been eaten. He landed in the boat, blinked a couple times and jumped back into the water. Luckiest otter ever."
I'm sorry wait, what? Everglades at night? Alligator vomit? What is happening?
I pushed my plate of green beans forward. Two minutes in and I could tell this was not going to be a typical dinner conversation.
See, every year the Noble Research Institute invites a handful of national presenters to headline our Profiles and Perspectives Community Enrichment Series. For almost two decades, we have hosted speakers from every imaginable walk of life astronauts to zoologists. They come to southern Oklahoma for an evening and share their insights with a delighted audience who might not otherwise have the opportunity to see such renowned lecturers.
Following tradition, a few Noble employees take the speakers out to dinner beforehand. Each guest brings their own flavor to the conversation and usually offers up a sneak preview of the evening's talk.
Barr was no exception. As a herpetologist (reptile and amphibian expert) who has traveled to more than 80 countries and hosted more than 100 wildlife documentaries for National Geographic, he indulged his dinner audience's appetite for adventure, sparing no detail despite its potentially nauseating repercussions.
Barr pivoted from one amazing exploit to the next cringe-inducing scenario all while I dealt with my own harrowing event (navigating around the tomatoes on my salad). He regaled us with tales of trekking through the African wilderness, crash landing in the Amazon rainforest, and crawling into an aardvark hole only to come face-to-face with a cranky cobra.
"That was a close one," said Barr, casually chuckling as though he'd almost bumped into a stranger.
By the main course, I was feeling a little bit like the otter. But Barr the living embodiment of a Jules Verne character pressed deeper into his catalogue of stories.
He recapped near misses with hippos ("Meanest animals on the planet," he said.), actually being bitten on the face by a snake (No worries, it wasn't poisonous!), and taking a few rounds of chemo to kill a brain parasite he contracted while filming (I can't make this stuff up.).
At some point, you understand that danger doesn't register in Barr's brain like the rest of us. He's the guy that extreme-sports enthusiasts look at and say, "Whoa, dude, that's a little too far."
But his quest for adventure comes from a place of genuine love for educating his audiences about the importance of these often misunderstood creatures. Later that evening, Barr retold many of the stories to a packed audience, always returning to his messages of conservation and compassion.
But before he took the stage, Barr told his final story to a mesmerized table, hanging on every word while nibbling carrot cake. He had trekked weeks into the Burmese jungle to visit a cave known as the home for giant snakes. His team had been searching for a world record, 30-foot-long python (for reasons that defy logic). After wading through hip-deep bat guano, they found one a wee bit smaller (only about 20 feet) and tried to remove said snake. The python wrapped around two men, flexing its 4,000 muscles, then gnawed on Barr's rump. He survived, but the repercussions were lasting.
"For months after that, I kept pulling python teeth out of my backside," he said. "My kids saved them up so they could make a necklace or something."
A statement which can elicit only one response: Check, please!