Pio Barran Bertelli, Legendary Guardian of Animals in Tlacotalpan, Mexico

For most of his 86 years, Pio Barran Bertelli has been fascinated by animals. As a fisherman he became intimately familiar with the waters and estuaries of the Papaloapan River, where he cast his nets. Soon, however, he was paying attention to more than fish. He wrestled his first crocodile in 1959 and a second one shortly thereafter, carrying them home to share his tiny adobe home near the end of Carranza Avenue in Tlacotalpan, Mexico. Through the years his menagerie grew, as did his collection of memorabilia, until Barran had little choice but to open up his house as a museum of sorts.

Mini Zoological Museum of Pio Barran

He calls it the “Mini-Zoological Museum of Pico Barran” and charges a nominal admission of $20 pesos, which buys visitors a blow-by-blow personal tour from the curator. On the sweltering day I arrived, a rolling cart had been pulled across the front entrance. I peered through glassless windows into the dark recesses and spotted a stooped figure in disheveled white shirt, khaki pants, and unraveling straw hat. Seeing me out of the corner of his eye he told me to sit down and wait – he would soon be done with his current visitors. Ten minutes later he rolled the cart away from the front door and began leading me around his house-museum on a surreal tour that included everything from poking his 59 year-old crocodile with a stick until he moved so that I believed he was alive, to pressing a large snapping turtle against his grizzled cheek. “Of course he does not bite me, I am his protector.”

Snapping turtle would never bite its protector
One of several giant crocodiles at the museum

With the exception of animal cages, every spare millimeter of space in the museum displays Barran’s other passion: a collection of antiques and memorabilia that includes ancient Remington and Underwood typewriters; antique box radios, lanterns, and firearms; Mayan pottery; and an Austrian horse-drawn coach from the 19th century. The walls are covered too, with autographed photos of stars of the silver screen, many of whom he met when his crocodiles appeared in movies including Tarzan and 80 Days on the Amazon. Mixed among the movie star pictures are photos of Augustin Lara, the revered Mexican songwriter who was born in Tlacotalpan. Barran claims to have the most complete collection of photos of Lara in the entire town; give him the slightest opportunity and he will show you every one.

Pio holds out a tiny turtle for me to examine

The charm of Barran’s Mini-Zoological Museum is not the half-dozen crocodiles, scores of turtles, or even his quirky collection of antiques. The attraction is Barran himself, who shambles around with his long bamboo pointer, cataloging each item for his visitors, explaining where it came from and how he got it. It’s definitely worth the price of admission just to spend an hour with this living anachronism.

8 thoughts on “Pio Barran Bertelli, Legendary Guardian of Animals in Tlacotalpan, Mexico”

  1. During a phone call with my grandpa, he began to tell me (for the fiftieth time) about his uncle who had a crocodile for a pet and he would go around town putting on shows where he would stick his head into this crocodile’s mouth and come out unharmed. After listening to this story I typed in his name and I found this article! I sent it to my grandpa who confirmed that it was in fact his uncle who he has not seen for several decades (since my mom was a child) thank you for sharing this article, it was been a joy to share this story and pictures with my family

    • Hi Lola: Thank you so much for your comment. You cannot possibly imagine how much it means to me to read stories like yours, which truly provide a connection for people. It renews my determination to continue publishing the blog. I’m so grateful to have brought a little joy to your family.

  2. This reminds me of many one-man museums I have seen. Isn’t it wonderful how people just fill their lives with the things they love most, then share that love with anyone who will stop and listen. Priceless story!

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