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.
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.”
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.
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.