The recent news that a stingray killed “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, piercing his heart with its barb, made for some unusual conversations around the water cooler, including a fair number of cruelly sarcastic comments. Irwin was a novelty act to most of the world, and hearing about his death was a little like learning the circus fire-eater had died lighting himself ablaze. But Victor resident Marty Essen took Irwin’s death more personally.
“He’s one of my idols,” says Essen, standing next to a tank in his basement that holds two rainbow boa constrictors named Adam and Eve. “I was very, very depressed when I heard the news—not surprised, but depressed. He’s done so much in his life as far as teaching people about animals. What I’m ultimately trying to do is the same thing…only I’m doing it in book form.”
Like the late animal-adventure celebrity he reveres, Essen has spent the last five years traveling to each of the seven continents in search of exotic and sometimes dangerous wildlife. His adventures—including run-ins with Gentoo penguins in Antarctica and the deadly fer-de-lance snake in the Amazon jungle—are captured in Essen’s new travelogue, Cool Creatures, Hot Planet. Essen’s goal is to not only tell the tale of tracking down some of the world’s most unusual animals, but also to educate readers about how they coexist with people. For instance, he and his wife have gone swimming with piranhas without so much as a nibble, knowing that in high water they were less likely to bother them. Who knew?
That’s not to say his travels weren’t treacherous. Essen describes himself as less of a showman and more prudent than Irwin around wild animals, but to the casual observer any such difference is marginal—the cover of Cool Creatures, for instance, features Essen with a tailless whip scorpion perched on his face, covering his left eye.
“I did a similar picture when I wrote an article for the local newspaper,” Essen says of a travel piece published in the Ravalli Republic in late 2001, which ultimately sparked the idea to turn his travels into a book. “I’ve become known, or at least some people will recognize me in town by saying, ‘Hey, you’re the guy with that thing on his face!’”
While creepy-looking, the whip scorpion isn’t venomous, so it hardly qualifies for the list of experiences that have nearly killed Essen and his traveling companion, wife Deb. They’ve been charged by elephants, surrounded by black wolves and handled countless poisonous snakes; Essen’s been a snake nut ever since purchasing his first two boas at the age of 8, and he spends much of the book tracking down examples of the species. But the scariest moment of his travels came not while he was seeking snakes, but while trying to avoid a much larger animal.
“It had to be the hippo attack,” says Essen, proudly showing off a framed picture of himself and Deb standing on the shore of Zimbabwe’s Zambezi River. The center of their canoe has a sizable puncture, and mounted to the picture’s frame is a chunk of what was once the boat’s hull. “We must have navigated around 1,500 hippos that day, just taking our time working around those cantankerous creatures. And we were just paddling along with none of them around on this one stretch when we felt a bump—the next thing we know we’re being lifted 6 feet in the air by a hippo!”
And yet the picture, taken shortly after Essen and his wife were heaved by the hippo, shows them both smiling from ear to ear.
“It was so unexpected and happened so fast,” he remembers. “Neither one of us was hurt, just stunned. It was one of those things where afterwards I just kept going, ‘We were attacked by a fucking hippo!’ I don’t know if it was the scariest moment because we didn’t have any time to react, but it was certainly the most memorable.”
Essen is a hobby herpetologist, a self-described “self-taught expert” whose longtime interest in animals, need for a long-postponed vacation and well-timed midlife crisis created a perfect storm of factors that led to the book. When he’s not traveling the world, he runs a local telephone company, Essen Communications Corporation, out of his home office in Victor. He self-published Cool Creatures through his own small publishing company, Encante Press, which he hopes to grow by releasing travel books by different authors in the future.
“I didn’t want to conform to major publishing companies,” Essen explains. “There would have been no pictures…and it would have been cut down to nearly half as long, and I didn’t want to do that. When Bill Bryson writes a travelogue, it’s usually one story about one place and roughly 90,000 words. My book is 178,000 words. Not to scare anyone away, but that’s virtually as long as the New Testament.” He laughs before adding: “With the amount of time I put into this, I wanted to do everything with the book first-class and didn’t want to cut any corners. The only way I could guarantee that was if I did it myself.”
That kind of control also allowed Essen the editorial freedom to include subject matter beyond creepy crawlers. Essen and his wife conducted the majority of their travels after Sept. 11, 2001, during the Iraq war, and their interactions in various foreign countries invariably turned to issues of world politics.
“What surprised me most was how everyone would ask, ‘How’s the war?’” Essen says. “We were in Malaysia the day after the statue of Saddam Hussein came down, in this remote part of the world, and it was still all anybody would ask us as Americans. I never intended the book to be political, but it became such a major part of the trip, having to answer for our country’s actions.”
But the politics in Cool Creatures is just cultural background to his animal adventures. Essen hopes readers will be turned on to wildlife through reading the book, and perhaps better informed about certain animals with undeserved reputations for dangerousness. Ultimately, he’s hoping readers come away with the same sort of appreciation and respect for wildlife that Steve Irwin became famous for.
“When I go into schools, all the kids want to see and touch the snakes and their excitement is incredible,” says Essen, who’s been touring schools such as Hellgate Elementary for four years. “That’s because of the popularity of the Steve Irwins and Jeff Corwins and what they’ve done on television. If I can continue that in even a small way, and if I can change people’s minds, then this will be worth it. Travel changes people, and I think reading about it can, too.”
Marty Essen and his snakes will read from and sign copies of Cool Creatures, Hot Planet Tuesday, Sept. 19, at Chapter One Books in Hamilton at 7 PM; Wednesday, Sept. 20, at Fact & Fiction in Missoula at 7 PM; and Thursday, Sept. 21, at Page By Page Books in Polson at 4:30 PM.