Aussie crocodile wrangler Matt Wright goes global
MATT Wright, who grapples with man-eating prehistoric monsters for his day job, is feeling a little uncomfortable.
He's used to the wide open spaces of Australia's Top End, which he traverses in a chopper to keep hungry crocodiles away from people. But today, he's found himself in an altogether different jungle - New York City.
Wright left the Darwin humidity for a snow-blanketed Manhattan to promote his wildly popular nature show Outback Wrangler, which has been rebranded as Monster Croc Wrangler for the US market.
Speaking to news.com.au from his hotel in the Meatpacking District, Wright admits he's not entirely at ease in the metropolis.
"You feel a lot more confined, especially in a big marketplace with big masses of people. That's tough," the former horse musterer says.
Being out of his comfort zone has been well worth it, however, because the Yanks have been lapping up his story. He's had write-ups in US newspapers and websites and made an appearance on the US Today show, with an American alligator in tow. (Getting a saltwater crocodile over from the Northern Territory may have been a challenge at customs.)
It's not hard to see why Wright resonates in the US, given America's love of the Aussie outback mythology and its characters. However, on screen and in person, Wright is nothing like Crocodile Dundee or the late Steve Irwin.
He's a much more laid-back customer - more like a croc whisperer than a croc hunter. In fact he has such a "she'll-be-right" attitude that he and his wife Kaia joke that they might name their first daughter Shelby Wright (geddit?).
He has a deep respect for the reptile that stretches all the way back to childhood.
"It's been around for 240 million years and it's one of the most fascinating reptiles that we have on the Earth," he tells news.com.au.
"Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to work with them."
He has turned that childhood dream into a TV show which is now seen in more than 130 countries. Outback Wrangler sees Wright team up with his mates Jono and Willow to bait, trap and relocate monster crocs that threaten people and livestock in the Territory, which is home to more than 100,000 of the beasts.
It's dangerous work. Wright's had "broken bones and too many stitches to remember" - but he's proud to say he's still in possession of all his limbs.
Most recently he broke some vertebrae and was knocked out cold when a cranky croc smashed him in the back of the leg, lifting him 3m into the air before he landed on his head.
"You can't afford to muck up with the crocs - you'd lose an arm [or] a hand pretty quickly," Wright says.
"You want to make sure you're on your toes.
"We do have some close calls - as long as they're close and they're not connected."
It is fascinating to watch Wright go face-to-face - often literally - with the crocodiles, the biggest of which can grow up to 6m long.
If his team is alerted to the presence of a problem croc, they set about ensnaring it via an elaborate trap that involves an animal carcass, a gated cage and a noose to ensure the animal's powerful jaws remain shut tight.
While you might think he is mad to spend his days grappling with these prehistoric death machines, he has studied their behaviour to such an extent that dealing with them is intrinsic.
"There's no madness about it, because I understand their movements," he says.
"It's not something I recommend for someone to actually try and I do get asked a lot, 'How do you work the animal out? How do you do that?'
"To tell you the truth, I don't really know. I feel the animal and I watch its movements, how it's reacting and, when I feel the time's right, I'll move in on the croc and I'll be able to hold the croc there and just feel what it's wanting to do.
"You don't go pushing it. You just move slowly, gently, quietly. Any sudden movements, big croc will launch out.
"So, you take your time and you just treat the animal with respect … You have a bit of fear, but you've got to have the respect."
And the ancient reptiles wouldn't have been able to outlive the dinosaurs by 65 million years without a little bit of cunning.
"They've got a lot patience and they'll sit and they'll wait and they'll watch, and then they'll have a crack," Wright says.
Part of Wright's mission is also to educate the public about animals and how rampant development is threatening their habitats.
"A lot of people just fear different animals. They don't understand animals, and when that happens they're uncertain and they want to kill it," he tells news.com.au.
"You look at people in New York. They would not have much of an idea on animals in general because they don't see them here. They might see a crocodile [once] in their whole lifetime, whereas we're working with them day in, day out.
"But you don't want any Joe Blow to go out there and start jumping on the back of a crocodile or playing around with wildlife. You've just got to have the respect and understand that they are dangerous if you go into the water with them."
The show's co-creator Nick Fordham says Wright has "big balls", but he likes to think of him as a "calculated maniac".
Cameraman and co-executive producer Ash Dunn says the show reveals dual aspects of Wright's personality - the cowboy who's eager to go toe-to-toe with a monster croc, and the calculated chopper pilot keeping a close eye on the safety of his crew.
"There's the side that's always assessing situations and then the other side that doesn't have a handbrake," Dunn says. "It's a nice balance."
Outback Wrangler airs in Australia on Wednesdays at 8.30pm AEDT on National Geographic.