was Steve Irwin. The Crocodile Hunter. Full-on. Unstoppable. Fearless. Peerless.
swum with sharks, faced down leopard seals, walked with rhinos, bantered with
big cats, wrangled crocodiles, been bitten, gouged, bled, bent and bashed by more
animals around the world than you could poke a stick at (although, poking a stick
at animals would be the last thing Steve would endorse). Though he seemed intent
on thrusting himself headlong into the jaws and paws of danger danger danger,
the world still somehow regarded this modern-day Tarzan as invincible.
the shock of his death still refuses to sink in.
the unnecessary circumstances behind The Sting Heard 'Round the World is what
must bring the insurmountable pain to the family he leaves behind (wife Terri,
42 and children, Bindi, 8 and Bob, 3): whilst muddy waters delayed filming on
his current project, titled (prophetically, some might say) Ocean's Deadliest,
Steve, the devoted father, decided to capture impromptu stingray footage for Bindi's
new nature specials, slated to air in late 2006. And then it happened. Ever the
quick thinker, Steve actually pulled the stingray barb from his chest immediately,
but the damage had been done, and he collapsed, never to recover.
a smile as sunny as Western Australia and an Aussie accent twice as broad, attired
in perpetual khaki, Steve grew into the role of Crocodile Hunter through
his early '90s television series of the same name, produced and directed by childhood
friend, John Stainton. As the series popularity skyrocketed, Steve and Terri parlayed
their celebrity into transforming the modest reptile park Steve's parents bequeathed
him in Beerwah, Queensland into one of the most popular tourist attractions in
the world, Australia Zoo. (In 2006, the lunch room alone seats 1,500, while the
Crocoseum Stadium capacity pushes 6,000. And of all Australia Zoo's attractions
- Steve himself became the biggest draw.) And from that largesse emerged Steve's
thriving role as self-proclaimed Wildlife Warrior, single-handedly invigorating
wildlife conservation awareness with his dynamo stomp.
seems appropriate that this man who thought big, lived big and created big, would
also talk big. Steve could show us a tiny, benign animal - from his description
we'd think King Kong was its nearest relative; everything was excitement and danger;
everything was lusty hyperbole; everything was the "most gorgeous,"
the "deadliest," the "most powerful" - either "on the
planet," "in the world," or "on the face of the earth!"
laugh hard at his reckless enthusiasm, valiant malapropisms and emphatic emotional
was this very emotionalism and unbridled desire to share personal space with animals
that garnered Steve detractors, not necessarily to his cause, but to the way he
presented it - almost as a caricature of a naturalist. The accusations fly ignorantly
and uncorroborated, in the same manner that Italian anti-defamation lobbyists
criticized The Sopranos for demeaning Italian-Americans - having never
watched one episode. Likewise, claims of taunting, drugging and abusing animals,
made by jaundiced activists, only prove they too have never actually seen Steve
in action on his adrenalin-charged shows, where he constantly advocates nothing
but stress-free and drug-free interaction with animals during handling, rescuing
or scientific research. Unlike virtually every zoo's animal shows around the world,
Australia Zoo's animals are not "trained" to do "tricks" (read
as tortured into learning how to work for food), but rather (when they are taken
out amongst the public), shown off as carefully and compassionately as possible,
or (as with the predators) fed in the manner that psychologically benefits them
- with Steve's crocs, that involves ambush attacks on Steve proffering meat chunks.
his emotions on his khaki sleeve, Steve weeps frequently and openly when speaking
of his love for family, friends and animals. (When his son was born, Steve held
him aloft like Kunta Kinte to the gathered zoo staff, and whilst someone off-camera
made the happily astounding observation, "The future director of the zoo,"
Steve could not contain his weeping, "Mate, he's so perfect, it's scary!")
Again, it is astonishing how detractors will selectively read whatever they want
into these displays, accusing him of "acting" emotional. But as anyone
will tell you, who has seen Steve's movie, Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002) - it's pretty obvious he can't act!
the last laugh seems to be on these detractors - amongst the stray internet posturings
from nobodies who fancy themselves editorialists (merely sordidly creating publicity
for themselves by denigrating Steve), a turbine-charged stream of loving tributes,
condolences and special features overwhelm the world media, issuing from every
country "on the face of the earth"; online, on television, on YouTube;
from celebrities, naturalists, politicians; Australia Zoo is inundated with bouquets
and khaki shirts inscribed with messages of loss, and the Crocodile Hunter websites
have been logjammed for days. The heart-shock reaction to Irwin's death and subsequent
outpouring of grief has been compared to the response to Princess Diana's death
in 1997. (Let's hope they've issued a gag order on Elton and Bernie, to NOT rewrite
Crocodile Rock and shill it to an insensate public as if it was tasteful.)
fact, the sensationalistic media, in their never-ending quest to destroy people's
lives, can only cull one singular piece of negative evidence against this wildlife
icon, and that - the "Baby Bob" incident - something which they themselves
(the media) blew out of proportion in the first place. Out of respect for Steve
Irwin and his family, I refuse to recount the details of that paltry and irresponsible
White Hunter, White Heart.
Though Steve Irwin has become synonymous with the term "Crocodile Hunter,"
more significantly, he has made the term "hunter" synonymous with "conservationist"!
Whereas hunters used to be poachers and gamers, the children of this generation
equate the term Crocodile Hunter with this compassionate man who did nothing but
RESCUE and shower LOVE on his captures, many of them notoriously unloved and painted
as villains in nature documentaries. Like the Carl Sagan of naturalists, Steve
was the Great Popularizer - surely not the first to soapbox about conservation,
but now its most identifiable proponent.
again, his detractors chime in with the observation that his early television
shows were markedly absent of the conservation message, accusing him of latching
onto conservationism to palliate his intrusive actions on the environment he purported
to love so much. But he was a conservationist since his first leap onto the back
of a croc at 9 years of age - it just wasn't called that back then. Only later
in life did he realize he would have to put a name to his derring-do. The name
of what he was doing all along was - Conservation.
Are there better ways
to approach conservation than Steve's one-on-one approach? Sure there are. But
not in the way you're thinking. The very concept of zoos, animal reserves or nature
documentaries is paradoxical from the outset. In its purest form, conservation
itself is a slippery slope - how far would you go in sacrificing HUMAN wellbeing
for animal wellbeing? The same argument should be used for so-called "alcoholics":
if you don't want to get drunk, don't drink. Likewise, if you want to leave animals
alone, leave animals alone. That includes not observing or filming them from afar,
not studying them or attaching radio receivers, and not encroaching upon their
habitat. By definition, ALL these actions are intrusive on an ecosystem's natural
Unfortunately, humans cannot leave well enough alone. Our nature
is intrusive - more than AIDS, herpes, avian flu or Britney Spears trailer-trash
bytes, humankind has become the Earth's deadliest virus. And the paradox remains
that the least intrusive of us have to be intrusive in order to educate the mindless
hordes on how not to be intrusive.
such a big heart - how could the stingray miss?
why DO we love Steve Irwin so?
love him because he's genuine - in a media jungle of fakes, Steve Irwin was truly
For Reals. And somehow able to communicate that genuine compassion to the deadliest
predators "on the face of the earth," like a real-life Dr. Doolittle.
(At Washington State University, one of the vets is quoted, "I don't know
what it is about this guy, but he had Mica (one of the troublesome grizzly bears)
sitting in his lap and licking him.")
love him because he "out-crocked the original Crocodile Dundee," one
writer noting, "The difference between
the two is that Steve was the real thing." (His formative years were spent
isolated in the Northern Queensland bush, single-handedly wrangling hundreds of
crocs for rescue or relocation, armed only with home-made nets, his dog, Sui and
a video camera - and a knife twice the size of Paul Hogan's.)
love him because of his uncluttered innocence. His good friend and director of
the Crocodile Hunter catalog, John Stainton, forbad him to censor himself
onscreen so, like a child, he purveys a purity we wish we either had or could
cull from people we do business with. And, like a child, his passions are unadulterated;
his love is still untarnished, his laughter is still unforced, his accent is still
he's got a hot American wife.
personally admired the man not only because he reminded me of the fencing flair
and dynamism of Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, but because of his business
savvy: Crocodile Hunter runs in 130 countries; as well as owning Australia
Zoo, Steve owns thousands of acres of unspoiled land around the world, reserved
as animal habitats; there are endorsements, tourism affiliations (for the income
he has indirectly garnered for tourism alone, he is worth every colorful Australian
dollar he makes!), a fashion line (Bindi Wear), books, a movie, his conservation
foundations (Wildlife Warriors, International Croc Rescue, et al), action
he's got a hot American wife.
Irwin must have weathered anxiety akin to a cop's wife: never knowing whether
Steve would walk back in that door. Unlike a cop wife, Terri was by her husband's
dangerous side most of the time, parlaying their relationship onscreen into the
chemistry partly responsible for the success of the Croc Hunter series.
How did she live with the inevitability that any day Steve could die by the sword?
a croc gets me, I want to die yelling 'Crikey!' Make sure you catch it on film."
bittersweet silver lining to Steve's demise, is the fact that he did not go at
the jaws of a crocodile. In one of his shows, just after a close call, he comments,
"Mate! If I got killed by a crocodile, it would put all those years
of hard work to waste!" (And there would be no shutting the naysayers up
is footage of Steve's last moments - he insisted to his crews that even if he
was being killed, they were never to cease filming - and debate rages on whether
to release it to the world, as would have been Steve's wish. It must be horrific
to watch: one minute, there is that inexplicable thing called Life; the next,
there is not.
I wonder what went through Steve's mind in the seconds before circulatory shock
overtook him, in that disturbing shadowland between life and death, as he pulled
that barb from his chest? During the desperate efforts to resuscitate him - just
what were his last thoughts before the synapses stopped firing? He was the first
to exclaim he was "the luckiest bloke in the world," as fortunate in
business as he was in his personal life, marrying a like-minded warrior queen
and siring two beautiful and intelligent children, with his workmates fulfilling
the roles of well-trusted surfing mates rather than employees; bodyslamming each
day as if it WAS his last, living the equivalent of ten lifetimes, he actually
DID die doing what he loved. I hope in those last moments Steve's mind sparked
with that vaunted "life-flashing-before-your-eyes" montage and was able
to realize consciously that he was, in fact, dying a happy man.
there's one thing I want to be remembered for, it's passion and enthusiasm!"
(Uh, that's two things, Steve - as always, his effusiveness gets the better
of his mouth
passion of his message, the enthusiasm of his methods will give his idealism and
his television shows great legs for decades; especially since his daughter is
poised to enter the conservation ranks in her own right, to follow in his Herculean
Prime Minister, John Howard, called Steve Australia's "wonderful and colorful
son," Hugh Jackman called him a "colossus" (like his pal from the
comics, a superhero by any other name
); to millions of kids Steve Irwin
is a superhero.
tossed off the word "legend" as one of his regular hyperboles ("My
dad's the legend of the universe!" "This crocodile is an absolute legend!").
The word meant a lot, but it never meant what it really does. Until now. In one
of those grand ironies, to a world still reeling in shock, Steve Irwin has become
one of the greatest wildlife legends ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH.