Steve Irwin died 14 years ago this week, killed when stung by a sting ray barb near the heart. We thought it a fitting time to revisit this piece from a few years back. —Ed.
When The Crocodile Hunter television program hit the U.S. airwaves in 1997 (one year after its Australian premiere), a lot of people thought it was a spoof. The lead dude was this over-the-top character that leapt onto the backs of crocodiles for no discernable reason and sported a full khaki shorts-suit of questionable fit.
Scenes of him blindly reaching into a poisonous spider den were cut with scenes of him and his wife running awkwardly down a beach. Except that the man, Steve Irwin, didn’t exactly run. He bounced. No constraint; no worry. Irwin was a well of enthusiasm that could not be contained. The uncontrollable energy that likely made him a nightmare in kindergarten made him the perfect, excitable man to educate the world about the animals we tend to spend more time fearing than understanding.
In the least surprising revelation about his life, Irwin was born in 1962 to non-traditional parents. His father, Bob, traded in a successful plumbing practice to build a wildlife refuge in Queensland, Australia, with his wife, Lyn. The refuge began as a reptile park, grew to include a crocodile habitat, and eventually would become a fully functioning zoo. Bob focused on building the park and establishing protocols for keeping the reptiles healthy, earning worldwide respect as an herpetologist in the process. Irwin’s mother, Lyn, focused on rehabilitation and caring for injured animals that were brought in.
Irwin was eight when his family moved into an RV in order to build the park. By nine, he was working hands-on with the crocodiles. As the venture grew, Irwin was involved on every level: handling snakes (no small feat given Australia’s proliferation of venomous ones), wrestling crocs, managing some of the most poisonous spiders on the planet – you know – typical kid chores.
In 1991, Irwin took over the park and within a year changed the name to Australia Zoo. That same year, he met his soon-to-be wife, Terri. It’s unclear if they had a contract in hand or if they just decided it would be cool to have a buddy film their honeymoon. Either way, footage from the couple’s honeymoon became the pilot episode of The Crocodile Hunter five years later in 1996. To be fair – and to drag your minds out of the gutter – they spent their honeymoon trapping crocodiles, not lounging at an all-inclusive beach resort. Though the honeymoon aspect does explain why early episodes were a little handsy.
As the Crocodile Hunter, Irwin introduced and demystified Australian animals known more for their danger quotient than their charisma. To viewers, Irwin seemed to dance with competence more than necessarily own it. He fell down…a lot. He quite literally fell into danger on many occasions. If memory serves, he almost always jumped into water fully clothed, including shoes and socks. He had near misses with pissed off crocs, was bitten by many a snake, and his nose was on the losing end of an altercation with a bearded dragon. Not poisonous, but…ouch.
What kept Irwin from being some sort of Mr. Magoo caricature was his genuine wonder and unmitigated enthusiasm for the animals in front of him. His exuberance could quiet the cynics. The man made you want to see what he would do next and listen to what he would say. He spoke with the authority of someone who grew up studying and living with these animals.
Despite becoming the ultimate – if somewhat goofy – showman, conservation was at the heart of everything Irwin did. He used his fame and earnings to promote wildlife and land conservation. All of the earnings from his various TV specials were invested back into the Australia Zoo, or into other conservation efforts his family had in the works.
His methods were not immune to criticism. His poke-the-bear behavior didn’t settle well with those who leaned more strongly to the observational side of education. He also took it on the head for focusing on tourism as the prime solution to wildlife woes, instead of publicly addressing broader ecosystemic challenges. And then there was the time he fed a chicken to a 10-foot crocodile while holding his three-month old baby in his other arm. Suffice to say, that wasn’t his most popular move with fans or the authorities.
Irwin didn’t speak like a professor, despite an encyclopedic knowledge of Australian creatures and a proposed professorship at the University of Queensland. His exuberant facial expressions and his way of talking with his full body – not just his hands – read a bit like his presentations were choreographed by an elementary school choir instructor. Even though his body language skimmed hyperbole, his words were clear and approachable. Irwin did real work and he connected with a broad, global audience.
Irwin died in 2006 when he was stung by a stingray while snorkeling. It was called a freak accident and highly improbable – only fatal because he was hit so near the heart.
After you sat through a few episodes of The Crocodile Hunter, there was a glaring beacon that proved this patently oddball wildlife show was no spoof. That undeniable charm was Irwin’s sincerity. He was unconventional and resolute in his confidence – regardless of whether his actions looked like a wise idea or not. Steve Irwin raised global awareness of species and lands that many people would have no qualms about destroying outright. In the world of animal conservation, fluffy and cute are easy sells. It takes personality-plus to get buy-in on scaly and dangerous. Steve Irwin was the man for the job.
In the years after his death, Irwin’s son Robert, has picked up where his father left off. 17-year-old Robert Irwin is a regular on the late-night talk show circuit, introducing viewers to rare animals. He’s a talented wildlife photographer, and is a youthful and enthusiastic voice for conservation and animal welfare in Australia. November 15 is Steve Irwin Day in Australia, a day to remember Irwin’s contribution. In Northern Australia, 330,000 acres have been set aside as the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve.