Crikey... look at this beauty!
- Steve Irwin
Steve Irwin was an Australian herpetologist (reptile expert) who was instantly recognisable by his khaki shorts and shirt, broad accent and dangerous interactivity with animals. During his life he was 'peed on, pooed on, stomped on, bitten, chomped, sliced, chased, harassed - by animals, mate'. He lived by the motto 'Conservation through Exciting Education'. Fellow wildlife presenter David Bellamy reflects, 'The thing with Steve was he mixed damn good science with showbusiness - and I don't know anyone else who did that'. His technique interested people worldwide but some Australians felt embarrassed by him. He has been so influential that his name has been given to a species of turtle (Elseya irwini), a gorilla, a crocodile research centre and a road (Steve Irwin Way in Beerwah, Queensland on Australia's Sunshine Coast).
Perhaps in some ways Steve Irwin could be likened to Alby Mangels, a fellow conservationist who liked to play the fool. However, there are differences. Unlike Mangels, Irwin was native to Australia, and was not a huge film star, playboy or pioneer of travel.
Crocodiles. I've been catching them since I was nine. No problem.
- Steve Irwin
Stephen Robert Irwin was born on 22 February, 1962 in Essendon, Victoria, Australia to parents Bob and Lyn. Bob trained as a plumber but in his spare time he looked after reptiles and Lyn was a wildlife rehabilitator. In 1970 the family consisting of Irwin, his father, mother and sisters (Mandy and Joy) moved to Queensland and set up Beerwah Reptile Park on the Sunshine Coast. The original park consisted of four acres of land and the family's caravan; until Bob built them a house. The family lived off the money that went into the park and over time bought up surrounding land. Eventually, the park grew so big that it became the State of Queensland's premier wildlife attraction and was renamed Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park. Another four acres was added to the site that went on to house several more animals, and in 1991 the zoo was renamed Australia Zoo. The zoo has become well known for its crocodile rehabilitation programme and feeding times. There are over 100 animals at the zoo; some are native to Australia and others like the elephant, tiger and birds are non-native species. Irwin was not keen on the parrots though: 'For some reason parrots have to bite me. That's their job. I don't know why that is. They've nearly torn my nose off.' The zoo was even home to the world's oldest animal, a Galapagos tortoise named Harriet. Many of these animals have been adopted by the Irwin family and their work colleagues. The zoo has won a couple of awards too: the South Australian Tourism Awards for 2003 - 2004 in the category Major Tourist Attraction; and the retail section has won the Tourism Retailing Award from Qantas Australian Tourism Awards. Today (2007) the zoo is still in existence and continues to deliver information to people about conservation and looking after animals.
The Crocodile Hunter
Steve never had any fear of crocodiles, but he has always respected them, which is undoubtedly why he has had so much success working with them.
- Bob, Steve's father
When Irwin was six he became the proud owner of a 3.6m (12-feet-long) scrub python and at the age of nine he began handling and wrestling crocodiles with his father Bob. Irwin also caught lizards and red-bellied black snakes and played with a bush-stoned curlew, an emu and a brolga1 in the park. On graduating from Caloundra State High School in 1979 he became a volunteer for the Queensland Government's East Coast Rogue Crocodile Management programme. This led him to experience living alone among mosquito-infested creeks, rivers and mangroves in North Queensland and learning how to catch huge crocodiles single-handedly.
During his childhood he also formed a friendship with John Stainton who later became a television producer. In 1990 Irwin and Stainton came together to produce an advert on the zoo and Irwin took the opportunity to ask him what he thought of making a documentary on the place. Stainton was interested in the concept and The Crocodile Hunter was born in 1992. 'I wanted the audience to feel it was Steve's own movie. We use wide-angled rather than zoom lenses, and to this day we haven't used a tripod. The impression is that there are three people on the expeditions: Steve, Terri and the camera', Stainton told The Sydney Morning Herald. Meanwhile, Irwin's parents gave him the zoo and he met and fell in love with Terri Raines2 during a park demonstration on handling animals. 'I thought, 'Crikey, a sheila who loves wildlife and can take a good hit on the head, that's the woman for me!' said Irwin.
I thought there was no one like this anywhere in the world. He sounded like an environmental Tarzan, a larger-than-life superhero guy.
- Terri Irwin
They married the following year and went on a honeymoon trapping crocodiles. Their honeymoon gave Stainton the opportunity to address what would be the very first episode of The Crocodile Hunter. The documentary first aired on the Discovery Channel in Australia in 1996. In fact, more than 70 episodes of The Crocodile Hunter, 53 episodes of Croc Files, and 43 episodes of Croc Diaries graced 500 million people's TV screens in 137 countries. In 1998 Irwin appeared on The Ten Deadliest Snakes in the World and took part in an interview with American talk show host Jay Leno. Bindi Sue Irwin (Irwin's daughter) was also welcomed into the world that same year (1998) on 24 July.
In 2001 Irwin won the Centenary Medal for his 'service to global conservation and to Australian tourism' and the following year his film The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course was released. The film shows Irwin trying to save a crocodile that has swallowed a transmitter from CIA agents, who he mistakes for poachers. The money raised from the sales of the film was put into conservation work. Irwin also appeared in Dr Dolittle 2 and his family took part in Wiggly Safari, a programme made by The Wiggles, a very popular group of children's entertainers in Australia.
I consider myself a wildlife warrior. My mission is to save the world's endangered species.
In 2002 Irwin and his wife set up Wildlife Warriors Worldwide, an independent charity that looks after wildlife and their habitats, encourages breeding, embarks on rescue programmes and uses scientific research to aid conservation. Irwin created International Crocodile Rescue and in memory of his mother the Lyn Irwin Memorial Fund that enabled aid to go to the Iron Bark Station Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. Irwin also bought up land in several different countries in order to help preserve animals in Fiji, America, Australia and Vanuatu. He advised people not to buy products associated with illegal poaching and to refuse to eat things such as Shark Fin Soup. He was even asked to represent the Australian Customs quarantine publicity campaign to help keep animal and plant disease out of Australia. Irwin and his slogan 'Quarantine matters! Don't muck with it!' were hugely successful.
Irwin was a family man and had two children with his wife (Terri Irwin), Bindi Sue and Robert Clarence. Robert Clarence was born on 1 December, 2003. Irwin adored his children and like his parents before him wanted to pass on his passion for animals to them. On 2 January, 2004, he even went as far as holding one-month-old Robert while interacting with a crocodile, an incident that met with great criticism from child welfare groups. Irwin disagreed though that his child had come to any harm but also added:
If I could have my time again I would probably do things differently, but I would be considered a bad parent if I didn't teach my children to be croc-savvy.
No charges were made against the couple in the end, but the Australian government changed its laws where children, untrained adults and crocodiles were concerned.
Not Everybody's Favourite
Irwin was criticised by Germaine Greer3 and Jean-Michel Cousteau4 who believed that Irwin would 'interfere with nature, jump on animals, grab them, hold them, and have this very, very spectacular, dramatic way of presenting things' and was irritated by this technique of encouraging people to support wildlife. Dan Mathews from the organisation PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) added that 'He made a career out of antagonising frightened wild animals, which is a very dangerous message to send to kids'. He went on to say 'If you compare him with a responsible conservationist like Jacques Cousteau, he looks like a cheap reality TV star'.
They thought that I was riding a whale, which is absolutely ludicrous.
The Australian Government and Greenpeace are very strict when it comes to the interaction between man and animals found in the Antarctic. There should not be any interaction at all. So when a documentary claimed that it showed Irwin 'sliding down hills with penguins' and interacting with whales, the government were quick to launch an investigation into the matter. After serious consideration of the shots used, the government decided that they would not press charges. In June 2004, a special edition of Crocodile Hunter was released. It was called 'Crocodiles and Controversy' and reflected Irwin's side of events regards the baby and the crocodile incident and his interaction with the Antarctic Animals.
I have been told that after a proper examination... no action of any kind is necessary.
- Australian Prime Minister, John Howard
I will continue to put my life on the line to save wildlife. This is my passion, and it won't stop. My life or theirs.
During the last three years of his life Irwin was in chronic pain. Years of fighting crocodiles had taken its toll and left Irwin with several broken bones. One crocodile rescue took place at Singapore Zoo in 2005.
Probably very few people knew this, but the last three or four years he was in pain 100 per cent of the time.
- Bob Irwin
Irwin always suspected that he would be killed by a crocodile stating, 'If something ever happens to me, people are gonna say 'we knew a croc would get him!'. However, on 4 September, 2006 while filming for the new programme Ocean's Deadliest his suspicions were proven wrong. At Batt Reef (part of the Great Barrier Reef) near Port Douglas, Irwin was attacked by a stingray.
He came over the top of a stingray and a barb, the stingray's barb, went up and put a hole into his heart. We got him back within a couple of minutes to Croc 1, which is Steve's research vessel, and by 12 o'clock when the emergency crew arrived they pronounced him dead.
According to the BBC, only one other person has been known to have been killed by a stingray.
He was the genuine article, what you saw was what you got: He took risks, he enjoyed life, but he brought immense joy to millions of people, particularly to children, and it's just such a terrible loss and I feel very distressed and I'm quite upset.
- John Howard, Australian Prime Minister
Irwin's family had a private ceremony for him and shortly after held a memorial service, which over 5,000 people attended. The ceremony took place in the Crocoseum stadium at his zoo and was televised by three of Australia's TV networks. Over 360million people watched Irwin's memorial service. Everybody was encouraged to wear Irwin's trademark outfit, khaki shorts and a khaki shirt. Australian Prime Minister John Howard led the one-hour ceremony and Russell Crowe and Irwin's daughter Bindi paid tribute to the man in words.
My daddy was a hero - he was always there for me when I needed him, working to change the world so everyone would love wildlife like he did. I don't want daddy's passion to ever end. I want to help endangered wildlife just like he did. I have the best daddy in the whole world and I will miss him every day. When I see a crocodile, I will always think of him.
In 2006 at the National Television Awards, where Terri Irwin gave fellow naturalist David Attenborough his Lifetime Achievement Award, Attenborough had this to say about the man:
He taught them how wonderful and exciting it was, he was a born communicator.
Straight after Irwin's death people laid flowers and aired their thoughts to one another, but others have considered longer-lasting ways of remembering the naturalist. Animal Planet's The Crocodile Hunter Diaries and the film Happy Feet, for which Irwin provided the voice-over for an elephant seal named Trevor, were dedicated to him. The Crikey Fund, set up by Animal Planet, is renaming the garden in front of Discovery's world headquarters in Silver Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, as the 'Steve Irwin Memorial Garden'. More controversial tributes, though, were people pretending to be Irwin at Halloween and a South Park tribute to the man. Irwin was posthumously inducted into the Australian TV's Hall of Fame in May 2007 for his contribution to documentaries on wildlife.