An acquaintance of one of my friends once served an internship at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo. “Is he… really like that?” my friend asked. You know. Like that. Like we see on TV. With the constant khaki and the “Crikey!” and the holding of snakes up over his head and the yelling.
Turns out he is. She reported seeing Irwin go into raptures over a delivery of mulch and his plans for spreading it just so for the animals, so thrilled was he with the wildlife he cared for that even the compost they walked upon was cause for a raised voice and wild gesticulations.
Somehow, it’s satisfying to know this. Mourners in Australia leaving flowers at the gates of his zoo are dwarfed by an enormous picture of Irwin and a slightly smaller croc. In an era of Botox and reality-show participants constantly blaming the editing, we want at least one person to be, in reality, as large, as wild, as yelly and as crocodile-adoring as he is in our living rooms.
The consensus of public opinion on the sudden death of the man we called the Crocodile Hunter is “I’m shocked… but I know I shouldn’t be.” Steve Irwin waded into crocodile-infested waters, hauled poisonous snakes out from under rocks, and scaled trees in further search of things that send most people — and other animals — skittering in the other direction.
The stingray that killed him pierced him, fittingly, directly in the heart. Here was a man who lived from his raw-edged passion.
Say what you will about his leaning into the camera, his insistence upon rarely changing out of his trademark khakis; the man was brimming with good television. He didn’t quietly narrate the feeding habits of a wild kangaroo as it rustled through the bushes. He dashed up into its face and brought it in for a close up.
“You need to come with me and be with that animal,” I once saw Irwin tell an interviewer on one of his Animal Planet specials, “…because if we can touch people about wildlife, then they’ll want to save it.”
He then turned towards the camera, as I’ve seen almost no other celebrity do before in a soft-light interview. “Come with me!” he said, eyes wide. “Come with me.”
Irwin loved all the animalsMost of us took up the invitation. Steve Irwin the zoo owner and Steve Irwin the media typhoon were practically indistinguishable. His Animal Planet and Travel Channel shows propelled him to worldwide stardom, complete with action figures, a movie, t-shirts, stickers, trading cards, a clothing line named after his daughter Bindi Sue (herself named after a crocodile and a dog), and a raft of DVDs. He was accompanied on his honeymoon by a film crew and was fully miked for the births of his two children.
“If I get bitten, I’ve made the mistake,” he would say. Sometimes he did get bitten — but not always by his beloved crocs. In 2004 a world of furor smashed over his shaggy head when he carried his then-one-month-old son, Bob, into a media-filled public feeding, the infant in one hand, a raw slab of meat in the other. The government of Queensland changed its laws governing the presence of children in a crocodile enclosure, a dubious legacy only one man on Earth can claim. One wonders if Irwin sat amongst the rubber snakes in his zoo’s gift shop and pondered if the media wave he’d created was worth crashing to shore like this.
The hands of Steve Irwin were gnarled, scarred, and calloused, but they weren’t without passionate intent. “Good morning, Douglas!” he was recently filmed greeting one of his crocodiles, for he loved them all, the cranky ones and the old ones, the “sheilas” and the brooders. Animals did not have to have long eyelashes and a fluffy coat for Steve Irwin to gather them unto him.
“The audience loves it when I almost die,” he would say proudly during the feedings. There is a reason, perhaps, why the Discovery Channel features an entire series of clips on Irwin’s homepage dubbed “Close Call Clips.”
There was something throwback and cowboy about Irwin, his insistence upon restraining crocs for relocation or medical attention without the use of drugs, his persistent mullet, his pronouncement that “getting married was the scariest moment of my life.” He trembled with adrenaline and adjectives.
Reports are now surfacing that Irwin, who was filming a documentary when he died, never saw the stingray that killed him until after it struck. His friend John Stainton told Australian media that the cameraman floated in front of the ray as Irwin swam alongside. The animal likely felt cornered. The barb swung.
If the camera hadn't been there, it may not have attacked.
But then again, if the camera hadn’t have been there, we likely would have never known Steve Irwin at all.
Mary Beth Ellis teaches in central Florida and runs BlondeChampagne.com.