Tuesday, September 05, 2006

RIP: the real Crocodile Dundee

Ultimately, his prediction went completely awry -- Steve Irwin did not die of a croc that finally got the famed Croc Hunter, and he didn't die of a bite from one of the deadly snakes he always found and caught on camera. Instead, the most famous Australian export of the past 15 years died in a freakish manner that was the negative equivalent of a 1,000,000-1 shot winning the Kentucky Derby -- hit while swimming near a bull stingray with the beast's stinger such that the stinger struck his chest at such a direct angle, and in such an unfortunate entry point, that the stinger slipped past his ribs, stuck straight in his heart, and ultimately killed the Croc Hunter.

Born Stephen Robert Irwin in 1962, the man known as Croc Hunter was born into his life's work as a conservationist and naturalist. His father Bob and mother Lyn started and ran the Beerwah Reptile Park in southern Queensland, just north of Brisbane on the Sunshine Coast -- Australia's "Dreamworld" area that was overrun by hotel and entertainment development in the 1980s. Irwin himself first trapped a crocodile with his own hands when he was merely 9 years old. By the time Irwin took over as the head of the park in 1991, and renamed it the Australia Zoo, all the 100+ crocs it housed had either been caught by him and his father, or bred at the Zoo.

In 1996, Irwin first gained international fame as a naturalist when Animal Planet began airing his "Crocodile Hunter" shows. The first shows included documentary footage of him catching crocodiles on his honeymoon in 1992. He traveled the world showing the public rare snakes, jungle creatures, conservation efforts and even upgrades at the Australia Zoo for the croc habitats. Irwin would rave about how GORRRRRRRRRRRGEOUS a warty lizard was, sooth a poisonous snake he'd just caught by telling it "you're awright, mate" and outfight five-meter long crocs with his prodigious strength.

As an ambassador for conservation efforts and wildlife appreciation, Irwin had no equal. His enthusiasm and energy, without preaching the environmentalist party line only contributed to his effectiveness (and Irwin's not an environmentalist per se either, his politics are right of center -- he's a conservationist and a supporter of the Liberal party, Australia's right-of-center party that is currently in power). His stereotypical Aussie-ness to American and non-Aussie audiences only helped, but the energetic friendly Aussie you saw is the person Irwin's friends say he really was.

Ultimately, Irwin had knowledge, as the Columbus Zoo's ubiquitous zoologist Jack Hannah noted in the AP. Irwin was not a veterinarian, nor a zoologist, nor a biologist. He learned from practical care and intense training. And he imparted his knowledge with a joy that most viewers who watched him could only dream of having in their own jobs. Irwin was, in Australian PM John Howard's words, "a great character." Quite true.

The Abbott to Irwin's Costello was always his wife Terri, the calm, reserved co-host in the Crocodile Hunter show, and its two spinoffs of outtakes and special information pieces -- Croc Files and Croc Hunter Diaries. She's also a conservationist and met him while traveling to Australia in 1991. Six months later, Terri Haines was Terri Irwin. In 1998, the Irwins had a baby girl, Bindi Sue, who features in a number of Croc Hunter episodes. In December 2003, their son Robert made his entry into the world. He's the more famous child: Baby Bob was the little bundle that Irwin held near a four-meter croc while doing a demonstration at the Australia Zoo -- an event caught on video that earned Irwin a black-eye worldwide for endangering the boy. Irwin claimed he had the situation under control, but his initial explanation that he was essentially teaching the boy crocodile safety from an early age did not wash.

Irwin's reputation improved. His financial success stayed huge: a $9M salary ($16M in Australia) from the Croc Hunter show alone made his bank account overflow, and the Australia Zoo visitor ticket sales increased geometrically. But the Irwins poured the money into the Zoo and conservationist causes, not multimillion dollar dream houses.

The popular host, Aussie icon, energetic conservationist, and ambassador to animalia from snakes to sea turtles to lemurs to the native beasts of the Serengeti was filming documentary footage off of Cairns in North Queensland to use for a children's show that Bindi would host when that surprisingly deadly ray struck Irwin with its serrated stinger.

Steve Irwin, The Croc Hunter, RIP.

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