Australian naturalist and television personality Steve Irwin (1962–2006) was best known for his popular wildlife program Crocodile Hunter . His unbridled enthusiasm for such unlovely creatures as crocodiles, snakes, and spiders earned him a tremendous following, and his Australia Zoo was a top tourist attraction in his country. An ardent wildlife conservationist, Irwin also invested much of his time and money toward that end. He died in a rare stingray attack while filming off the coast of Australia in 2006.
Born to the Breed
Irwin was born on February 22, 1962 in Essendon, near Melbourne, Australia. His father, Bob, was a plumber and his mother, Lyn, a nurse, but both were naturalists by avocation. They turned their hobby into a business in the early 1970s, when they moved the family to Australia's Sunshine Coast and opened the Beerwah Reptile Park.
Growing up among wild creatures, Irwin soon adopted his parents' affinity for the country's wildlife. He received a python for his sixth birthday, named it "Fred," and never looked back. Before long, he was helping his father rescue crocodiles. "When I was nine, dad took me capturing crocodiles," Irwin told Tessa Cunningham of the London Mirror . "We had five in the boat when my flashlight picked out a sixth. 'This one's yours, son,' dad said. He was a whopper—3ft. I got my legs around his neck and he was thrashing about. It was like being tossed around in a washing machine … It was an out-of-body experience. I knew then that catching crocs was the only life I wanted."
Emulating his father played a large role in Irwin's ambitions as well. "I totally revered my dad," he told Gary Arnold of the Washington Times . "For me, he was the greatest legend on the face of the earth. I just wanted to be him, from the time I was this big. I just watched him, this giant of a man, always larger than life." In addition to his role models and early exposure to animals, Irwin had a natural gift that gave him an extra edge. Paul Farhi of the Washington Post , cited in the Seattle Times , quoted Irwin's explanation of that something extra. "I don't want to seem arrogant or bigheaded, but I have a real instinct with animals," he said. "I've grown up with them … It's like I have an uncanny supernatural force rattling around my body. I tell you what, mate, it's magnetism."
Thus, via the combined contributing influences of parents, training, and talent, Irwin made animals his trade. He began by trapping rogue crocodiles and relocating them to the family zoo, which was renamed the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park in the 1980s. In 1991 his parents gave him the business, which he re-dubbed the Australia Zoo. He then met and married Terri Raines, a fellow nature enthusiast from Eugene, Oregon, whom he met at his zoo. And it was the film footage from their honeymoon that propelled Irwin to fame.
Irwin and his new bride spent their 1992 honeymoon in Northern Australia, camping and trapping crocodiles for relocation. Through the auspices of old friend and television producer John Stainton, a film of the working vacation became the first episode of Crocodile Hunter . The program was picked up by the Discovery Channel and Irwin was soon an international celebrity.
The huge success of Crocodile Hunter was, of course, dependent on its star. Irwin, clad in his trademark khaki shorts and shirt, was full of boyish enthusiasm for the scary creatures. Crocodiles, venomous snakes and lizards, scorpions, and spiders were among the less than cuddly wildlife he championed. Sometimes caressing them, and tussling with others, he always met the animals in their own environments. He spoke in a thick Australian accent and peppered his sentences with such catchphrases as "By Crikey!" and "Look at this beauty." It was dangerous work, but Irwin had an abiding respect for his co-stars. As he told the Houston Chronicle , "If you see me getting bitten by something, it's my mistake. I knew what I was up against went I went in with that animal, and sometimes my reflexes are a little slow or there's an oversight on my part." Such mishaps, however, were comparatively few.
By 2006, Irwin's program (by then airing on cable television's Animal Planet) was being seen by approximately 500 million people in more than 120 countries. He had branched out onto the silver screen as well, with an appearance in Eddie Murphy's Doctor Doolittle and a starring role (with his wife) in The Crocodile Hunters: Collision Course (both 2002). Neither was a critical success, but Hollywood was not really Irwin's natural habitat anyway. Commenting on movie studio executives to Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated in 2002, Irwin said, "These land sharks in Hollywood, you don't know who they are. They're camouflaged in black Armani suits."
Rather, to Irwin, the whole purpose was preserving the animals and their environment. He donated $1 million a year to his charity, Wildlife Warriors, and bought up tracts of land all over Australia to return them to their natural state. He viewed his television programs as ways to get people familiar with and excited about the animals he loved. As he put it to the Houston Chronicle in 2000, "What makes us [Irwin and his wife] tick—our gift to the world—is conservation. We eat, sleep and live for conservation. That's all we're about, that's what we're up to, that's our game. And we will die defending wildlife and wilderness areas. That's our passion."
Not everyone was a fan of Irwin's, naturally. His countrymen, for instance, sometimes found his "ultra Aussieism" an embarrassing cliché. Further, some fellow naturalists found his television antics to be those of an irresponsible thrill-seeker who committed the dual sins of exaggerating the dangers of wild animals while minimizing the risks in handling them. Such types of criticism were of slight consequence to Irwin, however.
Irwin ran up against a broader spectrum of critics in 2004. In January he caused an uproar by feeding crocodiles while holding his infant son, Bob. His more vociferous detractors equated the incident with child abuse, but the authorities declined to charge him with an infraction of any kind, and Irwin vehemently denied the child was ever in any danger at all. In June Irwin again came under fire for allegedly filming too close to penguins, whales, and seals in the Antarctic.
Overall though, Irwin was not much of a lightning rod for negative comments. His popularity transcended his isolated lapses in judgment, and his star was only minimally dimmed. Likeability was, after all, the Crocodile Hunter's stock in trade.
On September 4, 2006, Irwin was filming along Australia's Great Barrier Reef, his boat anchored near Port Douglas in Queensland. He decided to do a segment on a school of stingrays and began snorkeling in relatively shallow waters with his cameraman. Although they possess a barbed tail and a non-life-threatening venom, stingrays are normally extremely docile. On this day, however, chance and bad luck came together in a tragic manner. As Irwin swam over a male ray, it inexplicably struck him in the chest with its tail. His heart was pierced and he died within minutes. Only the third known fatal stingray attack in Australia and the 17th in the entire world, it was a sad and unexpected ending for a man who had made fearsome creatures his life's work. He was 44 years old.
The public outpouring of grief was almost immediate, with tributes coming from everyone from Australian Prime Minister John Howard to actor Russell Crowe to legions of fans all over the world. His father explained that he and his son had long been aware of the dangers in their occupations. He was quoted in USA Today as saying, "Both of us over the years have had some very close shaves and we both approached it the same way, we made jokes about it. That's not to say we were careless. But we treated it as part of the job. Nothing to worry about really." Certainly, there was little doubt that Irwin had died doing what he loved to do.
Irwin's legacy was the work and family he doted on. His eight-year-old daughter, Bindi, was already following in his footsteps and had been making a series with him at the time of his death. Environmental organization Planet Ark founder John Dee, a friend of Irwin's, told Jennifer Wulff of People , "We've got a fantastic chip off the block ready and raring to go. Hopefully [Bindi will] educate a whole new generation in the way her dad has." That time would, understandably, would be some time off in the future, as his wife and children mourned him.
A lesser known gift Irwin left behind was his discovery of a new snapping turtle. Found on the coast of Queensland, it was called Elseya irwini, in the tradition of naming after the discoverer. But perhaps Irwin's most memorable contribution was his unbridled joy and gusto. "I've never met somebody with such enthusiasm for life," television host Jay Leno told Michaela Boland of Variety . His widow and wife of 14 years put it another way in an interview with television personality Barbara Walters, quoted in People , when asked what she would miss the most. "He was fun," she said. "He taught me it's okay to play in the rain. And splash in my puddle. And let the kids get dirty. And spill ice cream on your pants. Now I'm going to have to work really hard at having fun again … I'm Mrs. Steve Irwin. I've got a lot to live up to."
Daily Post (Liverpool, England), July 29, 2002.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), September 5, 2006.
Daily Variety , September 5, 2006.
Guardian (London, England), September 5, 2006.
Houston Chronicle , November 27, 2000.
Mirror (London, England), February 19, 2000.
People , October 16, 2000; September 18, 2006; October 9, 2006.
Seattle Times , September 5, 2006.
Sports Illustrated , July 15, 2002.
Times (London, England), September 5, 2006.
Variety , September 11, 2006.
Washington Times , July 12, 2002.
"Father: Steve Irwin Wouldn't Have Wanted State Funeral," USA Today , September 6, 2006, http://www.usatoday.com/life/people/2006-09-06-irwin-father-comments_x.htm csp=34 (November 30, 2006).
"Steve Irwin, Crocodile Hunter," About, http://www.goaustralia.about.com/od/knowthepeople/a/steveirwin.htm (November 30, 2006).
"Steve Irwin Dead," ABC News, September 4, 2006, http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200609/s1732439.htm (November 30, 2006).