Steve Irwin – crocodile man

Crikey! He’s gone!

He was the true Aussie larrikin. He was a marketing genius. He was a true conservationist, who cared passionately about animals. He was delightfully described as being 44 going on six. He was the boy who never grew up, who never lost his delight in world around him. He was passionate about Australia, and promoted his country everywhere around the world, anytime he had the opportunity. He was devoted to his wife and children, and had his dad as his best mate. He expressed his delight with animals in his development of the Australia Zoo. He loved working in close proximity with wild animals, and usually the more dangerous ones. And he died doing just that – part of a crew swimming with and filming a giant ray.

Steve, with wife Terri, son Robert, and daughter Bindi.
Steve, with wife Terri, son Robert, and daughter Bindi.
Photograph from Geelong Advertiser 8 September 06

Germaine Greer, on the other hand, after having swallowed a lemon, declared that Steve was nothing more than a ‘self-deluded animal tormentor’, and that the animal world had taken its revenge on him. Not surprisingly the then Queensland Premier Peter Beattie told her to pull her head in.

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So who really was Steve Irwin? He claimed he was just an ordinary bloke, and in a sense that’s true. He wanted to identify with ordinary Australians, rather than with the elite. You can see that in his choice of ‘uniform’, the casual khaki shorts and open necked shirt. These are the ‘uniform’ if you like, of a working class man. The suit and tie that are a trademark of the top end of society are notably absent. His family declined the offer of a state funeral, because, as his dad said, Steve would have declined a state funeral because he was just ‘an ordinary bloke’.

But there’s more to Steve than that. He was both a marketing genius who knew how to transform his personal passion into a message that would connect with many, while always retaining his boyish sense of wonder at the world around him. He learned to love animals from his parents, Bob and Lyn Irwin. He started crocodile hunting when he was nine, and has been involved with wild animals ever since. His passion was for wild animals, and their conservation and protection. And he put his money where his mouth is. He bought large tracts of land which he set aside for conservation purposes. He hunted crocodiles, not to shoot them, but to capture them so that they could be relocated to areas where they would not be under threat from humans. And when he died, he was filming a dangerous animal, not shooting it.

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But I suspect that the real significance of Steve Irwin for us is that he lived the life many of us would love to live if we could. We can see ourselves out there in the wild, catching crocs, taking risks, making things work, living with passion. Or at least we’d like to think we could do that, live like that. We vicariously adventured with him, and he fulfilled that deep primal need for us to have adventures where we are tested and we can overcome. And I think he understood this, which is one reason he was so passionate about conservation, so that ordinary people will always have a place to have such adventures.

And there will be positives from a conservation point of view. Its easy to say – and obvious – that we need to look after the world we live in. We have a responsibility to care for the world we’ve be given. We know that. Steve took that knowledge and moved it from our heads to our hearts. And, unlike so many who with the best intentions leave us feeling depressed about the world, he did it in a way that left us feeling good and wanting to do something positive about caring for the environment. He managed to awaken the wonder for many of us, and this will go on for a long time. I like the story told by Lawrence Downes in the New York Times, of his six year old son:

But there are far worse ways to view the natural world than through the eyes of a young child, and Mr. Irwin offered a far more temperate version of the classic 6-year-old-boy approach, which is to confront a wild animal, marvel at its strength and ferocity, and then try to hit it with a rock. For Mr. Irwin, wild nature was something to wonder at, and he did so with an enthusiasm indistinguishable from love. Animals – even deadly ones – are good, poachers are evil, and, crikey, that’s pretty much it.

Call that simple-minded, call it dumb, but it resonates. Future environmentalists and conservationists have to come from somewhere, and if the energetic wonderment of the Crocodile Hunter has seeped into the brains of significant numbers of children – as it did that of Sean, who went trick-or-treating as Mr. Irwin last year, who turned 6 with a crocodile cake, who wears khaki and boots and fills notebooks with meticulous drawings of reptiles – then Mr. Irwin used his 44 years remarkably well.

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So Steve’s effect on the conservation of wild animals will be much more profound and long lasting that the sour prognostications of people like Germaine Greer. People, and even six year old boys, take him seriously because he was real, and his passion for the animal world was real. His sense of wonder was real, and it resonates with us.

Steve attracted attention around the world, sometimes in places you wouldn’t expect. I loved reading this story in the alternative news website

However, of all the Irwin anecdotes that have been told since his passing, perhaps the one that best symbolises his notoriety was the story that just before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 CNN showed an Iraqi family preparing for the onslaught. The TV cameras zoomed into the living room of the family who were watching TV. Rather than tuning into CNN or al-Jazeera, on the screen was none other than the Crocodile Hunter.

Adam Schwab in

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But no man is invincible, not even Steve Irwin. An 8 inch long barb from a giant ray into the heart is something that nobody can survive. When God makes an appointment with us we have no choice but to go. I do hope that Steve was prepared.

We will miss you, crocodile man.

Willem Schultink

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