Hello to you and Happy Birthday to one of my childhood heroes, Steve Irwin, better known as The Crocodile Hunter! Although the man died almost 10 years ago, his influence will forever be felt. An occasionally controversial figure, the excitable Australian made a name for himself throughout the world as an animal lover who would share his expertise and enthusiasm through the medium of television, however there was more to the man then merely wrangling crocodilians.
The Crocodile Hunter was born Stephen Robert Irwin the same day as his mother’s birthday on February 22, 1962 in Melbourne. His parents were wildlife experts interested mostly in herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians, who sought to provide a place to rehabilitate and present such specimens for people to see and appreciate. They moved to Queensland in the 1970s and opened the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park. From humble beginnings, both young Steve and the animal park grew. He became fascinated with its residents such as crocodiles and snakes and had a role as a sort of zookeeper, caring for the animals by feeding them and cleaning and maintaining their enclosures.
Irwin volunteered for the East Coast Crocodile Management Program which would capture crocs and move them out of areas where they would encounter people. Irwin went on to realize by observing the dynamics of crocodile living and hierarchy that the best solution was not to remove the dominant male of a waterhole where crocs lived but to temporarily capture and “overpower” the large reptile then release it back where it lived. The croc would associate humans as something to steer clear of rather than attack. He describes his experiences with this program in this archived post.
The early 1990s was an eventful period in Steve Irwin’s life. He met Terri Raines, a naturalist from Eugene, Oregon while she was touring animal rehabilitation establishments in Australia. The music played and they were married a year later. That same year, 1992, he officially took over his family’s animal park and renamed it the Australia Zoo. Today it is one of the most popular attractions in Australia and has animals such as tigers, elephants, and a variety of savanna animals in an African Safari exhibit. Of course, an assortment of large reptiles is still present with crocodiles, pythons, and Komodo dragons, among others. The zoo was home to Harriet, a Galapagos tortoise who was allegedly first picked up by Charles Darwin during his historic trip aboard the HMS Beagle. This story has been called into question over the years, however, Harriet’s age has not. She died shortly after Irwin in 2006, but where he was 44, she was estimated to be about 175 years old – the third oldest tortoise known to man (the oldest is believed to have been 255!).
Today, the Australia Zoo is owned by Terri and ran by Steve’s best mate Wes Mannion. Throughout the 1990s and 200s, Irwin balanced operation of the zoo with production of his television show, The Crocodile Hunter. Beginning with footage of catching crocs on their honeymoon, the nature series, which ran from 1996-2007, sent Steve and Terri and others across the globe in search of animals of all sorts. While his specialty was herpetology, Irwin was well educated on all animals and their ecosystems and served as an ambassador for them by displaying some of the most endangered animals like orangutans; dispelling fear of the likes of snakes, spiders, and sharks; educating about invasive species; and much more. During the show’s run, the Irwins also worked on two other shows, Croc Files and The Crocodile Hunter Diaries, the latter of which focused more on some of the everyday occurrences at Australia Zoo. I recall one thrilling episode where the crew has to wrangle an emu that got loose from its enclosure. Thrilling stuff!
The most thrilling stuff for Irwin was the birth of his children. His daughter, Bindi Sue, was born in 1998, and Robert Clarence in 2003. Bindi, now a major animal care and conservation voice of a new generation, not to mention a Dancing with the Stars champion (C is for crocodile, D is for dancing, I suppose), is named after a pair of animals beloved by her father. Bindi is an Aboriginal word for “young girl” given originally to a crocodile in the Australia Zoo, while Sui, was the Irwin family dog. If you think it is stupid to name someone after a dog than Indiana Jones might have some things to say to you. Bear in mind that the Irwins consider their animal companions to be part of their family, as do I and anyone else who has pets or works with animals. Robert is named, more traditionally, after Steve’s father.
The Irwins were also a constant presence on television outside of their own show. Steve and Terri were often guests on talk shows and late night shows. Steve made memorable and humorous appearances in commercials for FedEx and ESPN and others. They even starred in their own movie, Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, as well as other movies like Dr. Dolittle 2 and Happy Feet. However, the point of emphasis for all of the Irwins’ work has always been the welfare of the animals they love and love to share with the rest of us. Whether showing off the incredible jaw-snapping power of crocs to crowds of visitors at the Crocoseum at Australia Zoo; scaring the chin off of Jay Leno with a large snake on The Tonight Show; or highlighting wildlife around the world on The Crocodile Hunter, Steve and his family have always done what they’ve felt is best to protect animals through teaching us more about them. Sometimes Steve was criticized for being reckless, and this was not always without reason. He routinely handled dangerous animals of all sizes on camera, yet always stressed how he was a professional with a lifetime of experience from growing up in a zoo. He did blunder big time when he infamously took baby Robert along with him during a crocodile feeding demonstration at Australia Zoo. The backlash of concerned parents made him realize his mistake, and he never did it again and was especially careful with supervising his children around animals. Nevertheless, he continued to encourage his kids to learn hands-on as he had in the hopes they would be educators and ambassadors for the animals he loved almost as much as them.
Steve Irwin was a constant conservationist. Over the years he purchased land in Fiji, the United States, Vanuatu, and his native Australia to be preserved for wildlife. He even discovered a species of turtle with his father that they named Irwin’s turtle in 1997. In 2009, a newly-discovered species of snail was named in honor of him. It is the only known member of its genus, which is named after Irwin’s favorite catchphrase. The full name of the snail is Crikey steveirwini.
I too was inspired to name an animal after Steve Irwin. One summer night in 2008, I was walking my dog outside of a pet store near my house when I spotted what I initially thought to be a large insect. Upon closer inspection I realized it was a gecko and vowed to take it home if it did not bite me. After scooping him up in the way I learned from watching the Crocodile Hunter, I brought the little lizard home and christened him Crikie. I gave his name a different spelling to allow him to make it his own, as well as the fact that we lived in a different hemisphere. Crikie died in 2012 and was given a Hollywood-style Viking funeral. Steve Irwin’s own memorial service took place in 2006 in Australia Zoo’s Crocoseum where he had showcased the prowess of crocodiles for many years.
Irwin’s death was somber and shocking news to all. On September 4, 2006, while filming a documentary called Ocean’s Deadliest, he decided to get some footage for Bindi’s show, Bindi the Jungle Girl, and swam up too close behind a stingray. In its panic to escape him, the ray jabbed Irwin with its tail spine multiple times and managed to pierce his heart. Irwin bled out from his wounds and died before help could arrive.
Ever eager to display the beauty of nature and highlight the fascinating animals that are a part of it, Steve Irwin was a marvel of a man with an infectious energy and passion unmatched by any. He inspired countless children and adults alike, including myself. As a young lad in the 1990s and early 2000s, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the man who fully earned his legendary nickname and learned a lot about animals from him. Furthermore, I learned how to convey those fun facts I was now endowed with to others in order to encourage them to care about nature too. Steve Irwin remains at the top of the list of inspirational naturalist personalities for me and his impact helped me to become who I am today. It’s hard not to admire a man who can be bitten by a snake and not even flinch as he did on more than one occasion. See?
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed Steve Irwin and his animal antics as much as I did. If you want to take a trip down memory lane or perhaps even discover the man for the first time, then check out episodes of his show. If you do not have any in your collection, then you can easily find full length episodes online, even on YouTube. Any questions or comments can be left below or sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Speaking of monotreme madness…