Monday, September 11, 2006

Steve Irwin (SMH Obituary)

Celebrating the life of Steve Irwin, the following obituary appeared in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

Steve was a passionate man who lived a passionate life and remained true to the ideals he espoused.

May God give comfort to his wife, Terri, and the children, Bindi and Bob, as well as all his close friends and colleagues at Australia Zoo and around the world.

Wildlife warrior took his passion to the world - Obituaries -
Steve Irwin, 1962-2006

Stephen Robert Irwin, killed by a stingray off the Great Barrier Reef last Monday, knew throughout the last decade of his life, when he enjoyed superstardom, that two things were true: he was one miscalculation away from doom; and if such a thing happened, detractors would say: "It was only a matter of time."

But he amounted to far more than that. If he did offend some traditional naturalists - and critics like Germaine Greer - he brought an awareness of wildlife to living rooms throughout the world and imbued in his listeners a respect for all creatures, even those they had been taught to revile.

Born in Essendon, in Melbourne's north-west, Irwin was destined to grow up, as were his sisters Joy and Mandy, in what was from outward appearances a normal family. His father, Bob, was a plumber and his mother, Lyn, a maternity nurse. Irwin loved sport and barracked for the Essendon Bombers in the AFL. The family took holidays and explored parks and creeks. But it was the couple's private passion, wildlife, that instilled itself in the young Steve, who was also to learn quickly that some of those beloved creatures did not necessarily appreciate the attention. When he was four, a cockatoo bit him badly on the nose.

For his sixth birthday, Irwin asked for a snake and his father, an amateur herpetologist, thought that was fair enough. While other children watched The Flintstones, Steve Irwin was catching mice for Fred, a 2.6 metre python.

At seven, he was following his father into the bush, trying to catch snakes as his father did, and barely surviving an attack by a brown snake. Once, having batted poorly in a cricket match, Irwin went looking for lizards, found a red-bellied black snake and thought the best place to transport it home on the bus was in the driver's esky. The driver was not impressed.

In 1970, following their dream, the family moved to Queensland's Sunshine Coast and founded the Beerwah Reptile Park. Lyn filled the house with injured and orphaned native animals, turning her nursing skills to bottle-feeding joeys in home-made pouches that swung from kitchen chairs. Bob taught his son to catch animals being exhibited, including crocodiles. Steve initially helped his father who "jumped" the crocodile. The boy would use his weight to pin the reptile down while his father blindfolded it. Then when Steve was nine, they reversed roles, when the boy jumped a one-metre "freshie".

After completing his schooling at Caloundra State High, Irwin joined the Queensland Government's program of trapping and relocating rogue crocodiles in the state's north. Taking his best friend, a dog called Chilli, a small boat, ropes and nets to trap the crocodiles too big to jump, he worked alone for months on end. He relocated many crocodiles to the property at Beerwah, including Acco, the 1000-kilogram "saltie" that had feasted on cattle for 20 years.

In 1991, Irwin's parents handed over to him the running of the wildlife park and he changed its name to Australia Zoo. He also began the Channel Ten documentary series, Totally Wild, which is still running. The same year he met John Stainton, who was to become his great mate and financial partner. The following year he met Terri Raines, a vet from Oregon who had a keen interest in American wildlife rehabilitation. She asked him whether he had a girlfriend, he said he did and whistled for his Staffordshire bull terrier cross, Sui. Eight months later Steve and Terri married, and invited a camera crew on their honeymoon to film the rescue of a crocodile.

In 1996, with Stainton's backing, Irwin became host of The Crocodile Hunter series, co-starring with Terri and using the services of Sui, and it thrust him into public awareness. He and his wife made more than 100 wildlife documentaries. He appeared to be showing off, almost to be taunting the crocodiles and snakes. He was often bitten, but he had a sense of humour.

Cherrie Bottger, now an executive with Channel Ten, said the first time she went with a crew to produce a segment for Totally Wild at Australia Zoo, she exhibited a phobia about snakes. The idea of a wildlife film producer having such problems sent Irwin into fits of laughter. "But he always made me feel comfortable and instructed the staff to keep the snakes away from me," she said.

Irwin certainly took risks, pushed the boundaries of safety for what he believed in. Terri Irwin once said: "People tune in because they want to see this guy die or get badly hurt. But instead they get a message about wildlife, and they get to see a guy who says, 'Isn't a rattlesnake beautiful?' Who else says that?" And who will now? What Steve Irwin saw as ordinary, most of us would call extraordinary. What Steve saw as awesome was the beauty of creatures others fear - or misunderstand. And Steve devoted his life to conveying his sense of awe to the rest of the world.

Irwin was never inclined to be cautious, or to spare himself. Trevor Long, the marine science director for Sea World, said he was once with Irwin on a boat, catching turtles for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. Disregarding questions about his safety, Irwin dived and badly fractured a finger. Coming up, he said it was only dislocated and gave it a yank. "You could see the wave of pain go across his face." Long said. "But Steve said, 'I will strap it up', and he did and continued catching turtles for the rest of the day."

Irwin's first child was Bindi Sui, named after Irwin's favourite crocodile, Bindi, and Sui. She was born on July 24, 1998. By 1999, through cable TV series, some 200 million viewers - many of whom were in the US - had been drawn into his private enthusiasm. He had become the new Paul Hogan, the archetypal Australian "good bloke", the de facto ambassador for all that was best in his country.

The environmentalist, Dr David Suzuki, said: "Most academic environmentalists speak as if they have a pole up their behind but Steve Irwin vulgarised environmental issues in the best possible way and so popularised them to the extreme. The environmental world benefited enormously from Steve Irwin because he not only identified threatened species but hugged and kissed them, making the viewers want to save them as well."

Those who preferred the academic refinement of David Attenborough hardly warmed to Irwin, and his detractors had plenty to work on. A son, Robert Clarence, born on December 1 , 2003, was little more than a month old - too weak even to hold up his head - when Irwin took him in one arm into a crocodile pen. With the other arm, Irwin dangled a chicken carcass over the gaping mouth of a large crocodile.

Irwin, with his wife's support, said Bob was in no danger and that each of their children was going to be taught to be "croc savvy". But Irwin barely escaped a charge of child endangerment.

Irwin worked tirelessly to raise public awareness of conservation issues and bought expanses of land in several countries as part of his dream to extend the family legacy with protected parklands around the globe.

He found himself in a further spot of bother when he was filmed too close to Antarctic wildlife. That probably was the problem: he wanted to get too near.

But in April he launched his own conservation organisation, Wildlife Warriors. Its executive director, Michael Hornby, said: "We are now even more committed than ever to carry on what Steve started. Our charter includes buying land, when funds become available, and we will continue the education process he started so well."

At the time of his death, Irwin was shooting material to be used in Bindi Sui's wildlife documentary series for kids. Bindi had been brought up well. Irwin remarked with some pride on Enough Rope, Andrew Denton's ABC TV show, that she had received "her first snakebite". Obviously her father's daughter, she said at age eight that she harboured an ambition to run Australia Zoo.

Malcolm Brown and Wendy Anderson

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