I try to cover the big story of the day on this blog, and today, there’s only one possible topic of conversation in much of the world. It seems fitting that the tale of Steve Irwin’s death should have been so dramatic, so much larger than our dull lives, like the man himself. Who ever heard of anyone being killed by a stingray? And even more extraordinarily, who ever heard of a creature that Irwin couldn’t bend to his will? After all, this was the man who jetted into East Timor right after it was liberated to rescue two rogue crocodiles. I hadn’t seen much of his show, and like many, found his public profile pretty bizarre. But I remember reading this story at the time and thinking – hype aside, that guy’s the real deal.
It was an amazing story, even by Irwin’s standards – well worth a read. (I’ve linked to the Google cached page here because Irwin’s sites are down, no doubt because of the same overwhelming response from the public that saw thousands of comments on smh.com.au yesterday.)
After the liberation of East Timor, Australian troops found two crocodiles on the verge of death – I think they’d escaped from Dili Zoo, from memory. So the army flew Irwin flew in with his team, and he built new crocodile enclosures, and then saved them. I’ll reproduce his own words, because how could you top them?
Now came the hard part, capturing, restraining and shifting the two crocodiles who didn’t understand we were trying to help them. The local people got wind of the crocodile captures and thousands of them came to watch. The Australian Army did a great job keeping them from running in and getting chomped during one of the wildest captures of our lives. Maxine went easy. She was relatively subdued and only managed a couple of snaps and a death roll. I simply top-jaw roped her, pulled her out, and then she was easily restrained. We took her down to the sea where we washed her thoroughly and treated her injuries. She looked sick and had had her will to live bashed out. “Poor, poor girl – it’s ok. We love you and we’ll take good care of you.” She responded well to her new territory where for the first time she had water to submerge and swim in. Wow! She absolutely loved her new home and has been beaming ever since.
Anthony was another story. Oh boy – what a fight. He fought us all the way. I got top jaw ropes on with no problem, but being in such a contained area meant we couldn’t jump in and restrain him. He would’ve killed us all. It’s not his fault, he’s been through a lifetime of torture and as far as he was concerned we were trying to hurt him. He shook his head and death-rolled violently. He hit the concrete so hard it cracked; apparently people could feel the ground move twenty feet away. Finally, I’d had enough of him struggling and couldn’t take the risk of him hurting himself any more, so I jumped on him. Thank goodness Wes and the team backed me up with enough strength to drag him straight out, where we were able to restrain him on the ground. The Diggers jumped in too, so once we got him up we moved him quickly over to his new territory. He was totally disorientated and had never walked before so once we released him, he went into sensory overload. After trying to coax him into the water unsuccessfully, we finally dragged him in. As a final demonstration of his dominance, he death rolled. YES!
That’s right, he jumped on a crocodile while it was trying to kill him.
And of course, he played down in his account that one of the crocs severed a tendon on his arm.
The other insight into Irwin that I remember is just how genuine his commitment to conservation was, as per this interview on Enough Rope:
Andrew Denton: A lot of people see you as this… this larger than life Steve Irwin, in some ways a one-dimensional, almost cartoon character. But what they, perhaps, don’t know is you’ve bought huge tracts of land in Australia, Vanuatu, Fiji, US. Why have you done that?
Steve Irwin: I’m a conservationist through and through, Andrew. That’s, er…that’s why I was put on this planet, um, for the benefit of wildlife and wilderness areas. That’s what I’m into. That’s what makes me pumped, mate. That’s what myself and Terry and our families have been all about.
Andrew Denton: So what’s this land for?
Steve Irwin: Um, it’s like national parks, mate.
Steve Irwin: We… You know, easily the greatest threat to the wildlife globally is the destruction and annihilation of habitat. So I’ve gone, “Right, well, how do I fix that? Well, making a quid here. People are keen to give me money over there. I’ll buy it. I’ll buy habitat.” And I reckon the only thing wrong… Now, how’s this? The only thing wrong with, you know, wildlife in Australia is that I don’t own it. I could… Imagine how many kangaroos and crocodiles I could have if I owned Australia? It’s, um… My wife is an American so she’s got this, er… She’s, um…you know, she’s a good capitalist. And, er, she’s very clever with money. Me, I’m not that clever and I don’t really give a rip, but, er, she is. And, um, so whenever we get a…a, um…enough cash and enough…and a…and a chunk of land that we’re passionate about, bang, we buy it.
It was ironic that he was called the Crocodile Hunter, ultimately, when he devoted so much time to protecting them. In fact, he was instrumental in stopping sport hunting of crocodiles in the Northern Territory.
The only time I saw him in person was during that famous incident at the Logies in 2003, when he brought along a carpet snake (I think there may have been a red carpet joke in there somewhere?) and jokingly pretended to get it to bite Eddie McGuire – but while he was joking around, he pretended to stagger down towards the audience, and it struck the Ten newsreader instead. I was sitting quite nearby, and saw it bite him. I was astonished anything could go wrong with Irwin around.
I guess he was used to such semi-supernatural rapport with animals that he may not always have appreciated the risks. He’d rolled the dice so many times and come up a winner that he was perhaps not always as cautious as he might have been – and that was what was so sad about all the criticism when he had his baby near that crocodile, which upset him enormously. He said he had been in control. The problem is that when wild animals are involved, that may not always be possible. But you have to admire him for taking those risks, even though they seem to have led to this death that has so devastated everyone. He was a man of his famously exuberant words.
Irwin signed off his lengthy account of the Timor rescue in bold caps, the closest you can come to rendering his personality in print:
I LOVE CROCODILES; ALWAYS HAVE AND ALWAYS WILL!
He’s not a man for whom it seems appropriate to wish he rests in peace. So instead, let’s hope he’s still out there somewhere, jumping on the backs of rogue crocodiles.