Steve Irwin

by Eirik Knutzen | Jun 27, 2001
Steve Irwin Born and raised in captivity at the Queensland Reptile & Fauna Park, Steve Irwin is not a cute and cuddly Homo sapien. He has dozens of ugly scars all over his body and a few mangled fingers from close encounters with other wild beasts.

A sulfur-crested cockatoo left an indelible mark after trying to rip his nose off with her huge beak; some portions of his face look as though they were rearranged with an axe. Encountering Irwin in the jungle, a frightened biologist might be tempted to beat him to death with a big stick - partly because of his boyish, scary looks; partly because of his relentless enthusiasm and good cheer.

But such a deed would probably upset more than 100 million fans around the world, who love the rambling Australian just the way he is: as the intrepid wildlife conservationist host of "The Crocodile Hunter" (Wed., 8-9 P.M. & Sun., 9-10 p.m., ANIMAL PLANET). They simply can`t imagine a world without Irwin grabbing venomous snakes with his bare hands and wrestling 12-foot alligators in 6 feet of muddy water. And Irwin - ably assisted by his pretty American wife and co-host, Terri - can`t imagine doing anything else for a living.

"I`m the happiest bloke on the face of the earth," roars the khaki-clad naturalist. "Filming wildlife documentaries make me feel like a total adrenaline junkie. I go anywhere I want in the world to study wildlife. I`m raising my (3-year-old) daughter, Bindi, at Australia Zoo."

Part of the little girl`s home education - along with the usual busy streets and hot stoves - is how to tell poisonous snakes from harmless ones and not go near bodies of water because they might have crocodiles in them. Bindi is learning how to care for injured and sick animals, but respecting their wildness. The baby cougar rolling on the floor with their daughter now can break her neck, just playing, in two years` time.

If isolated, a social animal, such as a prairie dog, will die of loneliness. The Irwins` mantra is Conservation! Conservation! Conservation!

"Basically, the greatest gift anyone can give to this world is not to purchase wildlife products," snorts the 39-year-old daredevil. "There are lots of such products. Is it OK to wear furs from spotted cats? Shoes from alligators? Belts from rattlesnakes? Or a mink coat for that matter? Ban (these products) across the board. That way, every single person on this planet can contribute to conservation."

"We have found that the illegal trade in wildlife products is second only to the drug trade in this country," Terri chimes in. "Literally billions of dollars a year go through the United States in the wildlife market. If there is no legal market in this area, it would be much easier to control it. If we go to a restaurant and see crocodile on the menu, we politely tell the manager why we can`t eat there and leave. We`re not tying ourselves to trees or trying to make huge points; we just explain why we are going elsewhere. Courteously."

Irwin, now the director of the Australia Zoo and host of several "Crocodile Hunter" specials on the NBC Network, began his long career in animal conservation as an annoying kid. In fact, the youngster, built along the lines of a sturdy fire hydrant, was regarded as the antithesis of cool at the 10-student Landsburg Primary School, located near his old Reptile and Fauna Park home - which was founded by his naturalist parents, Bob and Lyn Irwin.

"`Crazy, nut, mad, stupid` were words the kids used when I was catching (deadly) brown snakes at the age of 7," he recalls with an air of satisfaction. "When we were playing cricket, I`d be out in the field catching red-belly black snakes ... it got me in lots of trouble. The other kids didn`t think it was cool. They got a bit of an adrenaline (rush) out of it, but they thought I was relatively mad."

Following in his herpetologist father`s instructions, Irwin wrestled his first crocodile (an 8-footer) when he was 9 years old. By the time he was old enough to vote, he had established himself (along side his father) as an expert on huge reptiles, gutsy enough to take full advantage of the Queensland government`s problem crocodile-relocation program.

Catching most of them bare-handed, rather than darting and knocking them out first, all the crocs avoided serious injury during the capture. In all, the 150 enormous aquatic beasts at the Australia Zoo were caught by the father-and-son team, or born and raised at the facility.

The man who appears to irritate every animal he comes in contact with is merely trying to emulate his father.

"He`s my hero," explains Irwin, an individual most comfortable in khaki shirts, shorts and Timberland boots. "All I`ve wanted to do is be my dad, and I have become him, and I will follow in his footsteps till the day I die. He taught me everything I know about the nature of animals.

"And that includes free-handling venomous snakes," he continues, cheered by the thought of grabbing enraged rattlesnakes and black mambas by their tails. "A snake is comprised of one big vertebrae from their heads to the tip of their tails. If you grab them by the neck and hold them up from the ground with tongs or some other steel device, you are stretching their backbones. Fighting for their lives, they`ll try to kill you, or actually injure themselves by wiggling too hard to get out of it."

Fortunately, Irwin`s father taught him how to grab Eastern diamondback rattlers and other potentially lethal reptiles gently by the tail.

"I approach each and every animal with lots of love and have an innate, sixth sense about how they will react - something I can`t quite explain," he says. "If I can avoid getting bitten in the first 30 seconds to a minute, the snake will understand that I mean it no harm. I have never been bitten by a venomous snake."

But a few hundred other animals have taken chunks out of him, including a pack of non-venomous snakes.

"I`ve got scar tissue all over my body, including where kangaroos have scratched me and crocs have bitten me, and they`re not badges of honor," he says ruefully. "My head looks like I`ve had too many hits in the face with a big stick. Each (wound) means I made a mistake, but I knew what I was up against and was prepared to take the risk."

Known for stirring up his crocs at the Australia Zoo by tossing dead chickens down their gullets from close quarters, Irwin also wants to take his conservation and research message to the big screen next year - building on his fun experience doing a cameo in Eddie Murphy`s "Dr. Dolittle 2."

Also smart, he realizes there will come a time when slowing reflexes can kill him in a split second.

"My father was in his 50s when he got clobbered by a common brown snake, the second most venomous snake in the world," he says. "Then, when a couple of very serious croc bites nearly took his hand off, he said to me, `Son, you`ve gotta learn from my mistakes.` If, by some slim chance, I make it to my 50s, I`ll slow down a little."

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Eirik Knutzen


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