| Outside magazine, November 1997|
Steve Irwin, the khaki-wearing bloke known to millions of television viewers around the world as the Crocodile Hunter, was at this particular spatial juncture oddly, oddly reluctant to converse. Indeed, the man seemed more than merely guarded; he was behaving like some politico who'd just been caught with his snag in the spago. In days to follow, several of his fellow Australians who are in a good position to know would tell me that Irwin can be standoffish not just because of his croc-size ego, but also because there are certain things about his docos that he just doesn't want publicly known.
By "his docos" they were referring to The Crocodile Hunter, a documentary television series that enjoys a cultish following in such far-flung places as Sweden, New Zealand, the UK, and numerous countries in Asia. Here in the United States, The Crocodile Hunter is one of the most popular shows on Discovery Communications's Animal Planet, the wildlife cable channel ("all animals, all the time") that's now carried in 24 million homes around the country. Cable television, as we've all noticed by now, has been experiencing an explosion of fins, fangs, and fur, and Irwin's show is one of the more memorable, if decidedly kitschy, examples of the genre, with its own growing fan club and a seemingly inexhaustible viewership: On Labor Day, for example, Animal Planet aired what it called a Crocodile Hunter marathon — 13 straight hours of the show.
The Crocodile Hunter is a simple, low-budget outback production that joins sometimes thrilling, sometimes mundane wildlife footage with a constant patter of zany dialogue, the combination of which can be quite amusing — though often unintentionally so. Most important, the show gives off the appearance of bedrock honesty. On the tube, Steve Irwin seems like a regular sort of guy who just happens to inhabit a parched world that's wild and rough and very, very dangerous. As Animal Planet's press release puts it, "Irwin is one person who is completely at home in this untamed land. He is a man without fear. He is master of this wild world."
The view that man is the master of all things wild may seem as outdated and hokey as Edgar Rice Burroughs, but the attractive thing to the show's viewers is that it's all apparently real. Irwin really is a bush-hardened Aussie who runs a reptile park, his wife Terri really is an American new to the ways of the outback, and their encounters with snakes, crocs, dingos, emus, kangaroos, and wombats all actually occur in the wild. "Except for a few fill-in reference shots, we don't fake or stage anything," Terri Irwin would tell me. "Besides, Steve has such great instincts for finding animals, we've never needed to do that."
Then again, I'm from America, for God's sake. What do I know about crocodiles and wombats? What do I know, for that matter, about Irwin's particular brand of outback lunacy? All I know is that I'm a huge fan of the Land Down Under. In my half-dozen trips there, I've come to love the country and its people for their humor and leather-toughness and fair dinkum honesty.
I'd traveled 10,000 miles just to spend a little time with The Crocodile Hunter — at his and Discovery Communications's invitation. So why was he avoiding me? Was he just preoccupied with filming the show? To shoot a television documentary, one doesn't have to be a butt-dumb drongo or even dense as a bush country dag, but the exigencies of the medium do occasionally make unmanly and sometimes even prissy demands.
To wit: This gray July day in Australia's midwinter, the Irwins had been imposed upon to caravan 70 kilometers southwest of Brisbane to a remote cattle farm near the one-pub village of Rosevale. They'd made the trip for the purpose of shooting fill-in footage and promos. On the bright side, at least for me, this journey would not require that Steve and Terri "risk their very lives in pursuit of Australia's deadliest creatures," as they put it in their publicity material. No, thank heaven. Not even close. This time their quarry was less exotic. They had come in search of dogs. Nice dogs, too: blue heelers, a durable mix of wild dingo and border collie that is a unique product of Australia.
"Almost everyone in Australia claims to own a pure blue heeler," said John Stainton, producer of The Crocodile Hunter, "but when push comes to shove, it's always some kind of bloody off-breed. We had to search all over the place to find people who actually work real blue heelers. We're doing a show on dingos, and heelers are mentioned...so that's why we're here."
"Here" was a cattle farm owned by James Ahearn and run by Scott and Vicki Mannion, three kind and hospitable people who had agreed to lend their dogs, horses, cattle, and time to the production. The Mannions live in open ranch country in a simple yellow farmhouse that is incongruously ornate and built on pilings — a "Queenslander on stumps," in Aussie lingo.
It was a pleasant thing to watch James and Vicki on horseback herding 20 or so Braford cattle for Stainton's benefit. They knew how to sit a horse, and their two dogs were precise and relentless at manipulating cattle. At Stainton's direction, the riders drove the cattle into a paddock, then out of a paddock. They drove the cattle up a hill, then down a hill. "Bloody brilliant!" said Scott Mannion. He was very proud of his wife, as well he should be.
The Crocodile Hunter, meanwhile, was off exploring a nearby pasture, peering up into the trees. "I can't sit still," he said. "It drives me bloody nuts to be sitting on me bum!"
At 35, there is still something unmistakably adolescent about Irwin's pug-flat face and his long blond surfer's locks. Loud-voiced and wide-eyed, he's a person of frenetic energy, like a boy with attention deficit disorder after a very serious Hershey's binge.
An American producer from Discovery Communications had flown in to be on location, and Irwin seemed anxious to impress her. "What I'd like, mate, is to find her a nice redback or maybe a big brown," he said, meaning a poisonous spider or a poisonous snake, one apparently as effective as the other when it comes to impressing American producers. So Irwin was going from rock to rotting stump and turning them over.
Because Irwin had his arm in a sling, I was tagging along behind, assisting him with the rocks and stumps. According to Stainton, The Crocodile Hunter hurt his shoulder recently when he dove out of a boat onto a turtle.
"Turtle?" I asked.
"Yeah," Stainton said. "He messed up the tendons in his arm so bad that the doctors want him to have reconstructive surgery. But Steve won't do it. He doesn't even seem to feel pain like most people. He's an amazing man."
Probably so. But the main thing I'd noticed about Irwin thus far was that he walked fast whenever I walked slow, and he walked slow whenever I walked fast. I was beginning to get the feeling that he didn't want me around.
When I told him that I was looking forward to the next two or three days we were supposed to spend together, Irwin said, "Well...we'll see."
"Oh, that's just the way Steve is," Stainton later explained. "You've got to remember that he feels far more at home in the outback than he does with people. He's like a modern-day Tarzan. He really is. That's why people love the show — he's no glib actor. Steve's real."
Steve Irwin isn't Tarzan. he's Mick Dundee, the character Paul Hogan made famous in the movie Crocodile Dundee. At least that's the role that Irwin seems to play in nearly every episode of The Crocodile Hunter (just as Terri plays the part of the movie's oft-imperiled American heroine, newspaper reporter Sue Charlton). It's a role Irwin has spent most of his life perfecting. He grew up helping to build and stock his father's crocodile zoo, the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park, which opened in 1971 near the town of Beerwah on the Sunshine Coast. For Irwin's fifth birthday, his dad gave him a carpet python. By the time he was nine, he'd learned to catch crocodiles in the rivers of North Queensland. After graduating from high school, Irwin says, he "traveled for a while, did a bit of surfing, a little camping in the bush."
Then he started volunteering his services to the Queensland rogue crocodile relocation program. "I spent months at a time out in the bush alone catching the largest reptiles on earth," he says. "I lived off the land, gathered me own tucker. I caught heaps more crocs than anyone else working in the program, something like four or five times what anyone else did. When there was a really dangerous croc, I was the bloke they called. I reckon I was the best there was at it, and I just kept doing it."
Well, maybe. Others associated with the Queensland rogue croc program remember things slightly differently. "It's not true that Steve caught more problem crocs than anyone," says Jeff Miller of the Department of Environment and Heritage. "In fact, he never really played a significant role. Personally I like Steve, but anyone who's met him knows he has a tendency to say things like that."
In 1991 Irwin's folks retired and he took over the management of the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park for good. That same year, American Terri Raines was vacationing in Australia when she happened to visit the park.
"I was instantly impressed by his knowledge and the way he dealt with the animals," she says. Raines had a passion for animals herself, having worked for three years as a technician at an emergency veterinary hospital in Eugene, Oregon. Raines and Irwin both describe their meeting as "love at first sight," and in 1992 they married. "Steve and I are a really great combination," Terri says now. "He's got great instincts for animals, and I'm very good at promotion."
A year after their wedding, the first Crocodile Hunter episode was shot. "I don't think of our show as an Australian show," Terri says. "I see it as a global thing, getting bigger all the time. And not just in terms of spin-offs — books, videos, that sort of thing — but also in terms of educating people about wildlife."
Maybe so, but anyone who's seen The Crocodile Hunter can sense right off the bat that the Irwins place a higher premium on entertainment than education — indeed, that's part of the program's goofball appeal. The show generally dispenses with the tried-and-true goals of most wildlife shows — namely, to depict animals unmolested and untrammeled in their natural habitat — and instead tries to create, some might say provoke, human-animal encounters. We watch Irwin poking into caves, prodding snake holes, scouring billabongs in search of various deadly beasts, often with no other purpose than to see how they'll react — and get it all on camera. Irwin seems to have a knack for blundering into hairy situations from which he then heroically extricates himself, and often with a caveat loudly proclaimed to less experienced viewers: "Under no circumstances should you ever try to do what I'm doing! If this spider that I'm holding were to nail me right now, it would be very, very serious business indeed! Just check out those absolutely HUGE venom glands!"
While hunting for crocs or exploring Australia's dingo fence, Terri's life often seems in peril until Steve rushes to save her. In one vignette, she falls out of a boat at night near a hungry croc. In another, Terri screams as the camera captures Steve sprinting to the rescue. A red-bellied blacksnake has blocked Terri's return to camp. "I'm not going to let you bite my wife!" Steve shouts, attempting to catch the snake, while Terri moans, "Oh, Stephen, he's being very naughty!"
Yeah, yeah, it's cheesy and adolescent, but who cares? These people aren't professional writers or actors; they're real-life naturalists trying to show us Australia as it really is. Right?
I was growing suspicious. I spent three days hanging around Irwin's reptile park, trying unsuccessfully to speak with him and waiting to accompany him on an actual shoot. Rain and poor light were legitimate problems. Something that didn't seem legitimate was Terri Irwin's final explanation. "The reason Steve can't talk to you," she said, "is that we're so busy packing to go north for a long shoot. We'd love you to go — the staff thinks you're great. You're exactly the kind of person who'd do well in the bush. But this is the Discovery Channel's shoot, so we can't invite you."
A flattering dismissal, but also odd, because it was the staff of Discovery Communications that had arranged (and seemed eager) for me to write about the Irwins while assuring me that I'd have open access to their shoot.
A couple days later, I placed calls to several eminent herpetologists to gauge their opinion of Irwin and his work. Grahame Webb, who lives in Australia's Northern Territory, is considered the country's foremost expert on crocodiles. Dr. Webb, who has been studying crocs and fighting for their conservation since 1973, is known internationally for the many scientific papers he has published on reptiles, and he is equally well known for speaking his mind.
Certainly he was speaking his mind the day I called him. "I have nothing at all to do with those two," he told me. "I know of no legitimate biologist or wildlife manager who will. Steve Irwin is not a naturalist. He is a showman. He operates a small reptile zoo for profit. He is at least an occasional fabricator who has taken the ethics of television documentaries to a new low in idiocy. The Irwins not only demean Australia's wildlife, they are actually spreading misinformation that is dangerous to anyone who accepts their show as fact. Anyone who's dealt with crocs knows the difference between how wild crocs behave and how zoo crocs or crocs that have been drugged behave — which is probably why television stations in the Northern Territory will not carry their idiotic show."
Webb's last claim is true. According to news director Paul McLaughlin of Darwin's Channel 8, his station received so many complaints after it first aired The Crocodile Hunter, the program manager issued a directive that the station would never again broadcast the show.
What isn't true is Webb's statement that the Irwins are shunned by all of Australia's biologists and wildlife managers. Jeanette Covacevich, curator of vertebrates at the Queensland Museum, with whom Irwin sometimes works, describes him as "courageous and hardworking," adding, "He's not a scientist, formally speaking, but he is a self-taught expert when it comes to reptiles." Chris Banks, head curator of the Melbourne Zoo, is another supporter, calling Irwin "a valued and respected consultant."
Still, many well-placed naturalists and reptile experts I called were even less charitable toward the Irwins than Grahame Webb. Most of the critics tended to focus their ire not on Irwin, the private zoo owner, but on his representation of Australia's wildlife. Among other things, his opponents contend that Irwin contrives much of his footage, using his zoo crocodiles to dramatize "wildlife" encounters and, in one episode, even going so far as to let one of his zoo's boa constrictors (supposedly found while shooting) bite him over and over again until his arm was bloody.
One of Irwin's most articulate critics is Malcolm Douglas of Broome Crocodile Park, in Western Australia. Douglas, who is secretary of Australia's Crocodile Industry Association and who says he has been working for the conservation of crocodiles since 1969, told me, "Everyone in Australia involved with crocs knows the show's a fake. What's infuriating is, Irwin makes the animals look like bloodthirsty monsters — which they aren't. A television reporter in Sydney once went to the trouble to prove that the thing's a fake. He took one of Irwin's shows to an expert and demonstrated how the video was spliced just after Irwin jumps out of a boat at night — to give someone time to hand him a croc to wrestle. One of his zoo crocs."
Douglas added, "The one real wildlife encounter he had on his show was with a feral hog, and you'll never see him do that again because he almost got himself killed. The real tragedy is that the Irwins' show is one more example of Australia's wildlife being used as a circus act. The time has come for people to stop making animals jump through hoops — or to wrestle for their lives — just so someone can make a profit."
Frank Mazzotti, an eminent saltwater croc expert at the University of Florida, concurs. "It's the same old alligator-wrestling mumbo jumbo," Mazzotti says. "It has more to do with a carnival act than nature. I'd compare [the Irwins] to magicians, though that's unfair to magicians. Neither of them wants an outsider backstage when the trick's being done."
When I ran some of this criticism by Irwin, he seemed, for the first time, genuinely eager to talk. The Crocodile Hunter denied that he exploits wildlife for entertainment and insisted that he has never administered drugs to crocodiles before capturing or transporting them, "as there is too much risk of killing or maiming" them. He noted that neither Webb, Douglas, nor Mazzotti has ever met the Irwins, let alone seen how they shoot their documentaries. In particular, he suggested that Webb's and Douglas's antagonism is rooted in the fact that both men support the use of crocodile farms as a conservation tool. Crocodile farms are fairly common though controversial commercial enterprises in Australia, and the Irwins have vehemently — and very publicly — fought against them. "Webb and Douglas absolutely hate us because we oppose their conservation philosophies," said Irwin. "It's ironic that they accuse us of running our park for profit. We don't wake up in the morning with the aim of slaughtering crocodiles for their meat, skin, and by-products. Webb and Douglas are trying to convert saltwater crocodiles into farm-bred handbags."
To Mazzotti's charge that Irwin uses magic tricks to shoot his footage, Irwin replied, "There's no mystery to what I do. I was born in the bush. I've been catching crocodiles since I was a small boy. My training has enabled me to work with potentially dangerous animals so closely it looks unbelievable. It must be very frustrating for my critics to see me at one with crocodiles, knowing they have neither the ability nor the knowledge to work so tightly and efficiently with these remarkable saurians."
Irwin might not like people venturing behind his curtain, but he does emphatically seem to enjoy being on stage. On the day we caravaned to Rosevale, we stopped for fill-in wildlife shots at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, southwest of Brisbane. While we were there, a little boy approached Irwin, tapped him on the leg, and asked, "Are you the man on Crocodile Hunter?"
Irwin became instantly animated. Out of the many dozens of people at the park, this little boy was the only one who apparently recognized him. "That's right, mate!" Irwin replied, as if speaking to a crowd. "I'm The Crocodile Hunter!"
"Is that how you hurt your arm?" the boy asked.
"Yep, that's how I hurt me arm! Jumping out of boats onto crocodiles!"
Crocodiles? I thought it was a turtle.
But Irwin was already attracting a crowd with his story. "I jumped out of a boat onto a big croc," he said, "and the croc, he broke all the bones in me arm!"
Bones? Hadn't Stainton said tendons?
It didn't seem to matter much. The Crocodile Hunter was building an audience, and now he repeated himself to inform his new listeners. "Yeah," he said, his voice booming now, "I jumped a big croc — it's what I do, mate!"
Illustration by Tim Bower