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Outside magazine, November 1997
All across Australia, hapless wild beasts
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,
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
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
The view that man is the master of all things wild may seem as outdated and hokey as Edgar Rice Burroughs, but the attractive thing to the show’s viewers is that it’s all apparently real.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,
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
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
“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
“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
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
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).
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
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
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,”
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
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!”
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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,
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