Having come of age in the 1990s and early 2000s, it's hard to describe to those who never got to experience the phenomenon that was Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, just what it was like.
He was a peculiar and an entirely unexpected cultural hero who could at times seem like a Monty Python caricature of what an Australian was like, with his trademark khaki shirt, shorts, and hiking boots and who seemed to yell "Crikey!" at the sudden appearance of a cloud.
We ate it up. There was an undeniable charisma to the man and it was impossible not to like him and find his goofy, sometimes dopey mannerisms endearing.
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He seemed to carry himself, in the quieter interludes on his hit TV show, with a kind of adolescent eagerness and energy that is usually beaten out of most of us by our 20s and for a lot of us, Steve Irwin rekindled some of that wonder that we'd forgotten how to experience.
He would have turned 57 today but for his untimely death in 2006, at 44 years old, but until the end, he was always excited to show you this really cool thing he found in the woods.
Except that thing was an angry 25 ft long crocodile.
Steve Irwin's Early Life
Steve Irwin was born February 22nd, 1962, in Essendon, Victoria, Australia where his parents ran a wildlife park. Growing up, he received a hands-on introduction and education in animal conservation as he studied and cared for the animals at the park alongside his parents.
It would become his life's work.
Irwin's father was the one who first taught Steve how to wrestle and catch crocodiles when he was young and once gave him a python as a birthday present. While some would no doubt consider this dangerous, for the young Irwin, experiences like these taught him that nature is beautiful even when it isn't pretty, cuddly, or safe, a lesson he would later evangelize to a mesmerized world.
The Crocodile Hunter's Radical, Old-School Conservationism
Charismatic, intelligent, and a well-spring of conservation knowledge, it was remarkably easy to forget that Irwin had no formal training or degrees in science. Likewise, it's easy to miss his deeply serious desire to conserve the natural world around us and the dedicated effort he made toward this end when he was clinging to the back of a thrashing crocodile.
The truth, of course, is that Irwin was both a serious conservationist and a thrill-seeking performer who saw no contradiction between the two. Combine this with his preternatural sense of showmanship and you have an undeniably infectious mix. His smash-hit TV show, The Crocodile Hunter, aired in over 200 countries at one point and introduced many of us to things about the natural world we’d never seen before or since.
For The Love Of The Work
Irwin’s daring interactions with exotic wildlife have been imitated by others in recent years. There is no shortage of YouTube personalities who will inflict on themselves the world’s most painful insect sting in an effort to get you to subscribe to their Patreon.
Cable TV and Netflix shows have season after season of stars getting into a fight with some random bear in the wilderness of Portland, Oregon, or they'll record the actors drinking their own urine on a dimly lit smartphone camera in a sad pantomime of wilderness survival.
They all miss what made Steve Irwin's The Crocodile Hunter such a groundbreaking program. There’s no doubt that Irwin enjoyed the limelight. He was a natural performer who loved having an audience as much as he loved his conservation work. But take away the camera, and we in the audience knew that Irwin would still be the same man wrestling crocodiles or picking up and securing deadly rattlesnakes whether we were watching or not.
Irwin never treated his audience like customers of his product, but instead like fellow sojourners in the richness of his experiences which that he was grateful to share. The camera was really only there to make it possible for us to tag along at a safe distance while he showed us amazing things about lizards in the desert whose bite could kill you in minutes.
Ultimately, unlike those who have come after Irwin, there was a reason that he wouldn’t think twice about jumping on the back of a thousand-pound crocodile to wrestle it into submission and carted away to a preserve. Steve Irwin made sure to never let us forget that he wasn’t there to conquer these animals, he was there to save them from harm as more and more human activity encroached on the last remaining wild and untamed lands of the world.
Steve Irwin’s Legacy
At his side throughout The Crocodile Hunter was his wife, Terri, and later their children, Bindi and Robert. There was some controversy at times, like when people criticized Irwin for "endangering" his young children around wild and deadly animals. Irwin’s wildlife sanctuary also inevitably played a delicate balance between preserving animals in the wild and protecting or studying them in captivity, and no balancing act is perfect.
You could never accuse Irwin of not caring deeply for the animals in his conservation work though, a passion that his family keeps going even today.
His children are especially determined to follow their father's conservationist example, despite having lost him at a young age to that very same nature he worked so hard to conserve. Steve Irwin was killed in 2006 while filming off the Great Barrier Reef when a stingray—which is usually not an aggressive animal—unexpectedly lashed out at Irwin, pierced his heart with its barb.
When Irwin’s death was announced, the world was immediately stunned and grief-stricken leading to an international outpouring of love and gratitude for a man few had met but many had adventured with without realizing it.
It’s taken time to really appreciate what we lost when Steve Irwin died. He was goofy, sometimes ridiculous, over-the-top, and could even be a bit dopey at times, but Steve Irwin was absolutely a generational figure and we won’t see another like him for some time.