I’d just filed a column for The Australian when I got the first e-mail from Down Under about reports of an accident involving the Crocodile Hunter. All journalists, on hearing breaking news of a famous person’s injury, assume the announcement of death will follow shortly, President Kennedy and the Princess of Wales being merely the most obvious proof of the wisdom of this rule. But, in the early hours of a Monday morning, when my editor in Sydney told me my piece was being held because Steve Irwin had been killed by the barbed tip of a stingray, I found myself resuspending disbelief. Like a long-distance cyber version of an escapologist’s audience, I felt vaguely that it was too good an ending, and therefore must be part of the act—that at any minute the hyperactive overgrown schoolboy would emerge off the Queensland coast with his trademark “Crikey!” and a souvenir barb for the trophy room at the Irwin family’s Australia Zoo.
The Crocodile Hunter didn’t exactly laugh at death, but he was happy to play its straight man. In a FedEx commercial a few years ago, Irwin introduced us to the “Fear Snake,” “the most venomous snake in the world.” “One bite from him, and it’s all over,” he began in his exuberantly emphatic semi-parodic Aussie vowels, and then let the creature sink its fangs in. “Yow! Luckily we have had the antivenom sent from America by FedEx.” But, alas, it turned out they’d used a less reliable courier. Fatal error. “In my line of work,” he said, “if you are not absolutely sure, you are absolutely dead.”
When the stingray struck off Batt Reef, Steve Irwin was absolutely sure: he immediately yanked the barb out of his chest; he knew what had happened. But he was still absolutely dead, the first Australian to be felled by a stingray in six decades. The reaction from his compatriots fell into two camps. “It was the way he would have wanted to go,” said more than a few, though I doubt, with an eight-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy, he would have wanted it quite so soon. From London, the grizzled Aussie feminist Germaine Greer shafted him with a toxic barb all her own. “The animal world has finally taken its revenge on Steve Irwin,” she gloated in The Guardian. “You can just imagine Irwin yelling: ‘Just look at these beauties! Crikey! With those barbs a stingray can kill a horse!’ (Yes, Steve, but a stingray doesn’t want to kill a horse. It eats crustaceans, for God’s sake),” parenthesized Ms. Greer, deploying the novel journalistic device of correcting the dialogue she’d invented for him.
Ms. Greer represented the views of many self-advertised conservationists in her aesthetic distaste for Irwin. By the ’90s, the old head-in-the-lion’s-mouth, shirt-sodden-by-the-incontinent-lemur wildlife showman was on the endangered species list, and the embodiment of the television naturalist was the BBC’s David Attenborough. In the presence of animals, he lowers his voice to a breathy whisper, maintaining the evenly modulated reverent hush even during a terrible outbreak of crabs—120 million of them arriving on the beach at Christmas Island for their annual spawning season. Across the shifting sands, he whispered, the little nippers have been showing up same time every year since time immemorial. Suppose he’d raised his voice. How many of the 120 million in that wall-to-wall crustacean broadloom would have flounced off in a huff? Seven? Twenty-nine? Can crabs even hear the human speaking voice? But Sir David keeps his breathy whisper even when he’s back in the BBC studio doing the voice-over.
Irwin never cared much for this approach. “We can’t keep looking at wildlife on a long lens on a tripod,” he said. “Then there’s this voice of God telling you about the cheetah kill. After 450,000 cheetah kills, it’s not entertaining anymore.” In contrast to Attenborough, the boyishly eager Irwin bounded into the frame like Tigger, leaping after the crocs and bantering at full volume: “Crikey!” “Gorgeous!” “What a beauty!”—lines that Sir David would be unlikely to deploy anywhere other than the later stages of the BBC office Christmas party. Asked by Jay Leno how he determined the sex of a croc, Irwin replied, “I put my finger in here, and if it smiles it’s a girl, and if it bites me it’s a boy.”
There was more than a grain of truth in the South Park episode in which the guys are lounging on the couch watching an Aussie crocodile hunter and his missus gliding down the river. “As we steer our boat down, looking for these dangerous predators … boy, there’s a king croc right here!” says the TV naturalist. “He must be four meters; twelve, thirteen feet long at least.” The mighty beast raises its head out of the water. “This croc has enough power in its jaws to rip my head right off … I’ve gotta be careful. So what I’m gonna do is sneak up on it and jam my thumb in its butthole.” Back on the couch, the fellows are impressed. “Holy crap, dude!” marvels Stan, as the Aussie leaps in and grabs the croc. “Go, dude, go!” cheers Kyle. “This should really piss it off!” says the Aussie, raising his left thumb. “I’ve gotta be careful.” The croc yelps up in surprise and then falls back into the water. “That was quite an angry croc,” explains the hunter in the next scene. “But I managed to escape with only a few bruises and a shattered left testicle. Next week we’ll look for more of these beautiful creatures, so we can learn more about them by pissing them off immensely. Thanks for watching.”