Unfair Dinkum

Steve Irwin was the right man at the right time, just as the cable specialty channels were taking off and just as environmentalism had sapped wildlife education of much of its fun.

Steve Irwin poses with a baby sumatran tiger cub at Mogo Zoo, south of Sydney. (Reuters)

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.”

Bob and Lyn Irwin were a plumber and a nurse from a Melbourne suburb, who moved up north to the Sunshine Coast, bought four acres, and started a reptile park. Given a scrub python for his sixth birthday, Steve was more or less his television persona by the time he was a teenager, the larky lad with the winning spiel who talked the punters through his parents’ more ferocious exhibits. A lot of small, broken-down, underfunded animal parks around the world have an Irwinesque figure on the lot, and, in 99.99 percent of cases, the shtick’s good enough to get them that far but no farther. But Irwin was the right man at the right time, just as the cable specialty channels were taking off and just as environmentalism had sapped wildlife education of much of its fun. Irwin was always bursting with joy, and why wouldn’t he be? There are more crocs in Oz than ever before, and they’re larger than they used to be, too.

He also had the advantage of being Australian, which to American audiences puts you in the category of least-foreign foreigner: Australia, as Ishmael says in a book about another famous hunter who came a cropper underwater, is “that great America on the other side of the sphere.” Melville was overstating it a bit, but if you want to make it big in America as a media outdoorsman, being Aussie isn’t a bad idea. An American croc hunter comes freighted with all kinds of baggage: Is he your authentic red-state stump-toothed mountain man out of Deliverance, or some pantywaist NPR Bambi-boomer enviro-ninny like that bear guy up in Alaska who tried to get in touch with his inner self until a grizzly ripped it out of his chest for him? If you’re from Down Under, you avoid all that. Irwin hailed Australia’s (conservative) Prime Minister John Howard as “the greatest leader Australia has ever had, and the greatest leader in the world.” If he’d said that about Bush, he’d have been savaged more thoroughly than by any croc, but fortunately only seven Americans have heard of Mr. Howard.

There’s really only room for one popular Oz character in the American imagination at any one time. Irwin took Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee persona and artfully extended it to actual crocodiles. He stayed in his uniform of khaki shorts and short-sleeved shirt even when attending awards ceremonies. There were moments when he was laying on the “Crikeys!” and “Bonzas!” and “Fair dinkums!” so thick that you vaguely suspected he might be the Strine (that’s Oz talk) version of Maurice Chevalier, who inquired after the run-through of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” “Did I sound French enough?” Irwin always sounded Australian enough, happy in his role as his nation’s most internationally recognized larrikin and ocker and several other words that don’t translate terribly easily into American English. When the larrikin was interviewed by the near homophonic Larry King, the host attempted to pin down Irwin on some of the argot but never progressed much beyond, “‘Bloke’ is a man?” (You can’t put anything over on Larry.)

Some of Irwin’s compatriots were a tougher sell. It must be frustrating to explain to foreigners that your modern confident multicultural nation has outgrown its corked hat/boomerang/kangaroo caricature only to discover that the only Aussie they’ve heard of is the umpteenth variation of it. It’s true that Australians are, statistically, one of the most urbanized peoples on earth, and few have actually spent time in the outback, never mind wrestled crocs there. It’s also the case that Sydney has a lot more Thai restaurants than it used to—and, come to that, Muslim riots. But few national stereotypes are as appealing as Australia’s. By the time Steve Irwin’s countrymen became aware of his global success, he had more viewers in the United States than there are Australians in Australia.

If it was an act, it was very well done. Irwin was forty-four but still a boyish charmer, with a puppy-fat face and long hair that flipped up and down Charlie’s Angels-like in the bush. At the Australia Zoo, if his wife, Terri, caught him bending over to attend to an animal, she’d always give an appreciative wolf whistle. To be sure, it was something of a surprise to discover that Irwin died filming a segment for his daughter’s forthcoming television series, and that eight-year-old Bindi already has her own line of clothing. But the Irwins handled global celebrity less creepily than most.

I spent most of August in Australia, and the first question my children asked was: “Did you meet Steve Irwin?” Sadly, no, but they were impressed to hear I’d met folks who’d met him, like the prime minister and the foreign minister, whose Christmas card showed his family at the Irwins’ zoo. And up in Queensland I had the odd feeling of walking through a deserted set. I passed a weird potato-shaped mountain that seemed strangely familiar and realized I knew it from a picture of the Croc Hunter posed in front of it in his trademark crouch.

Less than twenty-four hours passed before the Animal Planet honchos announced that the channel would continue to air the Crocodile Hunter shows. But will the millions of children who adored Irwin’s life-affirming presence stick with him in posthumous reruns? Or will all those years of close encounters be retrospectively darkened by the very last one? However it turns out, anyone who raised young kids in the half decade either side of the turn of the century will retain a distant memory of a crazy bloke in shorts hugging some leathery old croc or fleeing a Komodo dragon. For him not to be doing it another decade or three seems a great injustice. Or, to modify a phrase, unfair dinkum.