Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Remembering Steve

A widow's tribute to her late croc-wrangling husband glows

Some might say they won't be surprised to hear news of Steve Irwin's death by animal one day, including me. But when the news did come, I was surprised. Partly because it was really out of the blue and did not involve reptiles.

So it's been seven years since The Crocodile Hunter left for the big billabong in the sky. Much has been said about his methods, but I think few would doubt that old Dances with Crocs made us pay attention to the animals he'd spotlighted on his shows.

I'm less optimistic about the wild-action-man genre he helped inspire.

While musing on the descent of the 'wildlife warrior' on TV, I picked up the book written by his widow, a memoir of her life with one of Australia's favourite sons.

Steve and Me: My Life with Steve Irwin traces the couple's lives, telling how their similar paths converged. Both of them started out rescuing animals, though the latter's repertoire was more danger, danger, danger. Imagine, catching red-bellied black snakes as a kid and stuffing them into the schoolbus driver's cooler?

Small wonder his critics feel that he deserves another 'boot to his bum', like his dad had done after the snakes-in-a-box incident.

Terri Irwin's (nee Raines) wildlife rescue career, meanwhile, began in the US with the animals her trucker father saved while on the road. From mergansers and dogs, she graduated to cougars (or mountain lions). It was during a hunt for new homes for the cats she'd rescued that she first encountered the man who would change her life.

The book's pretty much what it says on the cover. Mrs Irwin recalls her life with her late husband - the bits she chose to share with us, anyway - with fondness and sadness: from the day they first met, the pangs of longing while they're apart, their affection for their children, pets, and zoo animals, their plans for what is now Australia Zoo, to the story of how they started their family, the controversies, and the September 4 tragedy.

Want an 'objective' look at the Croc Hunter's life? You won't find it here. Within the plaintive voice of a grieving widow is a fierce defence of her slain white knight. Off-screen Steve is the same as on-screen Steve: an Australian-born stand-up guy and all-round humanitarian.

Supporting evidence includes his heartache over appalling conditions in a croc farm, how he faced down other crocodile 'hunters' (who actually caught and stuffed baby crocs) at a pub, and his rescue of his best mate Wes Mannion when the latter was attacked by one of the large reptiles at the zoo.

And, of course, she makes much of his intense love of wildlife and how close he wanted to bring his audience to them - a love that his detractors might have used against him.

Such is the price of celebrity. Perhaps it was Irwin's instincts that led to his observation of a particular animal: "Crocodiles are easy. They try to kill and eat you. People are harder. Sometimes they pretend to be your friend first."

Irwin's greatest mistake, from the looks of it, was that he let people into his life too much - the way he did with his beloved reptiles.

Of the heartbreaks he faced, however, the greatest was the death of his mother, Lyn Irwin, in a road accident. "Lyn's death was something that Steve would never truly overcome," Terri writes.

She also remembers one time when he, presumably to escape the pain, went out into the bush with his dog Sui, like he did when he was young and carefree. "But his grief trailed him ... I was not sure he would ever find his way back."

I'm not sure if he did, either, judging from the way he threw himself into his work since his mother's passing.

Maybe it's 'normal' for the Irwins to grow up among wildlife, but most of us who don't have that privilege will never understand that world. Even more so now, with all the wildlife shows that seem to emphasise the killer jaws, claws and venom of some of these predators for Shark Week-grade shock value and ratings.

Steve & Me
My Life with Steve Irwin

Terri Irwin
Pocket Books (2007)
273 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-1-84739-147-6

Buy from:
•  Amazon
•  BookDepository
Nor do the latest crop of 'wildlife warriors' inspire like Irwin did. He knew the benefits that publicity gave his cause, but at least he convinced us that he believed in it. All we're getting these days appear to be "danger, danger, danger" and not much else.

Or maybe I'm just biased and hankering a bit for a time when I allowed myself to believe in dreams, believe that my passion for something will move others to feel the same - or inspire them to live their own dreams.

Just as how Steve Irwin inspired a girl out of Oregon to live hers - and then some.

Writing this book might be an act of closure for his widow, and his fans and supporters may finally get to know the man behind the boisterous khaki-clad character. But these words, however heartfelt, are unlikely to mollify Irwin's staunchest critics.

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