Have you every fallen in love with something you've never seen? Something maybe halfway around the world that you became aware of and the more you learned about it, the more for it you became, so different it seemed from everything else like it?
For me, that something was Australia Zoo. Partly, no doubt, due to one of the men that started it, Steve Irwin. And partly because of its purity: its love for animals and in turn, the treatment of them even inside a zoo…a zoo in which there were far fewer cages than any other zoo. A zoo in which you could actually touch some of the grand creatures you came to see. (When is the last time you got to touch an animal at the zoo?) Steve believed we save what we love. And to make sure we loved them, he made the animals as tangible as was within his power.
Our loss of Steve seemed to fortify my loyalty to that place that he began. But we cannot possess a place or an idea of how things could be…much less protect it. We can only, when we find it, do everything we can to help make sure it continues.
When I heard that Bob Irwin, Steve Irwin's father was leaving Australia Zoo, I didn't have to be there to figure it out. He is a behind the scenes, laborer sort, and I'd seen very little of him over the years. But I'd seen enough to know he was entirely authentic. Straight up…honest…and very serious about what he was put here to do. A man with 50 years of experience and life under his belt the likes of which most of us will never know, summed up in a statement to the press as "a man of retirement age."
The zoo, unfortunately, has changed directions. Bob, naturally, has not. A man of his word, he is doing what he has to in order to keep his promise to his son: to keep to the task at hand.
In the last few months, Bob, along with his wife Judy, have lost much. Their home, property of the zoo, was no longer an option and so true to form, Bob wasted no time finding land further to the north…wild and untamed.
The 640 acres of bush near Kingaroy, 540 of which are virgin forest have been newly christened CampChilli. Chilli was Steve's second to last dog. While doing crocodile research on an isolated beach in far north Queensland with his dad in the late seventies, Steve found this dog wandering the beach and starving. He named her for the beach on which he found her. At that time, Bob carved a sign out of wood and nailed it to a tree there on the beach: CAMP CHILLI. The owner of that beach property later found it and asked Bob if he wanted it back. Since then the sign has been hanging in Bob's house. Like the Irwins, it now has a new home.
Ever diligent, Bob has been spending his time at the new property fencing, building dams, levelling the house and shed site and stick raking the 45 acre fenced paddock he's made for their kangaroos and koalas…almost entirely by himself. The paddock will in part serve as a pre-release area for the animals in which they can get strong before they're released into the wild. It will also allow Bob and Judy to keep Skippy and about twenty other kangaroos that have been living on or near their verandah for years, without fear of them being attacked (by wild dogs, pigs or humans).
At Steve's memorial service, Bob asked that we "grieve for the animals, who lost the best friend they ever had." But it was Bob that instilled that in Steve as a child. And it was with Bob working at his side that Steve made a better world for all animals. Steve Irwin's father is the father of this dream…this hope…this belief that we save what we love.
If you're a lover of animals who wants to keep to the task at hand, to do everything you can to make sure this good work continues, we happily point you in the direction of Bob Irwin, who as I write this, is camped alone in a tent in the Queensland bush, dressed probably in his usual work pants and boots, and khaki shirt with a simple patch over the pocket: WILDLIFE & CONSERVATION. A truck and a tractor to help with the load. No TV network to back him. No celebrity endorsements. Just a man, quietly doing the work of his heart. A true visionary who's doing what he's been doing all along. Take notice…there aren't many like him anymore.
"A man of retirement age" he may be…but he's a long way from quitting. In fact, from the looks of things, he's just getting warmed up.