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The untimely death of Australian hero Steve Irwin has touched the nation. He may have had the image of a larrikin but Irwin was a devout conservationist, skillful businessman, television star and devoted husband and father. We trace his life story.

 

In Melbourne's footy-mad Essendon, seven years after Edna Everage put nearby Moonee Ponds on the map, a golden-haired child emerged, crying out for attention. Steven Robert Irwin was born on February 22, 1962. A lifetime in front of him, or half a one at least. Crocodiles and cartoon caricatures. Conservation and canonisation. Could he ever have imagined it?

Irwin is now gone, killed by a stingray's barb that pierced his heart while he was being filmed in Great Barrier Reef waters on Monday, September 4, 2006. If you believe in magic, however, you already have a grasp of who he was. If you don't, you need to understand his parents, Robert and Lyn.

From Victoria's beautiful Dandenong Ranges, Robert was a successful plumber with an after-hours obsession for native flora and reptiles. He and Lyn, who lived in the nearby town of Boronia, had met as children. Their friendship swelled into teenage love.

Robert was 20 when they married, Lyn had turned 18. While Lyn embarked on a career as a maternity nurse, her instinctive passion, rehabilitating sick and injured wildlife, triggered a tidal convergence with Robert's interests.

Soon, the family's Primrose Street home was the whispered talk of their patch of Essendon.

The place crawled with snakes and lizards (caught by Robert and Steve) and harboured Lyn's furry patients.

"There were (animals) everywhere," recalls Irwin's childhood neighbour, Tony Piscitelli.

"Steve had an old pool out in the backyard. He had taken all the water out of it and filled it with sand and had reptiles living in there. Dad thought he was always a little crazy. He was, I suppose."
 
Irwin was not yet six. That particular coming-of-age was marked by Robert and Lyn's gift of a non-venomous 3.65m scrub python, which Irwin named Fred.

The impish boy loved the snake dearly and Fred would become the first animal collected for what was later to evolve into the Beerwah Reptile Park, on Queensl and's Sunshine Coast.

In November 1970, Robert and Lyn decided to follow their dream of a fully-fledged wildlife sanctuary. They bought the property which now is the kernel of Australia Zoo and shipped north the family, which included Irwin's older sister Joy and younger sibling Mandy.

It took three years of unrelenting toil to get the place stocked, secured and fit for an audience. In the meantime, a nine-year-old Irwin got his first ride on the back of a crocodile.

His dad, who had pioneered venomous snake and crocodile capture techniques, had been seconded by the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service to catch and relocate a colony of freshwater crocs - powerfully-jawed but less fierce than the infamous "salties" - in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

One night, as Robert held the dinner-plate eyes of a metre-long croc under spotlight, Irwin was sent to the bow of their aluminum dinghy. As he poised (an early rendition of the famously-parodied, spring-loaded crouch), he listened for his father's command. "Wait, son, wait - now!"

"My fingers clamped around the croc's thick neck, my chin slammed into its bony head, my chest landed on its back and my legs wrapped around the base of the tail," Irwin recounted in his 2002 book, The Crocodile Hunter.

"I was being thrashed around in the muddy water. I saw pulses of light as I was being rolled over and over. I sensed the strength and warmth of my dad's arm feeling for my body. Whoosh! The next thing, both croc and I were slammed into the floor of the boat: "Are you all right?"

"'Yeah, I got him, Dad." I saw his face in the beam. He was shaking his head in disbelief with a grin from ear to ear. That was start of my croc-jumping career."

-- Matthew Fynes-Clinton

PASSIONATE MAN

Steve Irwin had two driving passions in his life - work and family - and even as a teenager, there was room for little else.

The young Irwin couldn't wait to get out of school but graduated from senior high at Caloundra State High School in 1979.

He didn't have time for books - "I read surf magazines" - and didn't find a steady girlfriend to share his enthusiasm for man-eating reptiles.

Surfing aside, it was crocs which dominated Irwin's existence from at least the age of nine when his father allowed him to begin handling them.

As Irwin grew into his early teens, he accompanied his father, Robert, on croc spotting trips, sometimes as far afield as the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Robert Irwin said this week there were numerous occasions when things could have gone very wrong.

"Over the years, Steve and I have had a lot of adventures together and there's been many occasions when anything could have gone wrong," he said.

"Steve knew the risks involved with the type of work he was doing and he wouldn't have wanted it any other way."

It was not until 1986 when he was 24, that Irwin broke parental ties for the first time, taking an 18-month overseas trip. On return to the family-run park in the late 1980s, he had gained enough confidence to start creating an identity separate from his mum and dad.

Taking a contract with the Queensland Government, Irwin headed for far North Queensland to catch rogue crocs which had become a danger to local communities.

In the wilderness, he lived the life of the mythical croc hunter, Crocodile Dundee - about to be made famous by actor Paul Hogan.

Irwin spent months alone with only a dog for company capturing crocs with a net trap and a small aluminum dinghy.

"I was totally feral," he said later. "I could run a wild pig down." Setting croc traps meant hauling a 120kg weight bag high into the mangroves "while 5000 green ants were biting on my eyeballs" and wrestling them into his dinghy.

The stories he told his family about his adventures impressed his father so much, the elder Irwin sent his son a video camera - the spark that ignited an international film career.

Irwin didn't kill his prey. He filmed his more strenuous struggles with the larger reptiles and transported around 100 of them back to the family park where many still remain.

Back in the family fold in 1991, he was ready to take over the park from his father and the following year, in perhaps the most pivotal moment of his life, his gaze fell on an attractive American woman, Terri Raines.

- Michael Madigan

THE FAMILY MAN

Steve Irwin and Terri Raines locked eyes across an uncrowded crocodile pen in 1991 - the year Irwin took over management of Australia Zoo from his parents.

There was just Irwin and his unruly charge, a 4m-long saltwater croc called Agro, performing their daily demonstration. And then there was Terri, leaning in with the spectators on the other side of a wire fence.

Watching, listening, liking.

"Instead of showing how cool he was," Terri remembered, "like, 'Look at me, I've got a croc' - he was wanting people to look at the crocodiles, showing them as passionate lovers and wonderful mothers."

Yet, Irwin had noted "this bit of a babe". When the two later caught up, the conversation was uncannily agreeable. Terri, then 27, was on holiday in Australia. Born and raised in Canada, she was the product of environmentalist and wildlife-ardent parents.

She had gone on to run her own Cougar Country wildlife rehabilitation park in the US state of Oregon.

Irwin asked her out to dinner, a date which sealed their attraction. Terri brought her father's advice - to always be herself - to the table, ending up elbow-deep in a seafood platter. As she plucked crab from her forearm, Irwin complimented her for being "so unladylike".

"I'd never seen a girl eat with such gusto," he told friends.

Within a year, the couple was in Eugene, Oregon, lining up at the altar.

Two children came along, Bindi, now eight and Robert (Bob), who will be three in December.

In a mirror of Irwin's upbringing, both children already display an unusual kinship with snakes and other native fauna. Nature or nurture? Probably a good dose of both.

Bindi, with her own clothing line and a proposed television show on Discovery Channel USA, seems headed for the razzle-dazzle.

But Irwin's tragic death will have as-yet untold influence.

On Wednesday, Irwin's father, Robert, stoically expressed that the most important quality he imbued in his son was honesty.

He said Steve and he had never had a normal father-son relationship. "We were mates," Robert said poignantly.

But Robert's wife, Lyn, who died in a road smash in 2000, also programmed many of the ideals that would carry Irwin forward. He called her the Mother Teresa of wildlife rehabilitation. When that didn't suffice, he said she was Mother Nature. And although Irwin struggled daily to come to terms with Lyn's death, the loss ultimately solidified his passion for family.

Irwin dedicated his 2002 mini-biography, The Crocodile Hunter, to Lyn. "Oh gosh! I miss you, Mum," he wrote. "The pain of losing you tears my heart out. I love you. I long to be reunited with you."

- Matthew Fynes-Clinton
 

THE ENTREPRENEUR

After their marriage in 1992, Terri proved she was willing to work as hard as the rest of the family in establishing the park.

With business skills honed at the Eugene Business College in the U.S. and her family's highway management business, she brought in new work practices.

But it was when film maker, John Stainton, captured Irwin's work on the Queensland Government's rogue crocodile capture program, that he really became well known.

Terri was quick to realise her husband's passion and personality would be a hit with television and film viewers.

In 2000, Irwin bought another 70ha of land around the zoo with plans for its expansion.

Despite earning big bucks from his movie and cable TV deals, the Irwins still lived in the same lowset home in the middle of the Australia Zoo grounds, and money was spent on improving the zoo or getting new animals.

As Irwin's fame grew, it was inevitable the zoo would become much bigger and later the couple bought a luxury waterfront home at Minyama on the Sunshine Coast.

Since 1992, the zoo proper has expanded to 24ha and the staff numbers are now about 500. The food court alone seats 1500.

In 2001, Caloundra City Council approved plans for a $40 million upgrade with a focus on regional conservation themes.

At the heart of the zoo's expansion was a dream of allowing visitors in get up close and personal with the safer animals. The wandering wildlife program was a hit with tourists, allowing guests to interact with wombats, koalas, cockatoos, non-venomous snakes, shingleback lizards, tortoises and dingoes. As work progressed, visitor numbers soared.

In 2000, more than 200,000 people visited the zoo, in 2001, there were 350,000 and 600,000 in 2002.

And it was 2002, Australia Zoo - a privately-owned family business, managed to topple the Gold Coast's theme park giants Dreamworld and Sea World to take out the Queensland Tourism industry's major award for best major tourist attraction.

Irwin's biggest audience is in North America. The man and his zoo have been credited with a growth in U.S. visitors to Queensland.

In little over a decade, the croc hunter and his zoo have become true national icons.

- Melissa Maugeri

THE SHOWMAN

Before he met Steve Irwin, film-maker, John Stainton, had already enjoyed a colourful career in film and television production.

One fateful day, in 1990, Irwin presented Stainton with a stack of videos. It was raw footage, filmed by Irwin himself, of the soon-to-be icon wrestling crocodiles in North Queensland. Irwin's father had sent his son a video to capture his heroic deeds on camera, proof for Robert Irwin's doubting mates of his son's courage. Stainton went back to his home in Brisbane's western suburbs, parked himself on his couch and, with some trepidation, placed one of Irwin's videos in the VCR. The blond-haired adventurer made him smile. Then he made him laugh. The bloke had natural screen presence. Stainton shot the first episode of The Crocodile Hunter television series while newlyweds, Steve and Terri Irwin, were on their honeymoon. Where else would the Irwins go for a romantic getaway but on a crocodile-trapping trip up the Burdekin River in North Queensland?

The stories were waiting to be told. They were out back in the arid lands of Central Queensland, in the reptile-infested waters of North Queensland, in the killer canyons of Western Australia.

His supporting cast was a menagerie of animals: death adders, scrub pythons, tree-jumping goannas.

When local yarns dried up, the Irwins went overseas. They went to Africa, home of the deadly Egyptian cobra, the boomslang and the black mamba (what Irwin called his "nemesis", his deadliest encounter).

They went to America, where Irwin met the killer sidewinders of Arizona. They trekked to the highlands of New Guinea, where only Steve Irwin could wrestle a crocodile, evade a colony of bats, encounter a rare tree kangaroo and rescue three juvenile orang-outangs all in the same trip.

And, indeed, as Stainton said after Irwin's death, he'd had his "close shaves".

Irwin had many scars on his body. Bite marks and puncture wounds - some 3cm wide - covered his brown, leathery skin. The most noticeable scarring was the teeth wounds tracing one of his forearms, a permanent reminder of the alligator that turned on him in the Florida swamps in 1999.

Irwin considered scars collateral damage. "Just little pink bits," he would say. Personal injury, Irwin felt, was a necessary evil for a man intent on saving the planet.

"I have no fear of losing my life," he said. "If I have to save a koala or a crocodile or a kangaroo or a snake, mate, I will save it."

Stainton had a very deliberate shooting style: wide-angles blended with tight shots on Steve talking to camera to create a sense of danger. It appeared Steve and Terri were stranded in the Outback, with a deadly menace that could take their lives at any moment. Stainton simply let Irwin rip. He let him do his thing. The catchphrases spilled from his mouth: "Crikey! Take a look at this little beauty." He was captivating. He was entertaining. He was marketable.

Of course, the Americans caught on first. They lapped up his action-packed antics, part eco-warrior, part G.I. Joe. But Australia was skeptical. Initially, the nation didn't know what to make of Irwin. Was he for real? Could anyone, an Australian no less, be so passionate?

Steve Irwin was outside the stratosphere.

His U.S. success has been linked to two things: the Discovery Channel's 1996 launching of a new sub-network, Animal Planet, and the 14 appearances he made on the US's highest-rating talk show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Leno loved the croc hunter, despite Irwin's tendency to drape deadly snakes around the powerful talk show host. Leno loved his spontaneity. Once, when Leno asked Irwin how he determined the sex of a crocodile, Irwin replied: "I put my finger in here and if it smiles, it's a girl. If it bites me, it's a boy". It was American humour: straight up, homespun, uncomplicated. The Irwin profile was building.

Animal Planet bought the first 10 episodes of The Crocodile Hunter in 1996, when the network had a meagre 200,000 paying subscribers.

Then Croc-mania set in.

In 1997, Animal Planet had increased its subscription list to seven million. Before Irwin's death, the network boasted upwards of 70 million subscribers, most of whom, the network said, signed on for The Crocodile Hunter.

No wonder, then, that on Irwin's death, Animal Planet announced it was naming a garden space at the front of Discovery Channel's international headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, the "Steve Irwin Memorial Sensory Garden".

- Trent Dalton

 

THE NATURALIST

It was an empire built around one thing and one thing only: Steve Irwin's uncanny ability to interact with animals.

His friends called it "The Force", the peculiar animal instinct that bonded Steve Irwin to all creatures great, small and deadly. His dad saw it first, when Irwin was just a boy tracking snakes around the family home. In adult life, signs of the force at play became more evident: the stealth-like crawl through shrubs; the bizarre animal calls; the burning, insatiable desire to leap onto the backs of errant crocodiles and wrestle them into submission. It was a gift, his friends said. Inexplicable. Mystifying. But Irwin knew well where it sprang from: his heart, the fast-beating, seemingly unstoppable engine where he kept a deep love for wildlife.

"I put my life on the line to save animals," he said. In the end, that's exactly what he did.

He called himself a "wildlife warrior". His message was conservation. Simple. Uncomplicated. Believable.

Irwin was estimated to be earning $4 million a year from Australia Zoo alone.

Four years ago, his television work was netting him $20 million a year.

He funneled all that into conservation.

He bought hectares of land around the world, land that Irwin planned to transform into wildlife reserves.

He spent $8.8 million on land around Australia Zoo.

He spoke about expanding Australia Zoo to incorporate a flowing river system, teeming with rhinoceros and hippopotami, that tourists could cruise down, admiring African animals in natural habitats.

He was linked to major land holdings in Tasmania, Vanuatu, Fiji and throughout the U.S. It was all for conservation, he maintained: The land, the documentaries, the films, the Steve Irwin dolls.

It was all for them.

"It hurt my feelings when they killed King Kong," he once said.

The Irwin family had a three-decade scientific research relationship with the Queensland Museum.

In 2001, Irwin received a Centenary Medal for his services to conservation.

In the wake of Irwin's death, scientists from around the world praised his conservation efforts.

- Trent Dalton

 

THE CONTROVERSIES

That old adage: "The bigger they are, the harder they fall" could have been written for Steve Irwin.

He certainly discovered the hard way that when you have a larger-than-life personality and a public profile to match criticisms and controversies come in similar proportions.

There always had been gibes about his over-the-top manner and the occasional whinge from environmentalists about his hands-on style with wildlife but never anything too damaging until 2004 when the infamous Baby Bob crocodile feeding incident hit world headlines.

Blasted by child advocates and labeled "a bloody idiot" by one crocodile industry veteran, Irwin found it hard at first to understand the fuss he had created by holding his one-month-old son Robert during a croc feeding demonstration at Australia Zoo.

As with an injured animal, Irwin retreated from the criticism and limelight for a while to lick his wounds.

It was not long, however, before he was back to his irrepressible self - although a little more media-wary than he had been in the past.

Certainly, the wide-eyed naivety and hurt look had disappeared when the second biggest controversy of Irwin's career hit just six months later when he came under Federal Government investigation for a possible criminal breach of wildlife laws after getting too close to whales, seals and penguins on an Antarctic expedition.

Simply shrugging it off as part of "huge vendetta" by the anti-conservation lobby, Irwin instead went on the attack saying he was constantly the target of death threats over his high-profile campaigns against any forms of international wildlife harvesting, from whaling and sealing to the killing of tigers and bears.

Irwin subsequently was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Department of Environment and Heritage while filming his Ice Breaker program in which he slid downhill with penguins, rubbed noses with dangerous leopard seals and frolicked with humpback whales.

Interacting with Antarctic wildlife is not allowed and can attract fines of up to $1 million and two years' jail.

Commenting on the outbreak of criticism over his antics, Irwin simply quipped bitterly: "I mean, how dare I kiss a leopard seal on the lips while others are out there clubbing harp seals to death?"

Then there were the little periphery controversies which occasionally dogged him and, more than often, engaged his down-to-earth and quirky sense of humour.

As when federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane accused Irwin in 2002 of "trying to wind back the clock" on Australia's tourism industry.

"We've seen Australia evolve from a destination with the sophistication of a crocodile wrestler," Mr Macfarlane said.

"Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter may be trying to wind the clock back but I hope we've moved beyond that for the sake of our tourism."

Foolishly, even Queensland Premier Peter Beattie bought into the fracas, agreeing he wanted Australia to be known for more than just wrestling crocodiles and maybe Irwin could smarten up his image. After a public outcry at the remarks, the tune was changed well and truly by 2004. Mr Beattie announced Irwin would be the state's honorary tourism ambassador.

He later was nominated as a finalist for Australian of the Year.

- Glenis Green

 

THE WORLD STAGE

In a firmament brightly speckled with internationally-known celebrities, Steve Irwin was more a comet than a star, a one-off, one-man show who all too briefly mesmerised the millions who followed his trajectory through fame.

Some of his own people might have cringed at what one commentator called his over-the-top parody of the Ocker Australian male.

Overseas, in the U.S., Britain, Europe and Asia, his khaki-clad, almost childlike enthusiasm for his life work was seen by many as the embodiment of much that was attractive about the Australian people.

This likeable Ocker image in the outside world may have been sealed and tenderised on Paul Hogan's barbecue but it reached a state of iconic perfection, especially in American eyes, with real-life Crocodile Dundee Steve Irwin.

In not much more than half a decade, from the first Crocodile Hunter documentary commissioned by U.S. cable network Discovery Channel's Animal Planet in 1992, Irwin was reaching an estimated TV audience of 500 million people in more than 120 countries.

That is how big his trail across the sky was, and moves on to the big screen in 2001/2 with a cameo role in the Eddie Murphy film Dr. Dolittle 2 and with his first and only feature, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, reinforced his celebrity status. Yet, though Irwin worked his fame beautifully in the interests of his own cause in life, he retained the image, in Australia and overseas, of a man unaffected or, at least, unsullied by success.

In January this year, on the night before the Golden Globes awards, Irwin was a star guest at an Australian Government-sponsored "G'Day USA" black-tie gala at the Hollywood Palladium on Sunset Boulevard. The gala, attended by 1400 people, had its share of other Australian and overseas celebrities, including John Travolta, Hugh Jackman and the band INXS, all of whom were being honoured officially that night as part of the annual Australia Week promotion. None of them burned a trail to the door like the Crocodile Hunter.

"He came bounding on to the red carpet in his khakis among all those tuxedos and long evening dresses and there was a huge commotion," one LA-based Australia Week committee organiser recalls.

"He was huge, he went inside and just about everyone wanted to talk to him."

Tourism Australia chairman Tim Fischer said this week Irwin simply was "our best known envoy".

"He was worth millions of dollars in promotion in relation to the U.S. and Canada," Mr Fisher said.

"He was a door opener in terms of promoting the wildlife and the outdoor lifestyle that Australia has to offer."

At next January's Australia Week, Irwin was to appear at New York's Madison Square Gardens in an expected sell out performance as the highpoint of a new nationwide Australia Week promotion, G'Day USA.

G'Day USA organiser and New York Consulate General, John Olsen said Irwin "is irreplaceable".

"There's no two Steve Irwins," Mr Olsen said. "He was a passionate Australian and with Steve Irwin what you see is what you get and that's why America loved him." How much of a brand he was overseas is only now being realised with his loss.

And his passing, like all brightly-burning comets, has been recorded universally.

In North America, media monitors for the Australian Government's offices in LA recorded an astonishing 4500 national and local television news items about Irwin's death in the 48 hours since the news broke there on Sunday night, local time.

"That is almost beyond comprehension," the Australia Week spokesman said.

"No one has seen anything like this over here. It is absolutely extraordinary."

Animal Planet aired a three-hour special on Irwin on Tuesday morning (Australian time) and Jay Leno and fellow night show host Larry King scheduled tributes in their programs.

In Britain, where Irwin also was a household name, The Times newspaper ran a full-page obituary, describing Irwin as "exuberant", "a highly knowledgeable natural historian" and "an ambassador for conservation".

Irwin never made a fuss about his popularity and status among other world celebrities and visits to Australia Zoo by famous people over the years who made the zoo a prime reason for visiting Queensland - and there were a few of them - were always kept quiet.

Some of them are on a picture wall at Australia Zoo: stars still shining in the firmament of fame but few more brilliantly than he did, perhaps, during the few years he blazed a bright and spectacular passage among them.

- John Wright and Fiona Hudson

 

Article from: Australia

 



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