Steve Irwin brought an awareness of wildlife to living rooms throughout the world and imbued in his viewers a respect for all creatures, even those they had been taught to revile.
Born in Melbourne in 1962, his parents’ passion for wildlife instilled itself in the young Steve. For his sixth birthday Steve was given a scrub python, and at seven he was following his father Bob into the bush, trying to catch snakes, and barely surviving an attack by a brown snake.
In 1970 the family moved to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and founded the Beerwah Reptile Park. Bob taught Steve to catch animals being exhibited, including crocodiles. After completing his schooling at Caloundra State High, Irwin joined the Queensland Government’s program of trapping and relocating rogue crocodiles in the state’s north. He worked alone for months on end, and relocated many crocodiles to the property at Beerwah.
Steve Irwin took over the running of the wildlife park in 1991, and changed its name to Australia Zoo. He also began the Channel Ten documentary series, Totally Wild, which is still running. The same year he met television director John Stainton, who was to become his great mate and financial partner. The following year he met Terri Raines, a vet from Oregon who had a keen interest in American wildlife rehabilitation. Eight months later Steve and Terri married, and invited a camera crew on their honeymoon to film the rescue of a crocodile.
In 1996, with Stainton’s backing, Irwin became host of The Crocodile Hunter series, co-starring with Terri. They made more than 100 wildlife documentaries. What Steve Irwin saw as ordinary, most of us would call extraordinary. What Steve saw as awesome was the beauty of creatures others fear – or misunderstand. He devoted his life to conveying his sense of awe to the rest of the world. He was a highly knowledgeable natural historian, whose mission was to educate people by enthusing them. By 1999, through his documentaries on cable TV some 500 million people in more than 120 countries had been drawn into his private enthusiasm. He had become the new Paul Hogan, the archetypal Australian “good bloke”, the de facto ambassador for all that was best in his country. He was described by John Howard as “one of Australia’s great conservation icons”.
Steve Irwin worked tirelessly to raise public awareness of conservation issues and bought expanses of land in several countries as part of his dream to extend the family legacy with protected parklands around the globe. He and Terri established Wildlife Warriors Worldwide in 2002, seeing a long-time dream of theirs fulfilled. This later became an independent charity, with the Irwins as patrons and Australia Zoo committing to covering all administrative costs as the Major Sponsor.
Among Irwin’s legacies is Elseya irwini, a new type of snapping turtle he discovered on the coast of Queensland. He was named Tourism Export of the Year in 2004. Today Australia Zoo attracts almost one million visitors a year and employs more than 200 people.
Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray while filming underwater in April 2006. John Stainton was on the boat off Port Douglas on the Great Barrier Reef where Irwin was attacked: “He died doing what he loved best and left this world in a happy and peaceful state of mind. He would have said ‘Crocs Rule.’”