From: Michael Perry, Reuters
Published September 4, 2006 12:00 AM

Crocodile Hunter Took Risks to Conserve Wildlife

SYDNEY — "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin cheated death many times as he stalked and played with some of the world's deadliest animals.


But in the end the animal kingdom proved too dangerous.


Irwin, who was killed on Monday by a stingray while diving on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, communicated a wide-eyed, almost child-like enthusiasm for the animal kingdom and the importance of conservation to television audiences around the world.


He boasted that he had never been bitten by a venomous snake or seriously bitten by a crocodile, and admitted his worst injuries had been inflicted by parrots.


"I don't know what it is with parrots but they always bite me," Irwin once said. "A cockatoo once tried to rip the end of my nose off. I don't know what they've got against me."


Wildlife experts said it was ironic that Irwin was killed by a marine creature not regarded as aggressive.


"Of all the animals that Steve Irwin has known to wrestle and wrangle and carry on with, to go by stingray is just almost ridiculous," said Grant Willis, senior aquarist at the Sydney Aquarium.


Wearing his trademark khaki shirt and shorts on his show, Irwin would crawl on his belly or knees as he approached deadly animals like crocodiles, pythons and spiders in the wild.


He would whisper to his audience that the creature he was approaching was dangerous but also majestic and worth protecting.


Whenever he got too close to the jaws of a crocodile or escaped the tightening grip of a full-grown python, Irwin would call out "Crikey" -- Australian slang expressing surprise.


Irwin's antics made him an global icon and won him a devoted international audience for "The Crocodile Hunter", the name of his nature documentary series.


"I think that he brought a much greater respect for animals that are normally demonised by people," Canadian scientist David Suzuki told Australian media on hearing of Irwin's death.


GROWING UP WITH CROCODILES


Irwin, 44, was born in Australia's second largest city Melbourne but moved with his parents to the tropical state of Queensland where they ran a small reptile wildlife park.


Irwin grew up around crocodiles and snakes and became a crocodile trapper, removing crocodiles from urban areas for his parents' reptile park. In 1987 his parents expanded the park, making it a sanctuary for large saltwater crocodiles.


In 1991 he took over management of the reptile park and renamed it "Australia Zoo". A year later he married his wife Terri and went on a crocodile-trapping honeymoon, which became the first episode of "The Crocodile Hunter" series.


His documentaries -- almost 50 of them -- appeared on the cable TV channel Animal Planet, turning him into a virtual global industry that generated books, interactive games and even toy action figures.


As Irwin's popularity spread -- members of the U.S. Olympic track team visited his zoo during their visit to Australia for the Sydney 2000 Olympics -- so too did his conservation work.


He created The Steve Irwin Conservation Foundation and International Crocodile Rescue and became the Australian Customs spokesman for its quarantine publicity campaign aimed at keeping animal and plant diseases out of Australia.


CONTROVERSY


But his seemingly daredevil wildlife antics also raised the ire of animal rights groups.


In January 2004 during a public show at his "Australia Zoo", Irwin held his one-month-old son Bob in his arms as he fed a chicken carcass to large crocodile. Television footage of the act horrified viewers and sparked comparisons with musician Michael Jackson's dangling his baby son outside a window.


Irwin insisted his son was never in danger because of his experience in handling crocodiles. He said his son's crocodile encounter was like other children learning to swim.


In Antarctica to film a documentary in June 2004, Irwin was again engulfed in controversy when he got too close to whales, penguins and seals. Australian law prohibits people getting too close to Antarctic wildlife.


Animal Planet ended Irwin's "The Crocodile Hunter" series with a finale called "Steve's Last Adventure" in which Irwin stalked animals in the Himalayas, the Yangtze River in China, Borneo and Kruger National Park in South Africa.


Irwin was filming an underwater documentary on The Great Barrier Reef when he was struck in the chest by the stingray's barb.


Source: Reuters


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