Monday, September 04, 2006

Oh, Crikey!

"I have no fear of losing my life - if I have to save a koala or a crocodile or a kangaroo or a snake, mate, I will save it." - Steve Irwin, the "Crocodile Hunter"

As I do most Sundays through Thursdays, when I got to work this Monday morning, I signed into my computer and opened web browsers to see what had been going on in the world since I’d last looked up the news (in this case, I'd last checked the headlines before I went to bed the night before). I opened Internet Explorer first, which has CNN as the homepage, and was about to open up Mozilla Firefox, with it’s New York Times homepage, when an image on CNN grabbed my attention.

Instantly, seeing it I was overcome with dread. I scrolled down, already suspecting the worst from the headline...and not believing it to be true when I read what I expected to see.

I kid you not…the first word out of my mouth since I’d gotten into work, at 8:20 am in Tel Aviv, was a choked - almost whispered - “Crikey”.

It just wasn’t possible. Not true. It had to be not true. After all, it was breaking news. That can be wrong sometimes, right?

The Crocodile Hunter? Dead? By, of all things, a stingray barb to the heart? Sure, we all knew the guy took risks with deadly animals of all kinds that we’d never dream of taking ourselves…but come on. How many times had he come out on top? Sure, he’d sparked his share of controversy in the past. So what? The guy was a survivor.


The reality was slow to sink in, as it was barely fathomable. It still is.

We were reminded today that as lucky and great as he was, Steve Irwin was just as human as the rest of us.


It wasn’t too long after I’d read the news that other Americans I know in Israel started instant messaging me, either asking me if I’d heard about the death of Steve Irwin or asking for details, as they’d just heard about it; all, like me, expressed disbelief and sadness. I think it is because, in part, Steve Irwin was basically my generation’s “Australian caricature”. Sure, those of us who’d seen Crocodile Dundee bunches of times loved Paul Hogan in that movie (but not so much in the third movie), and recognized him when he did Subaru commercials for the “Outback” vehicle.

And yes, there are times when, even just holding a butter knife, I’ll pay an homage to Crocodile Dundee and say “That’s not a knife...that's a knife,” in a faux-Australian accent. It is, after all, one of my favorite movie quotes (it’s right up there with Ben Stiller’s hilarious “But...why male models?” from Zoolander). "Crocodile Dundee" as a movie character didn’t really belong to people my age, though, or even those born in the early-to-mid 1990s. He was a symbol of the late 80s. Very much yesterday. Kind of corny. Static. Old like our parents.

Entertaining, but nonetheless fake.

Steve Irwin, though? He was the original Jackass. He was over-the-top, but at the same time he was for real. He made MTV’s “Idiotic Risk-Taker Extraordinaire”, Johnny Knoxville, look sane by comparison. He had a gift for entertainment, and it is a tribute to his worldwide knack-for-the-lens that I was probably not the only person who, when reading or hearing about the Crocodile Hunter’s death, uttered “Crikey”. It's a global unifier.

"Yeah, for some reason parrots have to bite me. That's their job. I don't know why that is. They've nearly torn my nose off. I've had some really bad parrot bites." - Steve Irwin

I mean, the guy had something like 500 million viewers for his TV shows and specials around the Earth. His death was reported on by al-Jazeera, and it didn’t take much searching to find an obituary in Hebrew for the Crocodile Hunter in Monday afternoon’s issue of Israel Railway’s free newspaper, printed twice daily.

While I’d heard something about Steve Irwin the environmentalist-conservationist in the past (a role he relished more than his celebrity), it was only back in Jerusalem this evening and after visiting my favorite Australian news website – yes, I have a “favourite” Australian news website – The Australian (where I knew I’d be able to find the kind of “authoritative” news and commentary about Steve Irwin’s passing that I really wanted) that I learned about how seriously Steve Irwin cared about protecting Australia’s unique environment, and Oz's diverse wildlife.

As I did more reading, I also learned more about the kind of human being Steve Irwin was, aside from his notoriety as the celebrity "risk-taker's risk-taker".

For example, he did a video for the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service’s “Quarantine Matters” campaign, shown on tens of thousands of flights arriving in Australia each year. He was chastised by many in Australia for taking a significant payout - $175,000 - for only a day’s worth of filming for the “Quarantine Matters” project in 2003. However, it was later revealed he had refused payment – the Australian government donated the money to a koala hospital of his instead.

When working with projects in the US to increase tourism to Australia, such as “G’day LA”, he also donated his time free of charge. He dedicated his life to his profession, his state, and his country without a second thought. If he made money from his work, awesome. If Australia, and the animals he cared about, benefited and he didn't make a single cent – even better. Canberra could not have trained a better ambassador for Australia; Mel Gibson is hardly the sort of example the Australian tourism industry needs these days.

"I'm a proud Australian, a very, very proud Australian." - Steve Irwin

I read this evening that another famous Aussie, actor Russell Crowe, said of the Crocodile Hunter that he was “the Australian that we all aspire to be”. I think that that statement rings true not just for Australians, but for everyone who will be acutely aware of, and saddened by, the void Steve Irwin’s departure leaves us with. He was an inspirational risk-taker, taking it to the limit...and while he might have been over-the-top in mannerisms and in what he did at times, we admired him for it even so.

Steve Irwin was really so much more than just the “Crocodile Hunter”; he died filming a documentary (called The Ocean's Deadliest) within the Great Barrier Reef, doing what he knew the best and loved the most, aside from his family...interacting with God's other creatures so that others could have the opportunity to learn about them.

"I believe that education is all about being excited about something. Seeing passion and enthusiasm helps push an educational message." - Steve Irwin

It is rightly lamented that he’s gone now, but one can go around accusing the Crocodile Hunter of not having lived life to the fullest while he was with us. How many of us can say the same? While we mourn the passing of a great entertainer, we should also remember and celebrate the example he set for us as a human being.




Anne L. said...

I, too, was shocked when I opened up the browsers this morning. A great guy, generous philanthropist, outstanding showman, devoted husband and father (he was filming somthing for his daughter at the time of his death)and animal lover extraordinaire. He will be missed by millions (those two and four legged). Great post, Jeremy!

Anne again... said...

As an aside, I take exception to the following! "Crocodile Dundee" as a movie character didn’t really belong to people my age, though, or even those born in the early-to-mid 1990s. He was a symbol of the late 80s. Very much yesterday. Kind of corny. Static. Old like our parents." I saw this movie when it first came Australia......when I was 18.....does that make me "Very much yesterday. Kind of corny. Static. Old like our parents."?