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Friday, Sep 15, 2006

Irwin reached far
beyond the choir

The news that Steve Irwin died last week in a tragic stingray accident brought tears to my eyes and leaves me with a heavy heart.

I recently spent a day at his zoo where his voice and picture loom large, encouraging people at every turn to love, respect and preserve wildlife. We never met, and I didn't watch his TV show but from that zoo visit, I feel I knew him well.

When I sailed to Australia a month ago, I looked forward to snorkeling and diving on the Great Barrier Reef. But before I left land, I wanted very much to see kangaroos, koala bears and saltwater crocodiles.

Spotting a few gray kangaroos in a beach park near my marina thrilled me, but those roos were skittish and my steps toward them for a better look sent them bounding away.

Just when I'd given up the idea of having a close encounter with native Aussie animals, I read about Steve Irwin's Australia Zoo. "Visit Roo Heaven," the brochure said. "Pet a koala bear. See Steve's crocodile show in the Crocoseum."

The zoo was a five-hour drive from my marina, and off my friend Kirsten and I drove in our rental car.

The entrance to the Australian Zoo had a Disneyland feel to it, and we two biologists worried about animal exploitation. Wary as beach park roos, we paid our admission fee and walked in.

The first zoo worker we saw stood inside the entrance was holding a koala bear.

"Want to pet him?" she said.

Hmm, let me think. The koala's fur was as soft and silky as it looks. "This is one of our boys from the bachelor's quarters," she said. "Each one gets held for 30 minutes a day."

"Do they like it?" I asked.

She laughed. "This morning, this one came to me for his cuddle. They've all been raised here."

Click Photo to Enlarge

And so have the kangaroos and wallabies in Roo Heaven, a large, grassy, tree-filled park. Zoo visitors can pet and hand-feed the docile kangaroos there.

I've had some great wildlife experiences in my day, but few as fun as having a gray kangaroo hold my hand between its dainty little hands as it nibbled roo kibble.

When the kangaroos need a people break, they can retreat to any of several roped-off rest areas. Most, however, chose to doze among their human admirers.

Kirsten decided to pass on the Crocoseum, fearing crocodile abuse, but I went to see what the show was all about.

It was about conservation. A worker fed an enormous saltwater crocodile red meat while explaining to the awed crowd how we humans can live in harmony with these magnificent animals.

When we biologists talk about respecting and protecting wildlife, I often feel we're preaching to the choir. Irwin's unconventional teaching methods, however, reached far beyond the choir, and for that he's my hero.

I've heard Steve criticized in the past for blatant self-promotion, and indeed, his zoo is full of gigantic posters of himself handling wild animals. That didn't bother me much -- but when I saw Steve Irwin dolls in the gift shop, I groaned.

Now I wish I'd bought one.



Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, "Ocean Watch",
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,