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
"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
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
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
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.