Steve Irwin, 44, Daredevil Killed by Stingray

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The New York Sun

Steve Irwin, the up-close crocodile baiter and wildlife documentarian famous for his series on the Animal Planet television channel and late night chat-show appearances, was killed yesterday by a stingray barb to the heart while snorkeling in Australian waters. He was 44.

That he was killed doing what he loved – he was on a break from filming a new documentary series, “Ocean’s Deadliest” – may be solace to some. But it is also cause for reflection that “Homo wildlife-documentarian” is a surprisingly long-lived and healthy species.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who practically invented the form as well as SCUBA gear, died of a respiratory infection at 87. He regularly swam with whales, but the closest he came to an on-the-job fatality was from a malfunctioning air compressor.

Marlin Perkins, the longtime host of “Wild Kingdom,” occasionally wrestled a crocodile (or more often sent his trusty assistant, Jim Fowler, to do it for him), but he too managed to die in his bed, of cancer at 81.

David Attenborough, the dean of the breathless nature voice-over, has been known to share a cave with (hibernating) bears and was once chased by a bull elephant seal, but he is still active at 80.

Like Irwin, Cousteau, Perkins, and Mr. Attenborough were distinctive-voiced (though Perkins resembled HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey”) and through personal involvement drew viewers in to a vision of conservation.

Irwin saw himself as fan educator, although to many Australians he was first and foremost a bad example of Australian stereotypes, with his “Crocodile Dundee” getup and propensity to exclaim “Crikey!” whenever an animal did something interesting.

He was notorious for filming amid danger that would cause any ordinary primate to flee — grabbing venomous snakes by the tail, wrestling 15-foot saltwater crocodiles, or approaching (but ultimately fleeing) Komodo dragons.

Still, he was one of his nation’s greatest ambassadors, and looked especially good in light of recent antics by his chief competitors, Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson. Prime Minister Howard called his death “a huge loss for Australia.” Perhaps he was biased; Irwin once called Mr. Howard “the greatest leader in the entire world.”

Part of Irwin’s secret was that, with his hyper-animated presentation and powerful physique – his wife compared him favorably to Tarzan – he was as compelling as any of the species he focused his camera on.

Irwin grew up on a reptile preserve founded by his parents in tropical Queensland. He received an 11-foot scrub python for his sixth birthday, and by the time he was 9 was learning from his father the fine art of wrestling saltwater crocodiles. The father-son team ultimately caught and bred nearly 150 of the “salties” at what is now called the Australia Zoo.

It was crocodiles that first made Irwin’s reputation, in a 1992 series called “The Crocodile Hunter.” The show was picked up by the Animal Planet in 1996 and soon became the cable channel’s most popular offering.

But despite apparently never even graduating from college, Irwin was already a recognized authority on several other endangered Australian species, including goannas, fearsomely ferocious Australian monitor lizards, some of which live in trees. “Fortunately, God blessed me with orangutan arms,” he wrote in a memoir, “The Crocodile Hunter: The Birthday Present Was a Python” (1997). “To study arboreal animals, you’ve got to become one: I could climb anything.”

His Australia Zoo tended to wounded animals and focused on breeding endangered species like the woma, a species of python. Irwin had a particular passion for the northern hairy nosed wombat, the second-largest marsupial after the kangaroo and so endangered that barely 100 were left in 2000. Try as he might, Irwin couldn’t convince authorities to let him establish a $1 million program to breed the wombats at his zoo. “I’ve said they can take the credit,” a frustrated Irwin told the Age newspaper of Melbourne, Australia, in 2003. “Just give me the f-ing northern hairy nosed wombat! These are desperate times. They are going to go in our lifetime.”

In addition to being criticized for perpetuating Australian stereotypes (albeit in a good cause, critics were always forced to concede), Irwin ran into trouble in 2004 when he was caught on camera tossing raw chicken into the maw of a 13-foot saltie while cradling his month-old son in his other arm.

Afterward, Irwin was unrepentant. “What I’d do differently is I’d make sure there were no cameras around,” he said.

Steve Irwin

Born February 22, 1962, in Essendon, Australia; died September 4 of a stingray’s sting while snorkeling off Queensland; survived by his wife, Terri Raines, an American veterinary technician specializing in big cats, and his children, Bindi Sue and Robert Clarence.

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