Dad’s determination created popular hero
Extraordinary people sometimes seem to come out of nowhere. But achieving great success in life usually rests on the solid foundation established by parents, who themselves may be remarkable albeit not celebrated. One such dazzling yet grounded individual was Steve Irwin, who had become the most widely recognised and perhaps best-loved Australian in the world by the time he died in 2006 at the age of 44.
Followed on television by hundreds of millions of viewers around the world, Irwin became famous for being nothing more or less than a wide-eyed, khaki-clad Australian bushie who enjoyed nothing more than tangling with potentially lethal wildlife. He was killed by a stingray.
Unlike other internationally famous Australians, Irwin never once ceased being himself and that disarming naturalness was a major factor in his enormous and unique success. As much as provincial-minded Australians yearn to be like Europeans or Americans, people over there are attracted to what in us and our landscape they perceive as exotic. Irwin was the nearest thing the world will see to an outback Tarzan, a hands-on dangerous animals specialist who, unlike his fictional forerunner Mick Dundee, wrestled real crocodiles rather than the fake ones used in the movies.
The Last Crocodile Hunter is a memoir by Bob Irwin, the man who as much as anyone influenced his son to become a big-hearted wildlife warrior.
It was Irwin’s decision in the early 1970s to quit his well-paid job as a plumber in suburban Melbourne to move his young family to the back blocks of Queensland and build a small reptile park that paved the way for the subsequent stellar career of his son. Bob, whose early working life included stints constructing septic tanks and digging graves, did everything himself.
The way he tells it, Bob, with his first wife Lyn, a maternity nurse, had decided to preserve and protect Australian wildlife well before this became a mainstream concern. One of the Irwins’ friends in those early years was pioneering naturalist David Fleay. In the 1930s Fleay had made the poignant black-and-white archival film of the last surviving thylacine, which was kept in a cage at Hobart Zoo.
By the time Bob and his family had started the Beerwah Reptile Park in the 1970s, it had been open season on wildlife for so long that many species, including crocodiles and wallabies, were threatened with extinction. Bob Irwin had no formal training as a naturalist but says Fleay advised him that all he needed “is observation, nothing else. Because that’s the only way you’re going to learn when it comes to animals. You’ve got to think like one.”
Lyn’s skills proved invaluable in the nursing of injured animals. Through trial and (often painful) error, Bob and the other Irwins learned how to handle and display some of the most dangerous and fascinating animals in Australia. They also acted as consultants to local farmers, helping to relocate threatening, and therefore threatened, species such as crocodiles to prevent them being slaughtered as a perceived pest.
Assisted from an early age by Steve, Bob describes capturing giant crocodiles using improvised equipment and gradually expanding the reptile park. As governmental awareness of conservation grew during the 70s, Bob describes being both helped and hindered by bureaucrats and neighbours.
Bob has endured more heartache than many. He lost to freak accidents both his first wife, to whom he was married for nearly a halfcentury, and a son to whom he was very close. He is estranged from his daughter-in-law and her children, and apparently is no longer welcome at the institution he founded.
At the same time, as a pioneering conservationist he has achieved a lot more that is worthwhile than most Australians of his generation. If today wildlife management and conservation is a legitimate matter of public concern in this country then thanks are due to self-taught initiators in the field such as the Irwin family.
Remarried and pursuing a new career as an environmental activist, Bob Irwin these days may be seen trying to dig up wombats that have been deliberately buried alive in their burrows by farmers in South Australia or else being arrested while protesting against coalseam gas projects in Queensland.
The father-son relationship can be complicated and fraught, but in the case of Bob and Steve Irwin it seems that there was tremendous love and mutual respect.
One of the most touching aspects of the relationship between Bob and Steve described in The Last Crocodile Hunter was the habit they had of always shaking hands before they turned in for the night. It was the simple gesture that these two Australian men, typically reserved in speech, used to express the depth of their feelings for each other. is an author and critic.
Father and son Bob and Steve Irwin shared a special lifestyle and relationship