Dad’s de­ter­mi­na­tion cre­ated pop­u­lar hero

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Si­mon Cater­son

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

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