The Irwins WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER
More than a decade after Steve Irwin’s tragic death, his family open up about life after loss and how they’re carrying on the Crocodile Hunter’s legacy
For as long as Bindi Irwin can remember, she’s wanted to be like her dad. As the oldest child of Crocodile Hunter star Steve Irwin and his wife, Terri, she got plenty of inspiration in her early years. “When I was little, I loved watching my dad feed the crocs,” she says. “I had to be right there next to him helping, and if I couldn’t, I would just cry.” Eager to appease her, “Dad would hold me in one arm and feed the crocs with his other,” says Bindi. “They’d almost bite the buttons off his shirt, but it was so fun!” But as she grew taller, her legs dangled a little too close to the reptiles’ teeth for Steve’s comfort. “He could no longer feed them, hold me and keep me alive all at the same time,” she says with a smile. So the family came up with a compromise. “Mum started letting me have my lunch in the enclosure. I would eat my little salmon sandwich and just watch Dad. Thinking back, those really are my fondest memories.”
At the family’s home at the Australia Zoo in Queensland, Bindi, 20, and her younger brother Robert, 15, are still feeding the crocodiles. But the absence of their father remains profoundly painful. After rising to international fame on his wildlife documentary television series The Crocodile Hunter, Steve was working on an underwater film titled Ocean’s Deadliest when he was attacked by a stingray and died on Sept. 4, 2006, at age 44. Bindi was just 8 years old; Robert was only 2. The news came as a shock around the world. “I remember people coming up to me and saying, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, sweetheart. Time heals all wounds.’ But that’s just not true,” says Bindi. “It’s like losing a part of your heart, and when you’ve lost that, you never get it back.”
Faced with the daunting task of running the zoo and raising two young children alone, Terri, now 54, persevered. Instead of “wallowing in grief,” every evening the family would go around the table and share their favourite part of the day. “Sometimes it was as simple as a cup of tea or a hot shower,
and sometimes you’re just grasping for a good part because you’re so incredibly sad,” Terri says. Slowly they began to focus on positive ways to move forward. Still, “it was a little bit terrifying to have to step up and take the till,” she recalls, “but I thought about it and said, ‘Let’s carry on as if Steve was still here’.” And carry on they have. The family is dedicated more than ever to continuing Steve’s mission. In addition to expanding the zoo and travelling the world to spread the message of their conservation nonprofit, Wildlife Warriors, the Irwins made their long-awaited return to television in October. Their new Animal Planet series Crikey! It’s the Irwins follows their life at home at the zoo where they live and work. “Since we were tiny, [the zoo has] been a part of who we are,” says Bindi, who, of course, is snuggling one of the many koalas living there. “Our house is right in the middle – we have crocodiles on one side and tigers on the other.” Robert has embraced the uniqueness of living side by side with so many exotic creatures as well. “After school I’ll go around on my scooter and jump in with the tortoises to say g’day or wrangle some snakes,” he says. “Every day is a new adventure.” And the Irwins make no apologies for their affinity for khaki. “It’s not just a colour, it’s an attitude,” Bindi quips.
Terri can’t imagine life without Bindi and Robert but admits children weren’t always on the cards. “When we got married, Steve said, ‘I’m just an action man. I don’t know how we would ever have kids.’ And I didn’t feel strongly one way or another. But after almost six years of marriage, he burst through the door one evening and said, ‘ We’ve got to have children! Who do we leave all this to? Who will carry it on?’ I go, ‘Just because you have kids doesn’t mean they’re going to want to do what you do.’ And he said, ‘Oh, they will. They definitely will’.” Steve’s hunch turned out to be accurate. “Every day we work with the beautiful animals at
Australia Zoo and do the best we possibly can to ensure Dad’s dream and goals continue,” says Bindi. In her personal life it’s no surprise she chose a partner who shares so many of her father’s qualities. “He loves wildlife and conservation, and he has this strength,” Bindi says of her boyfriend of five years, Chandler Powell. “Which is necessary when you’re jumping on crocs.” A Florida native, Powell, 22, was a professional wakeboarder when he met Bindi in 2013 during a trip to the zoo. The pair “hit it off right away,” Powell says. While he relocated from Florida to live with the family at the zoo, the couple aren’t talking about marriage just yet.“We’re really happy at the moment,” he explains. “We just love travelling together and working in the zoo. We’re enjoying life.” For Terri, finding love again isn’t a huge priority – but she’s not writing it off completely. “I think it’s really important to never say never about anything, but I’m really not looking,” she says, noting that she hasn’t been on a date in 27 years. “I feel like 14 years with Steve was like 400 years of real life. It was the most epic, adventurous, amazing experience, and I had my happily ever after. I really miss Steve, but I’m not a lonely person.” (As for tabloid rumours linking her to Aussie pal, actor Russell Crowe, Terri has laughed them off, saying Crowe is just “a great friend”.)
When it comes to the family’s future, one thing is certain: “No matter where we go or what we do, we’ll always come back here,” says Robert. “This is our passion. It’s a part of us, and Australia Zoo will always be home.” Bindi couldn’t agree more. “I sure hope Dad would be proud. We really do try every day to make him proud and follow in his footsteps. I hope that somewhere he’s out there going, ‘ Yes! You did good’.”
“People always ask us, ‘Is there anything else you would want to do?’ And it’s never even been a consideration,” says Bindi. “This is who we are, what we love and what we do.” Adds Terri: “I’m just really proud of my kids. I feel very blessed that they are happy and healthy. I’ll never take that for granted.” This picture from Aug. 12, 2006 was taken during the family’s final expedition together, a five-week crocodile research trip to Cape York Peninsula in Queensland.
“We’ve gotten so comfortable with each other, but every time I’m with Chandler, it’s like the first date,” says Bindi. “To find someone who is there no matter what and supports you – it’s amazing.” “I never thought I would get married until I met Steve,” says Terri (with Steve in October 1991). “He completely changed my world.”
“The zoo is a pretty cool place to grow up. I feel really lucky” —Robert IrwinSteve (holding a newborn Robert on Dec. 4, 2003): “If I could be remembered for any one thing, I’d like to be remembered as a good dad.” Bindi and partner Derek Hough were (US) Dancing with the Stars Season 21 champs in 2015. Robert made his debut as an animal expert on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in February 2017. “It’s really fun,” he says. “And backstage is absolute mayhem!”