The enticing book sat on my shelf for eight years since it was published in 2007. But I felt such anguish about the death of the legendary Steve Irwin I couldn’t bring myself to read it.
Like most Aussies I adored Steve Irwin and on top of his irresistible charisma, the passionate larrikin reminded me of my own loveable, curly haired, bronzed brother Steve who died young in a car crash at just 24. The grief and sense of unfairness for the loss of my brother still makes my heart ache almost four decades later. And recalling the heroic vision of Steve Irwin just compounds the pain.
But on a visit to my mum from the UK where we now live, returning to the Sunshine Coast, my former home town where the spirit of Steve Irwin dominates, the time is right, September 2015, to tackle the mighty Steve in a full body crocodile embrace.
Reading the book, My Steve by Terri Irwin, his devoted wife, soul mate and partner in wildlife protection is just the inspiration I need. Although I’m not planning to become a Wildlife Warrior, like so many young people inspired by Steve’s courageous example, I am planning a MAD adventure of my own to Make A Difference for humanity, championing human rights for little girls in Africa.
I need all the inspiration I can get to motivate me in this tough challenge and in Terri’s extraordinary story I’m finding inspiration in truckloads.
The first thing that strikes me about Steve and Terri’s captivating story is the fact theirs is a true love story. Their powerful, loving bond was formed from their shared passion and higher purpose for protecting the endangered and misunderstood wildlife of this fragile planet.
When Terri met Steve in 1991, as an enthusiastic 27-year-old American, she was already devoted to saving cougars and rescuing and rehabilitating all kinds of animals in her home in Oregon, north of California. Simultaneously on the other side of the world, a 29-year-old dynamic bloke was running a little reptile park, having been raised by his parents to befriend animals. His mum Lyn taught him to care for injured wildlife and growing up he went bush with his dad Bob to save and study venomous snakes and capture and relocate crocodiles.
No wonder they fell in love. Having studied relationship dynamics for many years, I am fascinated to realise that Terri and Steve intuitively hit on the love formula that eludes most of us; they shared a sense of purpose as deep as the ocean and as big as the sky for a cause greater than themselves and together embarked on a mission that would change human understanding of the natural world.
Although Terri was a strong woman, it was Steve who took the masculine leadership role. He pursued her to America after a chance holiday encounter in Australia. It was Steve who proposed, all covered in sweat and dirt after a day’s hard work. It was Steve who decided the time was right to have babies and Steve who named their two precious children. He was the empowered husband most women crave.
As their love evolved through exhilarating adventures, and teaching her how to face the dangers of the harsh Aussie bush and jump on ferocious crocodiles, Terri came to understand, trust, respect, support and hero worship her amazing husband.
Many viewers of Steve Irwin’s wildlife shows considered him quite child-like and naïve in his love of all animals. However the khaki-clad entertainer’s delight in animals came from genuine empathy and compassion of the most profound kind. He filmed more than 50 astonishing TV documentaries in rugged Outback Australia, Sumatra, the Kalahari Desert, the Antarctic and many other beautiful, remote wilderness locations.
Steve Irwin revered crocs as apex predators with complex behaviours and social systems; an ancient species going back 60 million years to the dinosaur era. The title ‘Crocodile Hunter’ was misleading because Steve didn’t hunt these magnificent, maligned beasts to kill them but rather to catch them and relocate them to safety (dodging the bullets of hateful humans) and to install tracking devices for research.
He was incredibly intelligent and incredibly talented. He possessed an impressive academic and scientific knowledge base of wildlife and the environment (and was about to be honoured as a professor by the University of Queensland. He was highly skilled at bush craft; able to set up camp, drive a boat, sense the presence of crocs, and cook dinner over a campfire and then go spotlighting on rivers at night. He was brilliant at building and all forms of manual work and did most of the early expansion on Australia Zoo single-handed.
On his favourite local beaches and giant surf breaks around the world, Steve manoeuvred his powerful body, gracefully surfing the formidable waves and in later years mastered a strenuous form of martial arts as another outlet for all that irrepressible energy.
But this for fearless lover of life, the top priority was always his family. He was devoted to Terri and his precious daughter, Bindi and Baby Bob and determined to instill in his children an affinity and confidence with wildlife, the way his parents had taught him, to lead the next generation of Wildlife Warriors fighting for conservation.
Haunted by a premonition of dying young, he made Terri promise she and the children would carry on his legacy of dedicating their lives to saving wildlife.
And Terri has honoured her promise to her husband to ensure Australia Zoo and their pioneering conservation work continues to thrive, and with Bindi and Bob, carries on Steve’s tireless work around the world, educating humans about the wonders of other species, evoking a love and respect and desire to protect and care for wildlife for future generations.
While on my stay on the Sunshine Coast, I immersed myself in the Steve Irwin legend, devouring Terri’s book, watching the fantastic action-packed Hollywood movie Steve and Terri made in 2002 and visiting the awe-inspiring Australia Zoo, a living testament to what is possible with enough passion, determination and devotion to all that’s good in our troubled world.
Some cynics criticise the cost of admission and the vast amount of merchandise as “commercialisation” however all proceeds from the Zoo and spin-off products are poured into vital conservation projects around the planet.
The couple bought vast tracts of land for conservation including 650 acres near the Great Dividing Range called Ironbark Station where Steve planted thousands of trees.
In July 2007, the Government dedicated 320,000 acres as the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve, an idyllic crocodile habitat, on the Cape York Peninsula in his memory.
From humble beginnings when the couple married in June 1992, the Zoo is now a spectacular international attraction with the famous Crocoseum (Steve’s grand vision); the Africa park, the wildlife hospital (in honour of Steve’s mother) and the latest unique exciting kids’ draw card of Bindi’s Island, with a three-storey tree house with ring-tailed lemurs, giant Aldabran tortoises, stunning macaws and boa constrictors.
My good friends, Glenda and Sheila (whose daughter Kezia works at the Zoo as a photographer) and I strolled around the glorious natural gardens, absolutely gob-smacked and exhilarated by this vibrant wonderland, a nurturing habitat and celebration of an abundance of rare and endangered species. Crikey! We were thrilled by the exciting Croc Show, with Murray the ferocious saltwater croc doing his best to eat the gutsy, quick-witted handlers! Our fantastic day was the highlight of my trip!
Australia Zoo now has hundreds of mammals, reptiles and birds from all over the world and employs hundreds of dedicated staff. Steve’s creative ideas, that came to him while staring into the campfire, have now expanded beyond even his wild imaginings! Thanks to his passionate family, friends and loyal supporters, Steve posthumously, has achieved his dream of inspiring a multitude of Wildlife Warriors to carry on his important work.
Steve died in a freak accident, pierced by the barb of a stingray in his generous, loving heart, while scuba diving and filming a show, at the height of his glory at the young age of 44 on September 4, 2006.
Terri’s grief at the loss of her soul mate was excruciating. The sudden loss of their fun, affectionate Daddy was bewildering for toddler Bob and courageous eight-year-old Bindi. For Steve’s father and close mates, Wes and John, the pain was worse than any savage croc attack. His two sisters were bereft. (Steve’s mum had died tragically in a car accident in February 2000 and was spared suffering the agony of losing her beloved son).
Steve was so loved by Australians and international fans, his death was devastating and the Memorial Service at Australia Zoo was unbearably sad for the 300 million viewers around the world.
Everyone felt they knew this warm, friendly, exuberant, open and funny Ocker bloke personally from his up close and personal TV wildlife documentaries. The nation was overwhelmed with grief, as if we had all lost a close family member. The grief still hurts nine years later. He has become a treasured icon.
This dynamo of a man who worked from early morning until late at night managed to fit twice as much into every day as the average person! So I figure he actually lived a full 88 years compressed into his power-packed 44 years.
He was a role model to men, idolised and swooned over by women and a champion to children everywhere. Countless thousands of idealistic young people have dedicated their lives to becoming Wildlife Warriors, saving endangered animals and our fragile environment.
Whenever any of us takes on a worthy cause and does some heroic act for others, we evoke the spirit of Steve Irwin.
This Wildlife Warrior, along with my own brother Steve, remains in my heart as a source of strength, courage and inspiration, empathy, compassion and love for all forms of life driving me on to Make A Difference and create a legacy of my own.
If you are seeking inspiration to pursue your own purpose in life, read Terri Irwin’s book My Steve and visit Australia Zoo and absorb the extraordinary Wildlife Warrior into your heart. And know you can achieve anything!