Steve Irwin, better known as "the Crocodile Hunter," was killed today by a stingray. Filming for a series called Ocean's Deadliest at the Batt Reef, off the coast of Queensland, Austrailia, Irwin was struck by a stingray's barb which penetrated his heart. He died only a short time later at the age of 44.
Born in a suburb of Melbourne, Irwin's parents moved to Queensland when he was only a few years old. His parents founded the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park. It was there that Irwin became the reptile enthusiast that he was. As a child he took part in the care and maintenance of the animals. At age six he even had his own pet python. Irwin go on to become a crocodile trapper, capturing the animals, removing them from human populations, and placing them in the park. When his parents retired, Irwin took over the running of he park, by then renamed the Australia Zoo.
It was in 1996 that The Crocodile Hunter debuted on Animal Planet in the United States. It would prove to be a huge success in both the US and the United Kingdom. Its success resulted in such spin off projects as the Animal Planet special The Ten Deadliest Snakes in the World and Tigers of Shark Bay, as well as series such as Croc Files and The Crocodile Hunter Diaries. Eventually there would even be a feature film based on the series, Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course released in 2002.
Despite his popularity in the U.S. and UK, Irwin was no stranger to controversy. At times in he was criticised by the media in his home of Australia for both his broad Australian accent and his unabashed enthusiasm for dangerous animals. A source of greater controversy occured in 2004 when Irwin took his infant son with him while feeding a chicken carcase to a crocodile. Many criticised his actions as placing his son in danger and some went so far as to call it child abuse. That having been said, many defended Irwin, pointing out that no only was he known to be a devoted father, but that he had years of experience in dealing with crocodiles and other dangerous animals. No charges were ever filed, although Queensland did ban children from ever entering enclosures containing crocodiles. That same year Irwin accused of getting to close to whales, seals, and penguins while filming Ice Breaker in Antarctica. The Australian Environment Department recommended no action be taken against Irwin for the incident.
Regardless of any controversy, Irwin remained popular and was famous not only as a zoologist and naturalist, but as a conservationist as well. His whole life he campaigned to save endangered species. He bought large pieces of land in Australia, Fiji, and the United States to use as animal preserves. He campaigned to keep tourists from buying items made from endangered animals, such as shark fin soup, turtle shells, and gorilla paw ashtrays. He encouraged people not to support poaching. Irwin aided in the International Crocodile Rescue and the Iron Bark Station Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. He also founded the Steve Irwin Conservation Foundation, later renamed Wildlife Warriors Worldwide, an organisation dedicated to protecting endangered species.
Besides his work in television, running the Australia Zoo, and his conservation activities, Irwin also discovered a species of snapping turtle in Queensland, Elseya irwini or "Irwin's turtle."
Irwin received the Australian Centenary Medal in 2001 and was named Australia's Tourism Export of the Year in 2004.
Steve Irwin was often the subject of jokes and parodied on everything from The Simpsons to It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. Despite this, I think there can be no doubt of his sincerity and enthusiasm when it came to the conservation of endangered animals. Much of Irwin's magic came from the fact that rather being preachy, he used his enthusiasm and love for such animals to promote public awareness of conservation. Indeed, children across Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, who would never have sat through a dry lecture on the importance of saving endangered species, embraced Irwin as a hero and actually listened to what he had to say. In fact, I think Irwin is the first celebrity whose death actually moved my youngest great niece. Regardless of any criticism levelled at Irwin over the years, I think it could never be said that Irwin was not one of the best ambassadors the cause of environmentalism ever had.