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As the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin delighted, shocked and wowed millions. From his zoo shows to his TV shows, he dedicated his life to the conversation, rehabilitation and protection of the animals he loved so much. On this World Wildlife Day, we look back at the life of the most popular animal hero Australia has ever produced.
Early life and inspiration
On February 22nd, 1962, maternity nurse Lyn and plumber Bob Irwin gave birth to their only son, Stephen Robert Irwin, in Upper Ferntree Gully, Victoria. The couple also had two other daughters, Joy and Mandy. The family appeared as any other from the outside, but an all-consuming passion for the rehabilitation and rescue of local wildlife ran deep. In 1970, the family moved to Queensland, where Steve's parents founded a small animal sanctuary - the Beerwah Reptile Park. Steve was heavily involved in life around the park, growing up around the reptiles, regularly feeding animals, performing care and maintenance duties and learning from his parents along the way. He described his father as a wildlife expert with a particular interest in herpetology, the zoological branch relating to amphibians and reptiles, while his mother was a wildlife rehabilitator.
In 1968, when other six-year-old boys were receiving matchbox cars for their birthdays, the future crocodile hunter was delighted to receive a four metre long scrub python. At age nine, Steve was catching his first crocodiles under the supervision of his father. His parents' park, renamed to the "Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park" by 1980, was not only Steve's home, but his paradise, where he spent his days working alongside his best friend, Wes Mannion, for the rest of his life.
The beginning of the Crocodile Hunter
Steve would go on to volunteer for Queensland's East Coast Crocodile Management program, working in remote, far north Queensland to catch and relocate over 100 problem crocodiles alongside his dog, Sui. Steve relocated many of the crocodiles to his family's own park and developed techniques for the capture and management of crocodiles that continue to be utilised to this day. In 1991, at just 29 years old, Steve Irwin took over the management of the park from his parents. Only two days later, Steve met an American tourist and naturalist named Terri Raines. The young woman was visiting wildlife rehabilitation facilities in Australia when she met Steve at his zoo. The couple both agree that it was love at first sight and the two were married just four months later in Terri's home town of Eugene, Oregon. For their rather unusual honeymoon, the couple went straight back to work relocating problem crocodiles in far north Queensland, filming a documentary while doing so. Thus, The Crocodile Hunter television show was born. The show, hosted by Steve and Terri, became an international smash hit. Steve made an impression on the entire globe with his incredibly enthusiastic presenting style, his true blue Aussie accent, trademark khaki outfits and catchphrase that lives on to this day - "Crikey!" Steve would also go on to make other appearances in film and television cameos and talk shows, cementing the natural-born communicator as a world-famous voice for all creatures great and small.
Meanwhile, Steve and Terri continued to work on expanding and improving the park, which they renamed to Australia Zoo in 1998. Their vision was to create the world's best zoo, echoing the message of "Conservation through Exciting Education." The couple also had two children together - Bindi Sue Irwin in 1998 (named after his favourite saltwater crocodile, Bindi, and his beloved dog, Sui) and Robert Clarence Irwin in 2003 (named after his father). Steve was as entirely devoted to his children as he was to his park and conservation mission, having once said that his daughter was "the reason [he] was put on this Earth." He instilled his children with his love for wildlife and taught them to treat every living being with kindness and hoped that if he were to be remembered for anything, it would be for being a good father.
The legacy of a legend
In September, 2006, Steve was filming in the Great Barrier Reef when he was struck in the chest by a stingray barb. Steve passed away from his injuries at the age of 44. The world mourned the loss of the man who brought animal conservation and rehabilitation to the mainstream. Special tributes to the Crocodile Hunter played all over the world, and thousands of fans flocked to Australia Zoo to pay tribute to their hero who's life was cut so short. The flags on the Sydney Harbour Bridge were lowered to half mast in his honour. However, no one mourned as deeply as his family, friends and colleagues who knew and loved him most. Celebrities and Steve's associates paid tribute to the legend in a public memorial, including country music legend John Williamson, who performed Steve's favourite song, True Blue. Steve was buried in a private ceremony following his official, private funeral in Caloundra on a site in his beloved zoo that is inaccessible to visitors.
Steve Irwin continues to be remembered for the incredible impact he had on animal conservation, protection and rehabilitation. In 2007, the Glass House Mountains Road was renamed to Steve Irwin Way. The Australian Government also named a 135 thousand hectare national park "Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve". His name also lives on in discoveries made in his field, including Irwin's turtle that he discovered with his father in 1997, and the air-breathing land snail discovered in 2009 after his death, Crikey steveirwini. While his memory lives on in the many awards and accolades he received, his greatest achievement and legacy remains to be his family and Australia Zoo, as they continue to work passionately towards the Zoo's mantra of Conservation Through Exciting Education in his honour. He will be remembered forever as the man who brought his love of animals to our screens and our hearts.
"Whatever you want to do in this world, it is achievable. The most important thing that I've found, that perhaps you could use, is be passionate and enthusiastic in the direction that you choose in life, and you'll be a winner." - Steve Irwin
Rest in peace, Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter.
By Claudia Slack