Steve Irwin Biography: Wildlife Conservationist

He was a force of nature – the quintessential Aussie outdoorsmen. With his wicked sense of humor and his insatiable passion for wildlife, Steve Irwin – the crocodile hunter – became a worldwide celebrity. He shone a spotlight on man’s mismanagement of our natural resources and championed the plight of the planet’s most vulnerable inhabitants – the animals. But Steve was also a daredevil – constantly pushing the limits in his interactions with the wild. Then, in a tragic moment, he was gone, taken from us far too soon. In this Biographics we get to grips with the Crocodile Hunter from Down Under, Steve Irwin.

The Wilderness Child

Stephen Robert Irwin was born on February 22nd, 1962 in Melbourne, Australia. Both of his parents were passionate about wildlife. His father, Bob, was a plumber, but he was also a keen amateur herpetologist who studied amphibians, while mother Lyn was a wildlife rehabilitator. When Steve was just a few years old the family moved to Queensland, where Bob and and Lyn opened the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park.

Steve, therefore, grew up around animals and was soon put to work at the park. He would clean out the cages and feed the crocodiles and lizards. By the age of six, he was completely accustomed to being around creatures that most children would be terrified of. His whole existence was surrounded by wildlife, from crocodiles to kangaroos and koalas.

Young Steve Irwin with baby platypus

Young Steve Irwin with baby platypus

The Irwin’s developed their Reptile park from nothing. They spent the first couple of years living in a small caravan as they slowly added to their animal inventory. The first snakes they put on display were ones that Bob and Steve captured while out fishing. Meanwhile Lyn was busy rehabilitating orphaned joeys, kangaroos, koalas, wombats, snakes and crays. At the same time, she was raising three children of her own.

Steve proved to be a mischievous child, who was always testing the patience of his father. He would constantly go missing, ony to be discovered down at the local creek chasing lizards. Yet, he wasn’t being rebellious. He wanted to find venomous snakes and lizards so that he could show them to his dad and win his approval. But rather than making his father proud, Steve’s constant wanderings left Bob frustrated. They boy was hyperactive, never sitting still. From the age of two, he developed a love of, and skill for, climbing trees. So, the first thing that his family members would do when he went missing was to look up.

On the way to school, if he saw a dead reptile lying on the road, Steve would make his mother stop so that he could get out and investigate. When he was six years old, he got the best present he could have wished for – a twelve foot long python. Steve absolutely adored his new best friend.

A teenage Steve Irwin in a picture from a book by by Irwin’s best man and mate, Tony Frisby.

A teenage Steve Irwin in a picture from a book by by Irwin’s best man and mate, Tony Frisby.

At school, Steve was considered a bit of an oddity by his peers. He wasn’t into the normal boy things, like bicycles, sport and skateboards. He spent his lunchtimes wandering around the school yard looking for birds, lizards and any other creatures he could find. After a while, other kids got involved, looking to Steve as the local expert on all things related to wildlife.

Bob Irwin was a hero and a mentor to his son. He was a wildlife innovator who was at the cutting edge of animal husbandry. With the Wildlife Park established with a good supply of smaller reptiles and animals, Bob decided it was time to add a couple of crocodiles. He took nine year old Steve with him on his first crocodile hunt. As expected, the boy was extremely active and it was all his dad could do to keep him in the boat. When a croc was sighted, Steve would want to be the first one to grab it. He was positioned at the front of the boat with the spotlight while his father was operating the outboard motor. As they got close, Steve fixed his gaze on the eyes of what he thought was a small croc. The he pounced out of the boat and into the water, grabbing it by the neck. But the boy hadn’t realized how large this crocodile was. It was, in fact about the same size as him – and quite a bit stronger. The boy and the croc struggled for a while. When it became clear to Bob that his son was getting the worst of the encounter, he reached his arm into the water and scooped up both of them, scooping the boy and the croc into the boat and pinning the animal down with his body. Recovering quickly, Steve took over the job of holding down the croc, a huge smile on his face – it was the proudest moment of his life so far.

The Crocodile Hunter

In the early ‘70’s reports of crocodiles attacking people were becoming more frequent around Australia. As the stock of crocodiles at the Reptile Park grew, Bob decided to involve himself in attempts to resolve the conflicts between crocodiles and humans. He joined the East Coast Crocodile Management Program and he and Steve threw themselves into the task of capturing and relocating crocs from areas where there was potential for a nasty encounter with humans. It was extremely dangerous and exciting work and Steve excelled at it. He had a natural gift for, not only locating the crocs, but also for capturing them. He would get absolutely focused on catching a crocodile, as if he were entering into one-on-one combat with it. Once the croc was secured and subdued in his net, he would get a huge adrenaline rush, which would make him keen for the next encounter.

A crocodile lunges at Steve Irwin at Australia Zoo.

A crocodile lunges at Steve Irwin at Australia Zoo.

By the time he was in his late teens, Steve was living in the bush for extended periods of time, camping out under the stars and spending days at a time in pursuit of a single croc. He had to live off the land and the water, honing his bush skills while developing the mystique of the crocodile hunter. It was grueling, physically demanding work – and most of the time Steve was on his own. He was young, fit, keen and innovative.

Steve became the most successful crocodile hunter in the land. With his growing reputation came a degree of complacency. He began to feel that he could do anything. On one occasion he got a croc back to his camp, ready to put into a crate but he had neglected to secure the animal’s mouth. Not realizing this, Steve let the croc out of its net as he prepared the crate. Then, with his back turned, the croc attacked, snapping its huge jaws around his leg. Fortunately, Steve got out of the situation with nothing but a few holes in his foot.

Yeah, I’m a thrill seeker, but crikey, education’s the most important thing.

On another occasion, Bob went up into northern Queensland in search of an infamous croc known as ‘Aggro.’ This creature would pop it’s head out of the water right next to boats, horrifying the locals. Bob’s goal was to locate the beast and set up a marker so that his son could follow up and execute the capture. Bob located the croc easily and made a mark in an overhanging tree so that Steve would know where to set the trap. Yet, from the moment that he went in, Steve could feel that ‘Aggro’ was stalking him. As he was setting the trap something bumped into his boat and his dog began barking. Steve quickly set the trap and then left. Now it was a matter of watching and waiting.

On the third day, Steve headed for the site only to discover that the trap was completely submerged under water. The bait had been taken and the trap had gone off. Steve brought his boat close and grabbed hold of the net, ready to drag the captured croc on deck. Suddenly there was a massive upheaval as the croc smashed into the boat from under the water. A stunned Steve managed to maintain his grip on the net, but then another blow rocked the boat, and then another. But Steve held on and began dragging the net in. Finally he managed to get the tail on board. But then the entire body of the croc catapulted out of the water and into the air coming down beside Steve in the boat. The man and his dog immediately jumped into the water.

LEGEND: Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter.

LEGEND: Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter.

Steve now grabbed whatever he could – branches, ropes, mud and threw it on top of the violently thrashing crocodile. The ideal thing would have been to blindfold the animal, but that was out of the question. Steve then jumped into the boat and onto the back of the croc. He threw more netting over the beast, trying to cover its eyes. Then he fired up the outboard motor and started for shore. All the way back the crocodile fought so violently that Steve was convinced the boat was about to split apart.

Steve finally got the one ton crocodile secured and restrained at his camp. His next problem was how to move it. He decided to go back to a local farm and recruit some helpers. But when the cane farmers saw the size of ‘Aggro’ they refused to get out of their boat. Steve had to resort to getting a front end loader to shift the croc.

It was experiences like these that turned Steve into a local legend. Yet the man himself had mixed feelings. He felt regret that he had had to remove Aggro, the king of that land, from his natural environment.

Steve Irwin Quote

Steve Irwin Quote

Australia Zoo

By 1990 Steve had recaptured more than a hundred crocs. Some of them were kept at the Reptile Park while the majority were released into the wild. In 1991, Bob and Lyn decided that Steve had come of age and was ready to take full control of the park. Steve’s goal was to make his parents proud and he knew he would do it by turning the park into the greatest wildlife facilities on the face of the earth.

Steve Irwin at his Australia Zoo

Steve Irwin at his Australia Zoo

His first step was to rename the park ‘Australia Zoo.’ he then threw himself into creating the most exciting, educational and entertaining wildlife experience that zoo visitors would ever experience. The highlight was the crocodile show where Steve would be right up close and personal with crocs, totally in control and showing no fear. He would tell the crowds what passionate and loving animals they were. With his huge personality and boundless energy he quickly won over the public and attendance figures went through the roof.

Terri

In 1991, among the tens of thousands of visitors to Australia Zoo was Terri Raines, a veterinarian and animal lover from the United States. She was looking for a place to relocate cougars that had been used in the entertainment industry. She was drawn to the crocodile demonstration and the fast talking Aussie who was in with the deadly creatures. Terri wrote down her immediate impressions of Steve . . .

Steve Irwin and his wife Terri.

Steve Irwin and his wife Terri.

I thought there was no-one like this anywhere in the world. He sounded like an environmental Tarzan, a larger-than life superhero guy.

Steve managed to catch sight of Terri in the crowd and, according to him it was love at first sight. The two kindred spirits were engaged four months after that first encounter. They married in Eugene, Oregon, Terri’s home town, on June 4th, 1992. Their honeymoon was spent hunting crocodiles in Northern Queensland.

To say that Terri was out of her element on this trip was an understatement. She had never been into the harsh Australian outback and she had definitely never been on a croc hunt before. But. trusting implicitly in the man that she referred to as her ‘prince’, she threw herself into the experience. Accompanying the Irwin’s on their honeymoon adventure was Steve’s friend, John Stainton. Stainton filmed the action of the croc hunt and other adventures, including Terri’s first encounter with a six foot long black snake. This footage became the first episode of a new Animal Planet TV show called The Crocodile Hunter. The series which featured both Steve and Terri was so successful that a second, and then a third, series were ordered. It was a hit in over 130 countries, with hundreds of millions of people embracing Steve’s lovable, over the top Aussie personality. His trademark catchphrase, ‘Crikey!’ became known the world over.

I have no fear of losing my life – if I have to save a koala or a crocodile or a kangaroo or a snake, mate, I will save it.

The final episode of series three was entitled ‘Steve’s Last Adventure’. It followed him across the world as he embarked upon adventures everywhere from the Himalayas, to South Africa and China.

The Crocodile Hunter series allowed Steve to take his conservation message to the world. He viewed it as his life’s mission to work tirelessly to save the world’s endangered species. As a result of his name recognition, he became the front man for a number of media campaigns and became a passionate ambassador for Australian tourism.

Steve crusaded for wildlife preservation, using his fame to bring the issue to public consciousness. In the late 90’s he also discovered a new species of sea turtle and was at the forefront of a campaign against animal poaching. He also funded large nature reserves not just in Australia, but also in Fiji, Vanuatu and the United States.

Irwin’s TV series fame led to more television and even some movie work. He appeared in 2001’s Dr. Dolittle 2 as himself and then starred in The Crocodile Hunter; Collision Course the following year. In 2006, he provided the voice for an elephant seal named Trev in the movie Happy Feet.

Steve Irwin in Dr Dolittle 2 (2001)

Steve Irwin in Dr Dolittle 2 (2001)

The money that Steve made from his TV and movie appearances was poured into building new exhibits for Australia Zoo and for funding conservation projects. The zoo was designed as an environmental park, with the comfort of the animals the foremost concern. Fences and cages would only be used when absolutely necessary.

The staff at the zoo grew to about 50 and the area expanded to eventually take up 100 acres. The Zoo won the award for Best Australian tourist attraction in 2003-4. In 2004 the Australian Animal Hospital was opened right next to the zoo. The hospital cares for around 6,000 animals each year. In 2006, Australia Zoo Retail won the Australian Tourism Retailing Award.

A Family Man

Steve and Terri had two children together, Bindi, born in 1998, and Robert, in 2003. Bindi’s birth was filmed and shown on TV for the Crocodile Hunter series. Steve had been filming for the show when he got the call that Terri’s waters had broken. He turned up at the hospital two hours later with a complete film crew in tow. Terri was surprised but, as was her nature, took it all in her stride. They were both surprised, but delighted, that the baby was a girl. Steve knew instantly what the name was going to be – Bindi Sue, after his favorite croc and his favorite dog.

Steve Irwin and his daughter Bindi with one of their new Bengal tiger cubs in 2003.

Steve Irwin and his daughter Bindi with one of their new Bengal tiger cubs in 2003.

Steve was the self proclaimed proudest father on the face of the earth. He and Bindi bonded instantly, becoming virtually inseparable. She went on her first wildlife documentary shoot at just six days old. Bindi would grow up in the international spotlight, starring in her own show, Bindi: Jungle Girl when she was eight years old. Although the first series aired the year after Steve’s passing, it was shot before he died and so he featured in several episodes.

Criticism and Praise

November of 2003 found Steve filming a documentary off the coast of Baja California Peninsula in Mexico about sea lions. A report came through the boat’s radio that a pair of scuba divers were missing in the area. Steve immediately shut down filming and he and his team joined the search. The next day, members of his crew found one of the divers clinging to a rocky cliff edge. Steve and another rescuer brought the man back to their boat. The other man’s body was located a short time later.

In early 2004, Steve made the news for the wrong reasons when video was shown of him feeding a chicken carcass to a twelve and a half foot saltwater crocodile while holding his one month old son, Robert. Child welfare and animals rights groups alike condemned the action, with some referring to it as child abuse. Both Steve and Terri contended that he had full control over the situation, Nevertheless, Steve did apologize, doing so on American channel NBC. The incident prompted the Queensland Government to enact a law stating that no untrained persons or children were allowed inside a crocodile enclosure.

Steve feeds crocodile, Murray, with a dead chicken while holding his one-month-old son, Robert.

Steve feeds crocodile, Murray, with a dead chicken while holding his one-month-old son, Robert.

Steve was also criticized for his conservation views, which some viewed as overly simplistic and weighted towards tourism. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote that his message boiled down to ‘eating roos and crocs is bad for tourism, and therefore more cruel than eating other animals.’

There were, however, other industry experts were poured praise upon Irwin and the work that he had done to raise the public’s awareness of conservation issues. Mark Townsend, the CEO of Queensland’s RSPCA called him a ‘modern day Noah,’ while a Canadian environmentalist remarked after Steves’ passing. . .”humanity will not protect that which we fear or do not understand. Steve Irwin helped us understand those things that many people thought were a nuisance at best, a horror at worst. That made him a great educator and conservationist.”

Steve’s own conservation mentor was British conservationist and film-maker Sir David Attenborough. A month after Steve’s death, Terri Irwin presented Attenborough with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In his acceptance speech, Sir David praised Steve, saying that he “taught [people] how wonderful and exciting nature was, and he was a born communicator.”

Death & Legacy

Steve Irwin Memorial

Steve Irwin Memorial

Throughout his 44 years, Steve had taken on and defeated many of the most dangerous creatures on the planet. It was ironic then, that the animal that would get the better of him was a normally tranquil fish. On September 4th, 2006, he was filming off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for a documentary to be called Ocean’s Deadliest. The weather had been bad for three days, so Steve had been sitting around with little to do but wait for the weather to improve. Today he decided to a do a bit of snorkeling in the shallow waters which could be filmed for his daughter Bindi’s new TV show. He got down into the water, which was only at chest height. Seeing a large blue Bull Stingray, he came over top of it in order to film it as it swam away. However, just as he hovered above it, the stingray thrust up its tail and began stabbing it upward. A barb was shot directly into Steve’s chest. He immediately pulled it out and rose to the top and struggled to get back onto the boat. The crew administered CPR and then rushed him to the nearest hospital. He was announced dead on arrival.

Steve Irwin’s legacy lives on through his wife Terri and his children, Bindi and Robert. These three Wildlife Warriors continue to run Australia Zoo and to honor the memory of this truly amazing man.

Steve Irwin Video Biography

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