Steve Irwin

by admin on September 9, 2008

As the two year anniversary of Steve Irwin’s death nears, I’ve decided to once again approach the topic of Steve Irwin’s legacy regarding respect of animals.  The last time I spoke on this topic was on my own forum and the die-hard Irwin fans were not happy with me.

Let me preface my comments about Irwin’s work with animals by speaking of my admiration for him as a husband, a devoted father, a loyal friend, the kind of son parents dream of having, and Australia’s spokesman.  His death created  a hole in the hearts of many people dear to him and that is a great tragedy.  My comments address the manner in which Steve Irwin chose to apply his knowledge and handling of animals in his televised interactions with them.

As Irwin’s popularity grew in the late 1990’s/early 2000, we were living on a small farm raising numerous farm animals including pygmy goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys, sheep, pigs and a few equines.  We had the usual barn cats and a livestock guard dog, too.  To offset the farm expenses, I began to host educational farm tours for school groups to introduce them to our state’s agriculture and the role farm animals have in our lives.  It was during this time that I came to disdain the legacy Steve Irwin had given the younger generation regarding animals.

As group after group arrived at our farm, I became alarmed at the utter lack of respect for animal’s personal space by children who had clearly been influenced not only by the entertainment media’s anthropomorphic treatment of animals but also Steve Irwin’s cavalier manner of brusquely invading an animal’s personal space as seen hundreds of times on his T.V. show “The Crocodile Hunter”.  The nadir of this rude and unsafe disregard for animal personal space came when I witnessed children taking flying dives and tackles on top of chickens, ducks, the cats, and pygmy goats while yelling, “CRIKEY!”  There was no doubt where they had learned that from.  It was by the grace of God no animals or children were harmed and we had to cease allowing any access to the animals.

PETA spokesman Dan Mathews said: “He made his career out of antagonising frightened wild animals, and that’s a very dangerous message to send to young children.”

For once, just once, I agree with PETA.  What Steve Irwin inculcated weekly by example to hundreds of thousands of children, I was struggling to reverse with education in my own little corner of the world. 

Irwin’s often aggressive intrusion into the personal space of wild animals yielded predictable results, i.e. animals reacting in fright or defensive aggression.  T.V. viewers were not seeing wild animals in their natural state of existence but rather being provoked by human presence which changed behavior dramatically.  Nature shows when I was a child were filmed from a distance so that animal behavior was not influenced by humans (i.e. predator).

Ultimately, Irwin paid a great price for his professional disrespect of a wild animal’s  space when a bull stingray reacted defensively to Irwin’s close proximity and barbed him in the heart.

“It shows that Steve came over the top of the ray and the tail came up, and spiked him (in the chest), and he pulled it out and the next minute he’s gone,” Stainton said. (Watch how a stingray strikes — 2:35)  Irwin’s manager John Stainton

Irwin’s family and advocates defended Irwin’s last act as not being aggressive or too close to the animal.  However, other naturalists disagreed:

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, when someone is hurt by an animal, it is your fault,” he said. “You have to be careful of that. You have to know what your limits are. What that animal is. Animal conservationist Jack Hanna  CNN article

I concur completely with Jack Hanna.  In the equine world, it is universally understood that if your horse harms you or others, it is a human error, not a horse error.  This was certainly implied in the T.V. show, The Crocodile Hunter Remembered,

Eric Castillo, Aquarium of the Pacific

“These animals her are normally very docile, very friendly animals which allows us to put them into the touch pools right here.  They are not mean, malicious creatures in any way though if they are provoked, they do have a defensive mechanism that protects them from any type of predator out in the ocean.  But it is very, very rare to be attacked like this.”

Hostess:  Authorities in Australia said that after they viewed the footage they were confident that Steve was not disturbing or provoking the stingray in any way, shape or form when he was attacked.  What do you think happened in his case?

Castillo:  I don’t know the specifics of the exact incident that happened. Obviously it is a very tragic incident but these animals do have a defensive mechanism and I do want to stress that these only sting in a defensive nature.  It’s not like they are going to attack prey with the barb.”

Eric Castillo repeatedly brings it back to the issue that stringrays only use their barbs defensively.  What he fails to conclude specifically but leads the listener to conclude is that Irwin provoked a normally docile creature to a defensive reaction because of his close proximity. 

“Have I messed with nature?  Yeah, I guess you could say that.”  TImothy Treadwell

Timothy Treadwell, i.e. the “Grizzly Man”, is another “animal conservationist” who pushed the envelope of respect for wild animal space and paid a dear price.  Treadwell was an amateur naturalist who believed it was his calling to protect the grizzly bears of the Katmai National Park in Alaska.  His 90 hours of tape and thousands of photos show a man who has no respect whatsoever for the wild nature of these bears.  He gives them childish names and gets within touching distance of many of them while cooing to them in a high-pitched voice people often use when talking to babies.  His films are an astonishing expose of stupidity and disrespect for the animals.  Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled and eaten by a grizzly bear in October 2003.  Cable channel, Animal Planet, is about to debut “Grizzly Man Diaries” based on Treadwell’s videos of the Katmai Park bears and once again, viewers will be treated to images of wild animals being anthropomorphized and their wild state of existence altered by a human intent on imposing his personal human agenda on them.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Krys September 12, 2008 at 12:06 pm

There’s a reason most snakebites are on the hands. People aren’t innocently walking along and get chomped by an evil rattler; they’re usually provoking the snake in some way to see it react.

The tragedy of Irwin’s death is magnified by the fact that it was almost certainly preventable.


Brady September 14, 2008 at 6:47 pm

Really!? Cos’ when I was a kid…about 40 years ago, before the “Animal” channels, I disrepected animals because I was a kid. Not because I saw someone else do it. I learned as I grew up to respect them. Kids are kids, they will always be some that are far more curious than others, regardless.


Alexis July 11, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Recently, in Stamford CT, a woman was mauled, and almost killed, by a chimpanzee who had been anthropomorphized by his owner to the extent that he slept with her, ate human food at the dinner table and drank wine with her, and even combed her hair for her. Apparently the owner was a widow who’s only child had died and the chimp was a substitute for her family. Although she had been repeatedly warned that chimpanzees stop being friendly and sweet by the time they reach adolescence, she insisted that ‘they just don’t know my Travis.’ The victim was a friend of the owner and knew the chimp.
The chimp was shot by the police and stabbed to death by the owner while he continued to maul his victim. That victim lost her face her eyes, and her hands. The medical staff who worked on her required counseling.
Wild animals are not housepets, no matter what you may have learned watching Disney movies.


pixie February 19, 2010 at 6:11 am

I think that Steve Irwin was very childlike in his wonder of animals. I think his utter fascination and his wanting to share that with everyone overrode whatever it may have been that would indicate that he should give some animals a wider berth than others.


Ashley March 24, 2010 at 9:00 am

Irwin was a life-long animal rights advocate and environmentalist. During his lifetime, he founded several organizations dovoted to conservation and animal protection including the International Crocodile Rescue; the Lyn Irwin Memorial Fund, named in honor of his mother; and Wildlife Warriors Worldwide (previously known as the Steve Irwin Conservation Foundation), which protects habitat and wildlife, creates breeding and rescue programs for endangered species, and conducts scientific research to aid conservation. Donations to the Lyn Irwin Memorial Fund go to the Iron Bark Station Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which manages over 3,000 acres of wildlife sanctuary.
One may not approve of Irwin’s “up close and personal” tactics when interacting with animals, but his TV appearances raised awareness of conservation and educated millions around the world about how animals behave and live in their natural environments. Both children and animals are extremely unpredictable, therefore I believe the examples you sighted are unfair. In light of all this, I feel that to suggest that he was anything less than absolutely devoted to animals’ safety and the preservation of their natural habitats is completely inaccurate.


LBC January 6, 2011 at 4:59 pm

When I was seven, I dressed my cat, who was normally quite docile, up in doll clothes. She tolerated the dress, but when it came to a bonnet and booties, I got a good, sound, bite on the hand. It was the only time in nearly seventeen years that she ever even offered to bite or scratch me. And I so deserved it. I pet-sit on a regular basis and worked as a veterinary assistant for four years–I literally got paid to stick needles in pit bulls on a daily basis–and that’s still the only serious bite I’ve ever gotten.

Fascination with something is not at all the same thing as respect for it. Animals that are not treated like animals are always in a precarious and unfair position because they are expected to behave and react as humans, despite the fact that they are not human.


Hollanda, UK April 12, 2011 at 6:32 am

Animals are not humans = they have no way to morally judge their own behaviour or that of other species. For example, if a cat kills a mouse, it feels no guilt – it is merely catching its prey. If a cat scratches a human, or bites, it feels no shame – it is simply reacting out of fear, pain or annoyance. I have seen my “Mummy” cat hiss and swipe at her young kitten. Not because Magic was hurting her, but she was showing him who was boss. Two seconds after she’d hissed at him, they were chowing down on their food together. Animals should NEVER be humanised or treated in any way like “miniature humans”. Neither should they be tormented, teased or wound up “just to see a reaction”…anyone who does that, IMHO, deserves whatever the animal wants to give them.

I have seen people here in the UK with pitbull terriers on leads, pulling the poor creatures around, treating them with no respect at all. The problem as I see it is this: if and when those animals turn, chances are it will be an innocent person “petting” the creature rather than the owner who treats it with zero respect/affection. Why? Because dogs are generally loyal, steadfast creatures and (depending on the breed) it usually takes a LOT to aggress or upset a dog to the point of attacking its master.

I liked Steve Irwin but I do think he was irresponsible in his behaviour towards WILD ANIMALS.


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