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Heavy Plant

Walk past a "Heavy Plant" warning and wonder vaguely if the trees thought it was for them; if whoever put it up had enough imag...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Crikey!

Put it down

You may have noticed that Steve Irwin died last week. You haven’t? What are you, a troglodyte? Have you been living on the moon for the last fortnight (and can I borrow your spaceship, I tire of this planet?)? This has provided Australia with (another) Diana MomentTM; a spontaneous outpouring of grief marked by the national spending on inappropriate cut flowers tripling over night.

I’m not going to pretend that this isn’t sad, the man was only 44, a father of two and one of the world’s most committed conservationists, this is ground that has been well covered elsewhere. The thing is that Irwin was a lot more…er…’hands on’ than most others in his field and had been riding his luck for years. My cynical and immediate response to the news of his death was: “well something was going to get him sooner or later”. A friend put it a little better: “there’s hundreds of crocs out there thinking, ‘dammit, that bastard was mine!’”.

The first I ever saw of Irwin was a typically gung-ho piece of television. Irwin was going to hunt out the world’s top 10 most venomous snakes and kiss them. Finding them at least should be relatively easy for an Aussie as 8 of the top ten live within driving distance of me. The idea behind this was to show that with the correct knowledge the mythology of ‘dangerous’ wildlife could be dispelled and people would feel more affectionate and conservationally minded towards creatures that don’t have enough “aaaaaaahhh” factor. As is evident from observing the world around us the road to hell is paved with good intentions and through a combination of his own enormous enthusiasm, planet sized personality and what appeared to the casual observer to be foolhardy disregard for his own personal safety Irwin quickly invalidated this enterprise.

Scrabbling amongst the dust and rocks in a remote area dressed in shorts and a short sleeved shirt Irwin picked up a snake in each hand, described its preferred habitat, how aggressive it wasn’t until you try you pick it up, the effects of its venom and what you should do if you were stupid enough to try and pick it up and got bitten by it. He then handed the snakes to his heavily pregnant wife and charged off into a small dark cave in search of more, his wife’s cautions following him into the cave. If he were going to deliver a demonstration of how not to behave in the presence of a venomous creature that just wants to be left alone he could not have provided a better example.

I said put it down!

The next segment of the show saw Irwin in woodlands, again scrabbling about under rocks until he found a specimen that suited his needs. Again he squatted down picked up the timid creature and described its’ lifecycle in intimate detail. Halfway through his spiel he halted, his eyes bulging out of his head, he looked straight at the camera: “Oh crikey!” He stood quickly and moved away, he put down the snake and moved aside the rock he was squatting over. Concealed in the hollow underneath and not three inches from where his testicles had been only moments before was an entire nest of poisonous snakes. “Oh man, that could have been nasty”, quoth the khaki clad clot, “They go for the warm bits…” It was a moment of unintentional comic genius that whilst certainly added to the appeal of the man also exposed the fact that was he was attempting was not just the act of a showboating show-off but to anyone less knowledgeable and skilled than himself would certainly have been a terminal experience.

The Ahhhhhh factor in action

Irwin was a reflection of the creatures he loved and worked with: a rare breed that is instantly intriguing and dangerous if not handled carefully. His unbelievable joie de vivre and enthusiasm played as entertainment on screen went over fantastically in America and in Australia but left me wondering whether he was making entertainment with animals as props rather than his stated objective of conservation and education. Naming his show “The Crocodile Hunter” also jarred with that for me. I also couldn’t help feeling that the personality that made him a global celebrity would have me attempting to tear his throat out after half an hour in his presence – I empathised too easily with the animals trying to kill him. I loathed Irwin’s public persona but I found his TV presence hypnotic simply because I could not believe that he made it through half an hour of such adventures, never mind a lifetime of them, without being stung, bitten, dismembered or eaten by the extraordinary array of creatures he felt the need to lay hands on. At the end of his programs I was left in a state of catharsis that quite rid me of any fear of anything but left me too exhausted to step outside the house.

It is this ambivalence towards him that characterises my reaction to his death. I am sorry to see the end of a great conservationist and an iconic Australian but I can’t help the feeling that natural selection finally called time on him. His sensationalist TV shows and frequent work at his own Australia Zoo in front of crowds mean that I can’t help feeling that it is quite fortunate that his death wasn’t far more public than was actually the case. Videos of it would have hit the internet in minutes had it happened anywhere he was being filmed by tourists. No one is indestructible and whilst Irwin was one of those people that are a reassuring presence and point of reference, the point of reference was always as a remarkable example of how many risks could be taken without falling foul of them. Irwin may well become a cautionary tale for parents and children round the globe.

It seems worth repeating the tragic irony of his death that he was killed by a creature that is normally placid - if not lugubriously unconcerned - trying to demonstrate that it was in no way as dangerous as its name or reputation suggested. He wasn’t even trying to touch it, kiss it, feel its goolies or otherwise interfere with it. There was almost no risk in the situation. Other naturalists and fishermen who have spent time around stingrays have said that at best guess the fish was just not in the mood to be watched. So remember kids, when they say leave it alone on the wildlife documentaries it doesn’t matter how knowledgeable or able you are, if it is having a bad day it will still kill you – leave it alone.