"My number one rule is to keep that camera rolling. Even if it's shaky or slightly out of focus, I don't give a rip. Even if a big old alligator is chewing me up I want to go down and go, 'Crikey!' just before I die. That would be the ultimate for me."Well, it looks like Steve Irwin got his wish, albeit from an unlikely quarter. It wasn’t one of his many handlings of poisonous snakes or wrestling matches with crocodiles that killed him – it was an extremely unusual stab to the heart from a stingray – an animal that rarely stings unless thoroughly provoked.
- Steve Irwin
I’m not sure what to think about this. Of course, it’s terribly sad when a young man with a family is killed, even if he routinely courts danger. It is also true that Irwin raised awareness about lots of kinds of animals, and worked to establish protection in several areas. However, I can’t say I wasn’t one of the people who had been unsure about his methods for some time. Besides his annoying, in-your-face self promotion and veritable chokehold on several seasons of Animal Planet, Irwin seemed to have the idea that the best way to interact with and educate about animals was to grab and incite them to action. On the one hand, it worked on raising the public’s interest in dangerous creatures. On the other, did it provide a good example? Moreover, besides being unsafe for both Irwin and those around him (most famously his baby), it seemed rather cruel to the animals, who generally tend to want to be left alone. A violent reaction from an animal can be a result of several kinds of stimulation, but the method of provoking them to display such behaviours for an audience is almost always going to be a very stressful one for the creature, and thus not good for its health.
Thus, on the one side, you have John Stainton, a close friend of Steve Irwin's and producer of his film company who witnessed his death, saying of the “Crocodile Hunter”:
"He touched everything, he always had a philosophy that for every animal he touched, he touched someone's heart... he felt that rather than show an animal on a camera lens on a long angle that he could touch that animal and hold it that he would have people's empathy for the animal... "Yet on the other, you have a few voices chiming in that Irwin’s animal handling was “akin to bear-baiting” and that “[w]hat Irwin never seemed to understand was that animals need space.” It was even noted in his NY Times obit that Irwin was once cited for harassing animals in Antarctica. True, those voices are mostly being shouted down, and the loudest voice was that of the irascible Germaine Greer (who, due to being a 70s feminist, must be used to being told to shut up, anyhow, independent of whether she deserves it or not at the time). Still, is it right to canonize Irwin, however brave, passionate, opinionated, personable, successful and of good intentions he may have been, if his understanding of environmental conservation was questionable(“Cows have been on our land for so long that Australia has evolved to handle those big animals”) and his handling of animals may have been reckless (he was said to have been less than a meter from the ray who fatally stung him, so close that its tail may have punctured his heart) and perhaps unkind?
I don’t know the answer, except to say that clearly Irwin did a lot of good, particularly in purchasing land for wildlife conservation, and moved a lot of people, but also obviously played the daredevil enough that it was not surprising he died due to an animal encounter gone wrong. Maybe it was a freak accident that it happened with a generally gentle creature in the particular way it did, but maybe that’s also why he didn’t keep enough distance. Wherever you stand on this issue, it’s clear he died as he wanted to. It’s too bad his family has to live with the memory early, unnecessary death.
As for me, my encounter with stingrays on Monday was far more typical. Mrs. Nator and I snorkeled in a tank with them, along with some small sharks and numerous tropical fish, at Atlantis Marine World. The rays in this tank were both used to humans and de-barbed, meaning that even on the infinitesimal chance we got stung, the results would be minor. The smaller rays, in fact, would swim right at us, letting us run our palms down their backs as they slipped by. Little did we know that at the same time Mrs. Nator’s mother was hearing about Irwin’s death and becoming very worried about our little trip. We didn’t know what happened until we got home, and even then, my dreams last night were with the rays, imagining them free of their tanks and grabby humans, soaring gracefully through the oceans' tides.