The Crocodile Hunter who got too close to wildlife

September 06, 2006

Virginia McKenna, who starred in the film Born Free, says in London’s Daily Telegraph that animals need their space

“Did Steve Irwin pay the ultimate price for getting up close and personal with wild animals? Steve took ‘up close and personal’ to the limit and, with all due respect to him, I think it was a mistake. In America there are thousands of people who keep dangerous wild animals – alligators, snakes, lions and more than 5000 tigers – as pets. Thousands more people regularly drop off the side of a boat to swim with sharks. Yet others pay handsomely to ride African elephants through the bush. It’s not how it was meant to be. The fundamental truth of the relationship between wild animals and people is one based on mutual respect and, to an extent, fear.

In my experience, the stand-off between a wild animal such as a lion and a human being logically ends with both in retreat. Humans, lions and many other animals are risk-averse. The last thing they want to do is to suffer an injury that will reduce their survival chances. As a result, wild animals rarely attack unless they are threatened or intimidated, or unless they perceive that there is more to gain than
there is to be lost.

I have had my own intimate experiences with dangerous wild animals. For nearly a year in 1964, my husband Bill Travers and I worked with a number of lions in making the film Born Free. But the fundamental message of that film was not about getting close; it was about letting go.

Steve’s television performances, without doubt, set the adrenalin rushing. He put himself where few others would dare to tread and I can understand how that kind of television had global mass appeal. Yet I fear that there will be some out there seeking to emulate Steve Irwin’s bravura who will not survive such close encounters.

In a way, I wish Steve had been able to keep his distance; if he had, he might still be here.”

Germaine Greer, in Britain’s The Guardian, laments that Irwin’s self-delusion is what it takes to be a real Aussie larrikin:

“What Irwin never seemed to understand was that animals need space. The one lesson any conservationist must labour to drive home is that habitat loss is the principal cause of species loss. There was no habitat, no matter how fragile or finely balanced, that Irwin hesitated to barge into, trumpeting his wonder and amazement to the skies. There was not an animal he was not prepared to manhandle.

Every creature he brandished at the camera was in distress. Every snake badgered by Irwin was at a huge disadvantage, with only a single possible reaction to its terrifying situation, which was to strike. Easy enough to avoid if you know what’s coming. Even my cat knew that much.

In 2004, Irwin was accused of illegally encroaching on the space of penguins, seals and humpback whales in Antarctica, where he was filming a documentary called Ice Breaker. An investigation by the Australian environmental department resulted in no action being taken, which is not surprising seeing that John Howard made sure that
Irwin was one of the guests invited to a gala barbecue for George W. Bush a few months before. Howard is now Irwin’s chief mourner, which is only fair seeing that Irwin announced that Howard is the greatest leader the world has ever seen.

The animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin, but probably not before a whole generation of kids in shorts seven sizes too small has learned to shout in the ears of animals with hearing 10 times more acute than theirs, determined to become millionaire animal-loving zoo-owners in their turn.”,20867,20360340-


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