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Interview with Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin -- Part 4: Adrenaline Junkie?

FAMILY CIRCUS



TIM LYONS
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: Are you ever are concerned that people's first impression of you might not be instantly "conservationist," that it might instead be "thrill seeker" or "showman"?

STEVE: Adrenaline junkie!

SA: Yes, or "adrenaline junkie"? And I wonder if you ever worry about how you can be sure to get your viewers to the next stage where they understand your message. I'm not sure that most people understand that wildlife conservation is what you really do, all day, every day.

STEVE: It doesn't matter how I get 'em, or what they say in the first five minutes. I get called an adrenaline junkie every other minute, and I'm just fine with that. You know what though, mate? I'm doing exactly what I've done from when I was a small boy. You can blame my dad for that, he started it. He created me. He nurtured my instincts and he caused me to be who I am, so I've followed in his footsteps. All I ever wanted was to be my dad, so yeah, I applaud that. Thrill seeker, adrenaline junkie? No problem at all. What difference does it make come the end of the day, I'm achieving, I am actually achieving conservation on a greater level than anyone thought possible, like Jacques Cousteau.

SA: And you think that's because you have this mass media appeal? That gets you toward your goal of being a conservationist?

STEVE: No, think it's because I get into people's hearts. I get in there.

TERRI IRWIN (STEVE'S WIFE): I don't mean to butt in.

SA: Please do. TERRI: It's kind of a funny thing, because I don't think Steve sits down and goes, "Now how am I going to turn these people on?" What happens is just like what happened when we first married. We got a phone call in Oregon that there was a crocodile that needed help. We dropped our honeymoon, we went to north Queensland, and we helped this crocodile and filmed a documentary on the premise that the cameraman just chases Steve around. Steve hadn't been to acting school, he had no preconceived notions. His background was exactly what you see on television, he's done that all his life. We thought we'd do one show. What happened was, it did really well, so we did a part two. And from then on, we found that Steve's natural behavior in the wild happens to be fascinating!

When I first met Steve, as an American tourist coming into the zoo, I fell desperately in love with him and married him immediately.

SA to Steve: By the way, is it true that you were doing a croc-feeding demonstration when she first saw you?

STEVE: Absolutely.

TERRI: When we married, we'd spent less than six weeks together, and I couldn't understand what he was saying. [Everyone laughs, Steve agrees.] But I found that Steve's passion for wildlife and willingness to lay his life on the line so exciting. What you have in our academic arena is a lot of people who are brilliant at what they do¿and boring as the day is long. And you would never sit down and watch a lecture from any of them if you are a football fan, if you like watching Melrose Place, if you tune into your regular soap opera everyday, if you think Jacques Cousteau is still alive¿because you don't know anything about documentaries. These are the kind of people that, by default, we are reaching.

And you know what else it is? You've heard of a Spielberg production. You know what a Stainton production is? A John Stainton production is real. [John Stainton is the Irwins' producer and director.] It is not a rubber crocodile. It is a guy who out in the bush and he goes, "I think there is a koala around here that needs help." And he'll find a baby koala 60 feet up a telephone pole somewhere . . . .

STEVE: With a pack of dogs trying to eat it.

TERRI: It is the weirdest thing you've ever experienced in your life. We have gone out with a film crew to the Simpson Desert [in southern Australia] because they wanted to film fierce snakes. One morning, Steve wakes us all up at 5:00 a.m. and says we're going to see a fierce snake at 7:30, let's get going. We drive around . . . .

STEVE: And we got one.

TERRI: So 7:30 comes and goes, right, and we all go, "Hee, hee, there's no fierce snake, and it's 7:30." At 7:32, we saw a fierce snake. Not only that, we saw two of them right together. How he does it? I don't know. But it makes a Stainton production an icon thing. Because Steve can so predictably do what he does so well. I have never before or since seen anybody in my life with this gift for wildlife.

So the fact that he publishes and he sits out and does field study and that he knows the Latin name of everything is boring. And this eight-year-old kid who's keen on animals doesn't give a rip about any of that. So what we've found is that the television shows are appealing to these people, and Steve happens to make a great role model. He's an Australian who doesn't drink. He doesn't smoke. He has a wonderful family, and he drags us all over the world. The only time I'm here on my own running the zoo is when he goes to Africa or Indonesia, because of the malaria risk to Bindi [Bindi is Steve and Terri's two-year-old daughter]. Bindi's been on 127 plane flights, she's been to America 10 times, she just got back from Western Samoa this month, and we're going to the States next month.

The thing is, Steve's a great role model, and he won't sit there and tell you that. He won't tell you that, while in the scientific world a lot of the things that are going on are very necessary and important, the reality is that you're going to have kids from eight to 80 going, "This animal that I was scared of¿it's cool! That snake in the back yard? Check it out!" Instead of just going WHACK, WHACK, WHACK and killing it, people are now interested in it. We're reaching kids, we're reaching new generations, we're reaching people who never gave a rat's patootie about wildlife or conservation.

All Steve wants to do is save these animals. He lives it, he breathes it, he sleeps it. He gets up at 3:30 every morning to go to work because he's so wired. He doesn't drink coffee because he's too wired. His head would blow off if he drank coffee. That is what I think is so exciting about the show. And if someone says, "Aren't you an adrenaline junkie?" Great! You do a TV show. How many people are going to watch you? Nobody. So let's get the message through with this exciting person who can be sent up on Saturday Night Live and South Park. He's a nut! This is what's so exciting about him. And, he looks really great in short shorts!

STEVE: They're not short! [Everyone laughs hysterically.] They're normal shorts.

SA: For an Aussie, maybe.

TERRI: But I just wanted to throw that in.

STEVE: I could get the short shorts out of the closet. I never thought you [Terri] thought that my shorts were short.

SA: She's an American, she knows.

TERRI: [Returning to her previous train of thought] I am the business side, I am the marketing and promotion side. I'm the straight man who plays off of the wild man. I'm Jane, he's Tarzan. It's always been like that. But I think that that is the spice of life. That is what's so exciting, and that's why people tune in. They tune in 'cause they want to see this guy die or get badly hurt. And instead they get a message about wildlife, and they get see a guy who says, "Isn't this rattlesnake beautiful?" Who else says that?

Back to Part 3: Current and Upcoming Projects

Ahead to Part 5: Don't Try This at Home

Back to Introduction

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