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Part 6: Is the Croc Hunter Ever Afraid?

Interview with Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin

Image: ANNIE GELLATLY

BRAWNY BITE. According to Irwin, parrots and similar birds, like this sulfur-crested cockatoo, are the animals that he fears most.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: To keep the TV program diverse, you obviously have to look at lots of different animals. Are there certain ones that you aren't comfortable with?

STEVE: The only animals I'm not comfortable with are parrots, but I'm learning as I go. I'm getting better and better at 'em. I really am.

SA: What did you say?

STEVE: Parrots.

SA: No way!

STEVE: Yeah, for some reason parrots have to bite me. That's their job. I don't know why that is. They've nearly torn my nose off. I've had some really bad parrot bites.

SA: But don't you have to spend a certain amount of time researching the striking distance of a new snake that you haven't worked with before?

STEVE: No, snakes are no problem. I'd go to any country, anywhere, any snakes, not a problem. Snakes are just very instinctive to me. I've been playing with snakes since before I could walk. It doesn't matter where or what it is, from the biggest to the most venomous. Sharks, I've been self-trained as well, and crocodiles, naturally. I've been catching them since I was nine. No problem.

I went to Africa, so I did a lot of research on lions. I'd already had little bits and pieces to do with them here and there around the ridges, but I went to the books, I got the videos, and bang! I went to Africa. Pretty soon, within a half an hour, I'm going, "Wait a minute. These lions don't see me as a food source. They see me as a threat." So I mentioned this to the crew and we all stood up and went "Rah!" and [the lions] ran away. It's a definition that they're scared. And it's because people have been on two legs and hunting them with guns for the last hundred years. It's easy for me to work it out, but I guess because of my instincts. You'd be better off getting it from Terri.

TERRI: Yeah, I'll tell you a good story. What's weird about Steve is that he'll research everything, "This is the ABC of how this animal is. Anyone who handles a black mamba is a bloody idiot." So he goes in and he picks up this 12-foot black mamba and talks about it and removes it from the village so the villagers didn't have to risk their lives killing it or it doesn't kill them.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: See Steve's experiences with a black mamba in his documentary "Africa's Deadliest Snakes."]

STEVE: Seven people have been killed by black mambas in and around that village. They were really scared of it, so I took it out.

TERRI: So Steve's like community service. That's the gift. Just like with the orangutans in Sumatra. The ranger who works with the orangutans always said, "Do not go anywhere near the orangutans and their territory." But Steve saw a mother orangutan in a tree with a baby and said, "Gosh, she's so beautiful. I just want to get up near her so we can get me and the orangutan in the shot and I can tell about how they have a baby every four years and all this interesting, fascinating stuff."

I told Steve, "If you climb up there, [the mother orangutan] will rip your head off. She's like eight times the strength of a man! She's got a baby. What are you, nuts?"

"Well, I'll just go up to here so we can get them both in the shot and we'll just see," he tells me. He climbs up the tree part way, the mother orangutan with the tiny little baby climbs down, sits by Steve holding onto her baby. The baby walks away, and [the mother] grabs the baby by the head or whatever and pulls it back over, "No, you've gotta stay here." Pretty soon she's looking at Steve and she goes [facial expression], and then she's going at him with her lips like this [Terri makes a silly monkey face with upturned lips], which is gravy. And you can see Steve going back . . . .

STEVE: Seven times stronger than a human.

TERRI: . . .And she's diggin' on Steve. She likes him. The ranger has never seen this in his entire life, so you explain it. You explain the gift. It's the weirdest thing you've ever seen. So when you talk about certain animals it doesn't matter what it is. I've seen him walking with orangutans after having never experienced something like that before. The mother comes down with her tiny baby¿the little bald thing with the hair sticking out like a chicken¿brings the little baby down and falls in love with him. The little baby orangutan was up to his armpits up Steve's shorts, and it made him squeal. That was the funniest thing.

STEVE: That was funny!

TERRI: And then he peed on him. They loved him. I don't know why¿they'd bite my head off.

STEVE: Good question. There's a lot of research behind the scenes that you don't get to see, but I have an instinct that my dad nurtured from when I was born. I was very lucky then.

SA: Do you think it's because you don't show fear? Is that a big part of it?

STEVE: That might have a lot to do with it, but you know, I probably don't show fear, but I suffer from fear like everyone else. You know, there's a fear aspect for me that happens all the time. Like today you'll get to see me work with the crocodiles. I've had a bit of a go with my 16-footer, I've had a bit of trouble with him [see Steve and His Crocodiles], so I'm going to go in with him today at 1:30. If you're still here, it's worth hanging around for.

SA: Definitely.

STEVE: I'll go into it all in the demo, but when I step in there, there's a certain fear trigger. And that's what keeps me at a safe distance. Because when they strike it can be that quick that if they're within range, you're dead, you're dead in your tracks. And his head weighs more than my body so it's WHACK! [He hits the table], and I'd just blow up. It's that powerful. So fear helps me from making mistakes, but I make lot of mistakes. I mean, these are all just little pink bits here (pointing at his arm) and are just curing up now. I've been recently filming a nine-and-a-half-foot female crocodile I had to catch. Oh, man, she bit me up! That was a mistake.

SA: And what about those? [pointing at scars on Irwin's forearm]

STEVE: Aw, these are just coral cuts, but these pink ones here, you can see them out in the light, had a tooth went up to my knuckle and snapped off.

SA: OK, ow.

STEVE: Yeah, and I had another one go through there. Anyway, blah blah blah. What happened was, we had to catch her, we had no choice. Johnny [producer John Stainton] had his cameras all ready and all that, it was bad. Oh boy, she got me, she's just head-butting and carrying on, and you know I came out of it with these big bruises and I couldn't really do anything the next day and it's taken, what, three weeks, months to heal up? And these are just mistakes, you know? But I put my life on the line to save animals. I have no fear of losing my life¿if I have to save a koala or a crocodile or a kangaroo or a snake, mate, I will save it.

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

Ahead to Part 7: Saving Sacred Crocodiles in East Timor


Back to Meet the Crocodile Hunter

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