Image: ANNIE GELLATLY
As the interview draws to a close, Irwin comes back to one of his favorite topics: his crocodiles. The zoo's guests will have the pleasure of seeing Irwin's classic croc-feeding demonstration this afternoon. Irwin's busy travel schedule keeps him away from home more than he'd like, but he says he tries to do as many of the demos as he can when he's around:
"I have to, you know, I love my crocs," Irwin explains. "My wife's not bad, but I love my crocs." His joke elicits a chuckle from the group, including Terri, so I'm surprised when his expression turns more serious. "But we've got problems with my biggest croc, Acko," he says.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: Problems because he's sick?
STEVE: He's not sick. He's fussy, and he's angry. He hates me.
SA: He's the one who hates you?
STEVE: He's one of the ones who hates me. Righty-o. During the course of the Olympic Games [in Sydney], we've had record attendance here at the zoo.
SA: Oh, you have?
STEVE: It's been phenomenal. Aw, mate, we've gone off the Richter scale. You'll even see today, it'll be packed. So Acko has got his nose out of joint because the staff's been in a hurry and there's been lots of people. We've turned his heater off and he's coming out of winter and his girl isn't responding to hishe wants to mate with her but she's not that keen upon itso I need to go in there and see if I can stimulate a territorial response in him and get him back on track. He's getting blas.
SA: So riling up the animals has a certain value?
STEVE: Oh, absolutely, mate, riling them up. He hates me because I caught him out of the bush. Everyone for 20 years tried to kill him, so I went out there and I caught him. What a shame to pull the king out of his domain. That is just . . . it's a shock. Anyway, I cried long and hard at my camp when I caught that croc. It was just so disappointing that I had to catch him out of his bush. I did it because otherwise, he'd be dead. Dead as a maggot.
Twenty years they'd been trying to shoot him because he's a big croc. Anyway, I saved his life. And now I owe him. He's lost his zest, he's lost his territorialism. He's the biggest croc in here [at the Australia Zoo], and if you look in the natural environment the biggest croc is the king. And so my job is to try and get him back on track where he's like, "Yeah, I am the biggest, toughest thing in here." I'm feeble compared to him, and he just needs to see my ugly head again and go, "Yeah, I hate you," and push me out. And that will instill territorialism back in him.
TERRI: Steve is trying to induce a form of "good" stress. If you keep an animal in a type of "vacuum-packed" little area that is stress-free, they are like all of us through our daily lives: what we really dig is a little excitement, you know? We're now looking into "good" stress. Steve's been doing that with his folks here at the zoo for 30 years. When he goes in with the crocodiles, the crocodile tries to jump up and kill him. The croc wants to eat him and crush him in half. He comes launching out of the water, he tries new angles, once in a while he gets somethinga brush hook, a shovel, a lawnmowerand he drags it back in the water and kills it. So not only does he get a feed for his efforts, but eventually Steve leaves. And you watch the male crocodile go up to the female and go, "Yeah, I put him out!"
STEVE: And now I'll mate with ya!
TERRI: And you watch her right after the demo because all of sudden she's so turned on 'cause he drove this thing out of the
STEVE [interrupts]: I'm the ugly monster, and he drove me out his territory. This is like Pat Rafter, you know, the famous Australian tennis player. If he didn't win, he loses, yeah? And what happens when you lose? You're stressed. But that's good stress 'cause that makes him want to be trying even harder.
TERRI: When he wins, he gets lucky!
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