by Whit Gibbons

January 11, 2004

A question I often get from kids during environmental education talks, especially after I show them an alligator is, "How can I become a herpetologist like Steve Irwin?" Actually, one child asked how she could become a herpetologist like me, but the other 200 wanted to know how they could be like Steve Irwin.

The answer is easy, though accomplishing it is not. First learn a lot about reptiles by being around them, handling them, and raising them. Develop an engaging personality. Get a TV show and do exciting things that look scary, adventurous, and daring. Hope your show gets more attention and more advertisers than other shows. I point out that Steve Irwin is a good actor, has a fine camera crew, and knows a lot about reptiles.

Another question, from both kids and adults, is more challenging because it becomes personal. "What do you think about Steve Irwin?" After the recent spectacle when, in some people's mind, he put one of his children in harm's way, I'm sure I'll hear this question even more. In case you did not see the TV clip or otherwise learn of this stunt, here's what happened. The Crocodile Hunter had apparently been watching too many Michael Jackson news clips and decided to feed a large crocodile with one hand while holding his baby son in the other. Actually, Steve had a better grip on his baby than Michael did when he dangled his own from a hotel window, but Steve made up for this by prancing with his little boy across the lawn in front of the big reptile's nose.

In response to the question about my personal opinion of Steve Irwin, I have always replied that he is among my top twenty Australian actors. If I thought more was needed, I noted that he probably did a service for environmental education by exposing people to an array of reptiles that would otherwise go unnoticed. However, some herpetologists consider his antics a disservice to education because they sensationalize dangerous attributes of animals that are remarkable biologically without emphasizing their hazardous sides.

The drama with his baby may have brought more publicity than anyone planned. Not unexpectedly, some people have found fault with him for "endangering a child." The comments I have been most interested in have been on a major herpetology listserv associated with, the Web site of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC). The views of individuals involved in herpetology provide a different perspective from those of people who may never have seen a big reptile up close, let alone touched one.

Some of the comments from herpetologists have been a bit harsh: "If he wants to hang his kid over the crocs, who cares? We have enough 'stupid-genes' in the population already!" Another said, "I have serious concerns about people like the Irwins. As a parent-mom of three, I am angry by what he did."

A more pragmatic listserv participant observed that "the man is a wizard at self-promotion; he knew what he was doing with the croc and he never really endangered the life of his child. But he sure fooled everyone, didn't he? He is laughing all the way to the bank."

A well-known professional herpetologist noted, "My wife was indicating how I better not do things like that with my two-year-old grandson. Then, right in front of us a mom with four kids, none of whom were in a seat belt, pulled into a parking space. I commented on how many mothers we could see in the shopping center parking lot with kids running free in the front and back seats of their cars as they are pulling out on the highway. Where is the public outcry there?"

In future talks, I expect some obvious questions to arise about the Crocodile Hunter. Do I think he put his child in any real danger? Probably not. Could it have ended badly because of an unexpected turn of events? Possible, but unlikely. Did he do environmental education a service by possibly encouraging people inexperienced with reptiles to mimic his behavior? Absolutely not.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)