by Whit Gibbons

September 10, 2006

As everyone knows, Steve Irwin, the popular TV personality known as the Crocodile Hunter, died recently when the barb of a stingray pierced his chest. For days after his sudden death, an endless rain of opinions, reflections, and interpretations about his life and untimely death could be found on numerous Web sites and in news media. Because he worked mostly with crocodiles and venomous snakes, which are reptiles, he was viewed by many as a herpetologist. So what do herpetologists have to say about him?

Some of the comments I was interested in were on the major herpetology listserv, which is associated with parcplace.org, the Web site of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. The views of individuals involved in herpetology provide a different perspective from people who may never have seen a big reptile up close, let alone touched one.

One person said, "Irwin revived interest in large, dangerous reptiles among the general public through nature programming that had not been very popular since Wild Kingdom and Marlin Perkins left the airwaves. He brought herpetology into the limelight, but he will also unfortunately be remembered for his perceived reckless endangerment of himself and his children around the animals that he and all of us love so dearly."

The reference to "reckless" behavior refers of course to his show in general and in particular to the time when Steve Irwin fed a large crocodile with one hand while holding his baby son in the other. Then he carried his little boy across the lawn in front of the big reptile’s nose. Not unexpectedly, some people found fault with him for “endangering a child.” However, as one herpetologist observed at the time, “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."

Without question, the Crocodile Hunter was a consummate showman. 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?” 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 things that look scary, adventurous, and daring. Hope your show gets more attention and more advertisers than other shows.

Steve Irwin was a good actor, had a fine camera crew, and knew a lot about large spectacular reptiles. That is how you become a herpetologist who is "like Steve Irwin." Being a professional herpetologist who studies reptiles and amphibians as a group requires other types of training and expertise. But for all I know, Steve Irwin was a trained expert with all reptiles and amphibians and not just the dangerous ones.

Another question that I used to get, and probably will again, from both kids and adults, is more challenging because it is personal. “What do you think about Steve Irwin?” In response to the question about my personal opinion of Steve Irwin, I have always replied that he was 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. I also pointed out that some herpetologists considered his antics a disservice to education because they sensationalized dangerous attributes of animals that are remarkable biologically without emphasizing their hazardous sides. But to his credit, most people would never have known that some of the animals even existed had he not brought them to the screen.

Steve Irwin reached audiences around the world, bringing to their notice some of the marvels of our natural world. Whether his antics were always in the best interests of environmental education may be secondary to his undoubted ability to catch and hold the attention of children and adults with stories of animals and the environments in which they live. And if his shows prompt children to ask how they can become herpetologists, then he has left an enduring legacy.

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