WAS THE CROCODILE HUNTER AN ENVIRONMENTAL
by Whit Gibbons
September 10, 2006
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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
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