Debra J. Saunders

Now you know why Aussie crocodile aficionado Steve Irwin called the new TV show he was working on "The Ocean's Deadliest." After years of poking his boyish face and trademark safari shirt, khaki shorts and hiking boots in front of dangerous animals, Irwin likely would have found some small satisfaction in a deadly animal -- a stingray with a fatal barb -- living up to his PR. Crikey.

With Irwin gone, the world will see a little less swagger. Irwin's enthusiasm was infectious and his love for animals was apparent. You have to admire a man who, trained as a diesel mechanic, parlayed his passion for reptiles into worldwide fame and fortune. Now he leaves behind a wife and two young children, as well as an admirable legacy of donating millions to wildlife conservation.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard called Irwin's death "a huge loss to Australia" and offered to hold a state funeral -- which Irwin's family humbly declined. (Be it noted that Irwin had once called Howard "the greatest leader Australia has ever had.") Many Australians, however, could not stand Irwin. As ex-patriot Germaine Greer wrote in the Guardian, "The animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin." (I first learned about Irwin in 2001, when the guide who took me through Queensland's rain forest complained bitterly about the croc-hunting showboat. In the rain forest, the biggest crocodile we saw was about a foot long. Later, when pointing to a lizard, the guide quipped, "You can tell you friends that in Australia you saw a lizard the size of a crocodile.") Irwin's other legacy is that he has passed onto the world's children the fanciful notion that nature is a theme park. He failed to respect the lethal side of his co-star creatures. "I don't want to seem arrogant or big-headed," Irwin once told The Washington Post's Paul Farhi, "but I have a real instinct with animals. I've grown up with them. ... It's like I have an uncanny supernatural force rattling around my body. I tell you what, mate, it's magnetism." No, mate, it's delusion. The real surprise is that a crocodile didn't finish off Irwin sooner -- just as a bear mauled to death Grizzly People co-founder Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, in Alaska three years ago. When human beings mistake wildlife for Walt Disney characters, they fail to appreciate wild animals for what they truly are -- wild. Read: not susceptible to boyish charm. Add: hungry and fearful. When they are injured, they die. When they can't eat, they die. When they are afraid, they attack. Given their druthers, they'd rather not be around human beings. That is why the proper way to view wildlife is not in a close shot next to Irwin's round face, but through a long lens, where they can be seen living in their own habitat. A crocodile is a wonder to behold because it is a crocodile, not because it snaps at Irwin's boot. Or toward his son. In 2004, Irwin fed a 13-foot crocodile a dead chicken as he cradled his son, Robert, then 1 month old, in the other arm. Australian cameras aired the feeding; public outrage followed. Afterward, Irwin told reporters, "I was in complete control." Scary. Also in 2004, Australia's Department of Environment and Heritage investigated and cleared Irwin of the charge that he got too close to penguins, whales and seals in Antarctica. Legal issues aside, Irwin changed how television airs wildlife shows. Now, animals aren't entertaining unless there's a comic face mugging next to them. As "Wild Kingdom's" Jim Fowler told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly on Tuesday, when his show first aired, "people were just content with seeing the animal. Now they want, you know, confrontation with the animal. They want adventure. They want excitement. The technology and the little cameras get right in their mouth. So this stuff is going to continue to happen. It's going to get worse, I believe." Irwin did not deserve to die -- but his death can hardly be considered a surprise. It was the predictable end that followed the marriage of a dangerous hobby with a dangerous conceit -- and better Irwin than the baby. E-mail Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com. To find out more about Debra J. Saunders, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2006 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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