Few people appear as alive in death as in life, but “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, who passed away in 2006 but will receive his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame April 26, remains such a vivid part of the legacy that has been carried on by his family that it is sometimes difficult to comprehend why those who knew him are speaking in past tense.
His omnipresence may be due to his image still appearing on all material associated with Australia Zoo, the wildlife park he ran with wife Terri in Brisbane, Australia. It might be because clips of Irwin discussing passing on the baton for his life’s work to his children open the trailer for the upcoming Irwin family show that will premiere on Animal Planet later this fall. But even those who were closest to him, his two children — Bindi and Robert — agree that their father’s presence still lingers.
“Every day here at Australia Zoo, I think that dad is with us,” says Bindi Irwin. “When dad passed away, mom said to everyone, ‘I want you to carry on as if dad were still here.’ That’s what we’ve tried to do. Here at the zoo, we’ve really dedicated all that we do to remembering dad and making sure that everything he worked so hard for continues on into the future.”
Had it not been for a tragic accident in which Irwin was pierced in the heart by a stingray while filming his next documentary — ironically, it was about the deadliest underwater creatures — he would have turned 56 in February, and likely going as strong as ever.
“Whether it was heights or the depth diving, he really had no fear,” says Terri Irwin. “I couldn’t hold a candle to how adventurous Steve was. He found life intoxicating and he was just in awe of every living creature.”
Irwin was born in 1962 to Lyn and Bob Irwin, who in 1970 moved him and his two sisters from suburban Melbourne to near Brisbane to start Beerwah Reptile and Fauna Park (later renamed Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park). Irwin often referred to his mother as the “Mother Teresa of wildlife rehabilitation” and would later dedicate the zoo’s wildlife hospital to her memory. From its inception, Irwin became involved in the family business in numerous ways, working himself up from zookeeper to management and took over the park in 1991. It was renamed it Australia Zoo in 1998. By then Steve and Terri Irwin had started filming “The Crocodile Hunter.”
Australia Zoo currently consist of 750 acres — 105 are open to the public. It’s where Terri, Bindi and Robert still live among 1,200 animals, ranging from koalas to kangaroos — and those infamous crocodiles, of course. Their favorite memories of their father include waking up to a tiger in the backyard, swimming with dolphins or jumping on the back of their dad’s motorcycle and driving around the park. It should come as no surprise that although Terri has encouraged the children to follow their dreams, they have no plans to leave their home.
“It’s not work. It’s not what we do. It’s who we are as a family,” says Robert Irwin. “I think Bindi and I will always do this. I feel very lucky to carry on in dad’s message and teach everyone who comes into the zoo to love and respect all wildlife.”
Irwin and his wife had just finished a 10-year business plan for the zoo mere months before his passing. “We couldn’t know that in September we would lose Steve,” says Terri. “But I’ve always been thankful that we did plan ahead.”
Even after being forced to carry out the plan herself, Terri retained the competitive spirit she had shared with her husband throughout their 14-year marriage. “I felt like I just really wanted to show him and get things done quicker than we planned,” she says. “Some of the things took every bit of 10 years. Some of the projects got done very quickly. We’ve purchased more protective habitat properties and we now have over 450,000 acres dedicated to protecting wildlife in Australia. Our projects around the world have just grown. I have that real sense of pride of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
The family intends to continue to forge the connection between people and nature, which was Irwin’s trademark, both on and off-screen.
“We’ll be moving more into accommodation and really making Australia Zoo a destination,” says Terri. “It does seem like in the world today, we’ve moved further and further away from wildlife. There’s that sense of whatever you’re scared of you just want it to go away. Here in Australia Zoo part of our ongoing plan is that re-connection. And part of that is signing on again with Animal Planet.”
The larger-than-life personality that viewers saw in the documentaries and TV series that made Irwin a household name were the real deal, says Irwin’s best friend Wes Mannion, the director of Australia Zoo, who participated in every television project as an animal wrangler.
“He was calm and super-smart, but when you started talking about animals or conservation or the zoo, that’s when you see the Steve that comes out in the [shows],” says Mannion. “If he’s passionate about something, whoa, watch out.”
So passionate was Irwin about his work that the shoot of his first “Crocodile Hunter” documentary took the place of his honeymoon. “Terri got stuck with all of us,” laughs Mannion. “It was a blast, and Steve was 100 miles an hour.”
According to Mannion, Irwin’s interest in documenting wildlife started early. “Steve was always filming. When he started croc catching, he started filming it on his own. He’d get a camera and hang it in a tree, or he’d stick it on a stick and film himself,” he recalls. “Once a few people started to see that vision they went, ‘Oh my God, this guy is out of control. He’s the real deal.’”
But more than just shock factor — of which there was plenty — was that what Irwin brought to animal docs was proximity.
“[Nature documentaries] always used to be a long lens looking in the distance at the animals. Steve brought the animals to the people,” says Mannion. “He brought this excitement to wildlife. He had a viewership of over 500 million people, including a lot of kids that would never be interested in wildlife or conservation. He changed a generation.”
Though Irwin lives on through his legacy, Mannion admits the loss took a great toll on all those who held him dear.
“The first five years, I can’t remember a lot of it,” he says. “We had to keep the zoo afloat. Everyone did this amazing job. We didn’t shy away from interviews, because what he represented was far more important than just outwardly grieving. We all did our best to make sure that we kept his dream alive. But it was tough.”
Unlike most families, what Bindi and Robert, who at the time of Irwin’s passing was just 3 years old, have is documentation of every moment they spent with their father.
“So many people who lose a loved one only have a few select photos, but our childhood was filmed. All these beautiful memories are captured forever,” says Bindi. “If anything starts to fade, we’re able to press play and watch back all these special times.”
It is for his work in television, which Bindi calls “such an extraordinary chapter in our lives and in our dad’s life,” that the Crocodile Hunter will receive his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“It’s just a true honor,” says Bindi, who with her mother and brother will attend the Los Angeles ceremony. “Dad was our super hero, that’s for sure. To have all of his extraordinary work with conservation and filming recognized in this beautiful way, it means the absolute world to us.”
Though it has been 12 years since his passing, Terri and the children are constantly reminded of the impact Irwin had on people wherever they go.
“It never ceases to amaze me that wherever we are in the far-flung corners of Africa, or in the middle of Europe, that people still recognize and remember him and appreciate what he did,” Terri says. “It’s just incredible.”