I'm only planning on writing about this topic once, as it's already beginning to wear thin, and this is only day two.
I was introduced to The Crocodile Hunter several years ago by my Bad Movie Night group of friends. Generally it was what we watched when we failed to find a movie bad enough to live up to our freakishly bad expectations.
I realized this week that I just presume anything that those particular people are fans of is relatively unknown to the rest of creation, from the science-fiction series Lexx to the live-action superhero British movie musical The Return of Captain Invincible (which, contrary to its name, is not a sequel). That Steve Irwin's death was the top story on cnn.com astounded me. That television has been fascinated by this story like a royal car wreck for the last day is just shy of incomprehensible. He's in danger of becoming another media Princess Di, only with spiders instead of landmine victims, and with far less fashion sense.
Ok, the guy has 200,000,000 viewers. (Or, to put it another way, ten times the population of Australia.) So did Baywatch, but no one's going to throw a state funeral if David Hasselhoff dies. For that matter, we wouldn't make this big a deal about things if it was Tom Cruise who had died.
So what is it about Steve Irwin that has so fascinated us? Is it the Jackass-like quality of some of his stunts? That may make him entertaining to some, but it doesn't make him worthy of this commemoration. Is it his fervent conservationism? This country has never seemed particularly interested in the topic, other than in saving the occasional owl. (To paraphrase one associate of Irwin's: anyone can convince people to save koala bears. Steve took up saving spiders and crocodiles and other nasties that people generally think aren't worth saving.)
Is it his everyman language? Maybe getting closer, but I think that ultimately stemmed from his refreshing lack of phoniness. As crazy as he was on camera, he was just as crazy off camera. The persona we all saw was really him. He wasn't putting on a show: he really was that passionate, and that crazy, about wildlife. And while he made pleas impassioned to the point of corniness, he didn't lecture and he didn't often point fingers. Certain species are dying because their habitats are being destroyed, he would say, not that mean, capitalist developers were callously destroying their homes. He talked a lot about respect for animals, while avoiding specifically addressing "animal rights." I think in that way he made conservation palatable for a lot of people nervous about being associated with radical, tree-hugging members of PETA.
Did I approve of his methods? Not always. He took risks that were not necessary. You have, by now, no doubt seen a couple dozen clips on CNN of him getting bit in the face by snakes. That doesn't have to happen. My high school had a program where elementary kids came as field trips to learn about a variety of animals which high schoolers handled. As a child I attended those field trips. As a teen I was one of those animal handlers, and the main attraction was a couple boas and pythons that we would bring out draped around our necks that the children could pet. Never got bit. No one I knew got bit. Why? Because we didn't wave them around like yo-yos.
On the other hand, Steve never EVER blamed the animals. When he got bit, it was his fault. (Damn right.) Nor did he ever tell his audience that these animals were just harmless, misunderstood creatures wanting a cuddle. These are dangerous animals, neither pets nor toys. While many of these animals are not aggressive or wishing to cause harm (like, ironically, stingrays), they still require respect or people and animals both can get hurt. And, of course, there's the crocs, who clearly always want a piece of that crazy zookeeper dancing around their pens.