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(DV) Choi: Steve Irwin's Life Demonstrated That Animal Welfare is a Complicated Matter





One in a Million
Steve Irwin’s Life Demonstrated That Animal Welfare
is a Complicated Matter

by Chohong Choi
March 28, 2007

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A science elective I took during my first year in college required students to watch the BBC series, Life on Earth, which was hosted by David Attenborough. In some ways, the series was showing its age, as it came out in 1979, when Attenborough reminded us that bell bottoms for men were still in fashion.  In other ways, however, Life on Earth was very much a novelty, even though most, if not all, of us in the class were seeing it for the first time over a decade after it premiered.  Starting with the very first episode, Attenborough wasted no time getting close and personal with many of the animals he profiled -- to the point of actually making physical contact with them.


The class always enjoyed a good chuckle when this happened because most of us were used to seeing live animals in cages or alone in the wild. What we tended to know about human contact with wildlife usually amounted to situations in which only one of the parties walked away from the encounter. When Attenborough walked up behind a Galapagos Giant Tortoise and actually put his hands on it just several minutes into the first episode, our eyes lit up.  We knew right there that this series was unlike most of the things we had seen in a wildlife documentary made in the U.S. Not even Wild America, a local product and a fascinating wildlife series in its own right, could match the coverage and presentation of Life on Earth.


The persona of Attenborough himself had much to do with the success of Life on Earth and the subsequent BBC nature documentaries he has hosted.  Unlike Marty Stouffer, who created Wild America and looks like an outdoorsman (because he is), the Cambridge-educated Attenborough resembles an English gentleman sporting rugged outdoor apparel (bell bottoms notwithstanding) transplanted far from civilization to educate us on wildlife. He would feel just at home hanging out with chimpanzees in Africa one day as he would be sipping tea with the Queen back in England the next. (Given his knighthood, Attenborough has likely done both.)


In short, Attenborough became a favorite among nature documentary aficionados he seemed so “un-outdoors” -- a trait with which many of us could identify. After watching a few episodes of Life on Earth, the class began to speculate on the outrageous stunt Attenborough would pull off next. That came in one of the last installments, when he got a bit cozy with a group of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. The event was not planned, which made it all the more interesting and not a little hilarious. For urban and suburban dwellers like us, who were used to the likes of King Kong running amok in the city when we think of the largest member of the ape family, the playful interaction between Attenborough and the gorillas came as a pleasant surprise. It was easily the most memorable moment in the series and also one of the top Attenborough moments ever. [1]


A Real Crocodile Dundee


As it turned out, Attenborough was ahead of his time, as the close-ups with animals that were the hallmark of Life on Earth were quite radical for most viewers. Fast forward to the age of reality TV today, and Attenborough’s antics would seem subdued compared to the lengths Australian Steve Irwin would go to make contact with a wild animal. Exposed to animals by his parents since he was a child, Irwin became almost a natural at handling many animals most of us would call dangerous. Eventually, he translated his knack into a career, which included inheriting his parents’ reptile park and rehabilitation center in the state of Queensland, eventually renaming it the Australia Zoo, and starring with his wife, Terri, in a wildlife “croc-umentary” series called The Crocodile Hunter, in which he showcased his bizarre and daring (reckless?) way of interacting with animals. If Attenborough came face-to-face with wildlife, Irwin went mano a mano with them. That alone made him a one in a million rarity.


The Crocodile Hunter lasted over 300 episodes and even resulted in a movie by the same name. Irwin was surrounded by animals in every one of them. That is why he was always seen in his trademark khakis; his line of work required getting down and dirty. In fact, the dirtier, the better, because a clean day for Irwin was a wasted day. In his lifetime, he wore a suit perhaps only once (on his wedding day). “Suits -- there’s too much stiff in them,” he once said. “I’ll never wear one again. Gimme some good khakis any day.” [2]


Nevertheless, Irwin’s choice of attire and easygoing nature made him the target of critics at home and abroad.  Apparently, some Australians thought he gave his own people a bad name, even though many Australians tend to regard their casual dress and laidback temperament with pride. To many of them, Irwin was like Foster’s Lager -- an Australian product that is popular mainly with foreigners. But Irwin had something most people lack: a job he loved -- to the death, as it turned out.  Working with animals was his life, if not more so.  If Attenborough and the Tasmanian Devil (the Looney Tunes character, not the real thing) were genetically fused into a single entity, the result would be Irwin.



From Life on Earth       








© Warner Bros.








From the movie Crocodile Hunter


Such a predilection for living dangerously has its downside, as Irwin always risked his life to deliver shock value to his audiences. Behaving like a real-life cartoon character, he risked being battered, bitten, and bruised countless times, but always kept coming back for more while regarding his scars as badges of honor.  Critics charged that Irwin’s shows were staged, as he always seemed to find a snake under every rock he overturned and sometimes used captive and/or half-tamed animals as his supporting cast. Point taken, but then, how did Attenborough always seem to find fossils that were millions of years old lying around without having to dig for them in his shows? Also, those gorillas he frolicked with lived in a reserve and already had extensive contact with humans, so they were not exactly wild either, but they still had minds of their own and could have pulled his arms out of their sockets if they so wished.


Another topic of debate is whether Irwin actually respected wildlife when he featured them -- mostly against their will -- as his co-stars in his shows.  As dumb as some of us may think animals are, they still have minds of their own -- minds that may not want to cooperate to deliver the Wow! factor for the viewing pleasure of people. If the crocodiles Irwin tangled with could think (and are we absolutely sure they cannot?), what might have gone through their minds? Perhaps something like: “Why is this silly human trying to wrestle me?  Doesn’t he know I could bite his head off?  And what’s he doing with that pint-sized kid in his arm?  He looks like a good appetizer.”


That “pint-sized kid” happened to be Irwin’s then-infant son, whom he held in one hand as he baited a 12.5-foot (3.8-meter) long crocodile with food in the other during a feeding show at his zoo in 2004.  Irwin was unrepentant afterwards, insisting that his son was never in danger, and although he was not charged with child abuse, his action eventually prompted the Queensland Government to ban children from enclosed crocodile areas.  Clearly Irwin wanted his son to carry on the family tradition of getting close to and ultimately protecting potentially dangerous wildlife, but having him start at an age in which he was not allowed a say in the decision and would have been helpless against the crocodile should something happen to dad was a little too nerve-wracking for some.  Crocodiles tend to avoid people, but they take on all comers when they are hungry or provoked.  While they are not very fast, they are very quick, as they have to be when they hunt for food.  Getting caught in the jaws of a crocodile can ruin your day; they pack an extremely powerful chomp (up to 3,000 lbs. per square inch).


The Loch Cess Monster


In Chinese circles, Irwin was popularly known as “Mr. Crocodile”. He had a little bit of a connection to Hong Kong and China.  In 2003, a young Australian crocodile was found to have set up shop in a stream in a rural part of the city. No one knew how it got there, although some speculated that it was either brought into Hong Kong as a pet and then abandoned by its owner when it grew too big or had escaped from a crocodile farm in China. While it did not appear to be an imminent danger to people, the authorities could not allow such an animal to roam free for long. But the crocodile proved wilier and luckier than expected, having foiled several attempts to capture it. The authorities even considered inviting professional catchers, Irwin among them, to come apprehend the thing, which had attracted much public (and even international) attention, most of it curious and sympathetic.


Irwin, however, was busy with other matters, but he wanted to be kept informed of events as they developed. Instead, fellow Australian John Lever, who operated his own crocodile reserve in Queensland, was brought in. Lever was confident of catching the crocodile, but he encountered some unexpected problems, like the extensive media attention being lavished on it, which made an already reclusive creature even shyer, and the fact that the stream in which it loitered was awash in pig effluent running off from nearby farms!


Despite having cleaned up after crocodiles, including touching their dung, Irwin was probably wise to eschew this assignment. The stream was being polluted by the collective discharge of over 34,000 pigs and possibly 300,000 fowl (foul?) and an unknown number of people whose homes lacked modern sewage disposal facilities. Pig manure was probably the most toxic ingredient of them all, and, unlike cow and human manure, was unusable as fertilizer. Needless to say, fish in the stream were dying off, yet Lever, who failed to catch the crocodile, was astounded to see people still catching fish for food. [3] Crikey!


Crocodiles, however, are amazingly resistant to such a putrid stew, and this crocodile proved that by having already survived in the stream for at least three months by the time Lever tried to trap it.  As long as the waste was organic, the crocodile would be able to cope with it, said Lever. [4] The dead fish floating in the stream were its MREs, saving it the effort of searching for food and risking capture. Being at the top of the food chain in certain ecosystems, crocodiles have been among nature’s most efficient recyclers for some 200 million years. During the fighting for the Solomon Islands (among other places) in World War II, crocodiles feasted on the bodies of dead soldiers, which, as gruesome as it seemed, likely helped prevent further disease outbreaks in an already unhealthy setting.


Any organism that can survive even a day in such a malodorous morass deserves some respect. The crocodile received more than that from the people of Hong Kong, and in the nick of time. The city was still recovering from its nadir earlier in the year, when it was practically laid low by SARS and a struggling economy. The government, already under fire for being slow to resolve both problems effectively, was most grateful for such an opportune news story, which diverted much of the public’s attention away from another major concern in Hong Kong -- environmental degradation -- even though the evidence was literally right under their noses the entire time they were fascinated by the crocodile.


The crocodile’s lucky streak finally ran out when it wandered into a trap and was caught by local fishermen in June 2004 and sent to a nearby nature reserve. This was after it became a celebrity and even Hong Kong’s personality of the year for 2003 as the result of a poll conducted by a local media station. A contest was held to determine the crocodile’s name, and a handful of participants submitted the winning entry: “Pui Pui” (a phonetic translation of “貝貝”), which literally means precious, but was also a reference to the stream in which it was spotted. [5] (One would imagine that the stream is no longer so precious.)  “Pui Pui” beat out submissions like “Croc Croc Chan” (after the family that first discovered it), “Gucci” (for obvious reasons), and “Bill Gates,” and she lived up to her name, having been dealt a better fate than many of her brethren that end up as fashion accessories or food. (It is strange why “Bill Gates” would be a suitable moniker for the crocodile, although one can imagine that if the world’s richest person was lurking in the same smelly stream, he would command a lot of media attention too.)


The people of Hong Kong, on the other hand, should have wondered where their priorities lay when they overlooked the crap for the croc. It was not certain if the fishermen were actively searching for the crocodile or were fishing in the polluted waters when they came upon it. Since Pui Pui’s capture, the stream in which she was found has seen much of its vicinity, including its banks, paved over, according to a colleague of mine who lives in the area. Pig farming in Hong Kong has continued its dramatic decline, to the relief of most people, but Hong Kong’s waterways continue to be dirtied by other sources of pollution.




That is one smart crocodile!

(SCMP photo; text by author)


Plowing the Waters


As for seafood (including food from fresh water sources), the Chinese are probably its most ardent consumers. Fish has long been regarded as a healthy meat in Chinese society, and there is some merit to this belief because of the omega-3 fatty acid that is found in certain species of fish and is supposed to be good for one’s heart and brain. But how fit for human consumption, much less healthy, is a fish when it has been swimming in contaminated water for most, if not all, of its life? After all, the world’s oceans have been polluted by runoff from human industrial activities, and this inevitably makes its way to the fish.  In any case, meat and dairy products from free range livestock also contain respectable amounts of omega-3, as do some plant sources like walnuts and flax seed. Even if omega-3 from plant sources may not be as absorbable as that found in fish, it does not contain cholesterol or heavy metals that tend to accumulate in those fish species that are rich in omega-3. [6]


Rising living standards in many parts of Asia have not only led to greater demand for fish, but also for certain kinds of seafood many would consider luxurious, such as abalone, crab, lobster, shrimp, sushi, and sashimi (the last two have also become increasingly available in the West).  This has resulted in more intense harvesting of the world’s waters, leaving parts of them depleted and endangering non-targeted species like dolphins. Moreover, few seafood lovers are aware that fishermen, especially those working for commercial interests, have used dangerous and destructive methods, like longlining, dynamite blasting, cyanide stunning, and bottom trawling, to catch the fish they consume. [7] This has boded ill for traditional fishermen who have long been using the waters more responsibly.


But even industrialized fishing has not been enough to meet the growing appetite for seafood, so there has also been an explosion in the age-old practice of seafood farming, or aquaculture, in recent years. As is the case with the factory farming of livestock, aquaculture is an intense process that pollutes the water because of the concentration of so many animals in a relatively limited area means that their wastes are concentrated as well. Disease also spreads faster in crowded settings. In time, many of the sick fish, if they have not died from such unnatural living conditions, make their way to people’s dinner tables.


It is unclear what Irwin thought of aquaculture. He supported grazing by livestock on land, even going as far to say that Australia is the greatest grazing country in the world, although he was vehemently against crocodile farming. Strangely, however, he seemed to be against converting more land for growing crops, even though land that is converted for livestock is more adversely affected. [8] At least he and those of us who consume livestock and their byproducts can be assured of one thing: these creatures are not at risk of becoming endangered anytime soon. Take cattle, for instance. Humans may be the most numerous large animals on Earth, but the world’s 1.3 billion cattle occupy the most mass.


But one practice that Irwin would most likely be unequivocally against is overfishing. A lot of the fish eaten by Hong Kong people are caught along coral reefs, which are found in less than one percent of the oceans, but serve as homes for up to one-third of all marine life. Attempting to meet increasing demand for reef fish, fishermen have begun to catch them before they sexually mature, which prevents them from spawning future generations and depletes their numbers.  Even worse, they have been damaging the reefs using the aforementioned methods to get at the dwindling numbers of fish. As a result, reefs are under threat all around the world from this and other problems. The Great Barrier Reef in Irwin’s backyard is the world’s longest coral reef. In 2004, the Australian Government closed off over one-third of its 1,200-mile (2,000 km) length to fishing and declared it a marine preserve. Much tourism revenue is generated by the reef, and a live reef is more valuable than a dead one.


The seafood dish probably most associated with the Chinese, and one that Irwin fiercely opposed consuming, is shark fin soup. The Chinese tend to eat all of a fish except for its head, tail, and bones, which is less wasteful than the Western practice of usually eating only the filets.  But with sharks, the Chinese usually welcome only its fins, as shark meat is not very tasty (although there are some countries where it is consumed). But then, neither are the fins in their unrefined state. Only after they are dried, boiled, and have condiments added to them do they become a delicacy that sells for up to US$100 a bowl.  At that price, shark fin soup is served only on those special occasions when its buyers want to flaunt their wealth and impress their guests.



Up to 40 sharks are killed for every wedding banquet that serves shark fin soup. (Photo from Sea Shepherd Conservation Society)



The process of removing a shark’s fins, called finning, is to slice them off a captured shark before tossing the finless body back into the sea, at which point the shark is usually still alive.  A shark without fins is like an airplane without wings.  Unable to navigate, it will sink to the bottom and eventually die from drowning, starving, or falling prey to other animals.  Such a scenario has been estimated to occur from a low of 26 million to as much as 200 million times a year. [9] Together with the low reproductive rate of many shark species, this has depleted their numbers and placed tremendous pressure on the remainder.


Irwin recalled the time he walked out of a Chinese restaurant that served shark fin soup. “‘Sorry, mate,’ I told the proprietor, ‘we're leaving.’ He said, ‘But Mr. Irwin, there are other things to eat. I said, ‘You're not hearing me. I cannot eat here. I will not eat here.’ They are raping the oceans and stuffing up the food chain by eliminating the No.1 predator.” [10] Irwin knew what he was saying. All life originated in the water, and sharks are at or near the top of the food chain in the world’s oceans. They help keep the populations of other species, like jellyfish, in check.


“It is more dangerous to play golf than to swim in the ocean with sharks. More golfers are struck by lightning and killed each year than the total number of shark fatalities.”


                                                                        -- Sea Shepherd


You got that, Tiger Woods? The image of the man-eating shark is firmly embedded in the minds of many, and shark attacks are big news. (Remember when they were one of the big media stories in the weeks before 09/11?) Here is a one-in-(over)-a-million statistic: for every person killed by a shark each year from 2001 to 2005, almost six million sharks were killed by people, and this is a low-end estimate. [11] The man-eating shark is a red herring compared to the far more common shark-eating man (and woman). Aside from being a delicacy, shark fin (or, more specifically, the cartilage contained in it) is believed to come with health benefits, like the ability to prevent cancer.  Such a claim has so far been dubious. What is not in doubt, however, is that sharks, being so high up the food chain, have accumulated high levels of mercury in their bodies. When people consume shark fin soup, they ingest the mercury contained within as well.


Irwin was not the only prominent personality who has spoken out against shark fin soup. In Summer 2006, basketball player Yao Ming pledged to no longer eat the dish. His message was largely ignored by the Chinese press, but the shark fin industry wasted no time condemning it. Trade in shark fin is a multi-billion dollar business, and even organized crime has muscled in on it. [12] What has been fueling the trade lately is rising incomes in China. Once confined to Hong Kong and Guangdong Province, shark fin is becoming increasingly available in other parts of the Mainland. Rising demand on the Mainland has more than offset falling demand in Hong Kong, where Hong Kong Disneyland announced in 2005 that it would not serve shark fin soup at its Chinese restaurant after some negative publicity compelled it to reverse its original decision to serve it, and the University of Hong Kong and HSBC followed suit by banning the item from their functions. Heroes or pariahs (depending on whom you ask), Yao and a couple of other Chinese celebrities who have taken a public stand against shark fin soup are even rarer than one-in-a-million phenomena like Irwin; they are three or four in a billion.


Many more not-so-famous Chinese all over the world have also soured on the dish. Despite the general media downplay of Yao’s stance against shark fin soup, for someone of his stature to speak out against the dish swings more weight than 10,000 Occidentals doing the same thing because it is a case of Chinese challenging their fellow Chinese on their eating habits. Even as shark fin soup consumption rises in China, greater environmental awareness has resulted in limited, but growing, opposition to it. This is especially true in Hong Kong, where, in addition to the announcements made by several prominent institutions to eschew shark fin soup, the younger generation has started to reject it in greater numbers in recent years. Some chefs in Hong Kong, upon hearing Yao’s declaration, even sympathized with him in secret and said that they would gladly stop preparing it if their restaurants take it off their menus. [13]


Tradition can be a powerful influence on life, and some traditions are worth keeping. But others are worth reassessing. Yao is unconvinced by the industry’s argument that the actions of anti-shark fin campaigners threaten heritage and jobs alike. “How do you maintain this so-called tradition when one day there is no shark to be finned?” he asked rhetorically when talking about the environmental consequences of killing sharks for their fins. [14] Before he joined the NBA, Yao played on a team called the Shanghai Sharks in China. If sharks become extinct, then it makes no sense to continue naming your team after an animal whose extinction was caused by people -- many of whom happen to be your fellow citizens. Yao may also want to enlighten his Houston Rockets teammate Tracy McGrady, who enjoyed shark fin soup during his 2006 visit to Hong Kong [15], on the ecological and health risks of consuming it.  (McGrady said he did not know of Yao’s position when he tried the soup, but after hearing about it, he vowed to support Yao 110 percent.)



“Yo, T!  A word with you
on your shark fin
fetish!” (NBA)


There has been talk of raising sharks for their fins rather than catching them, but that will probably lead to the same problems associated with aquaculture.  Since taste is a big factor in shark fin soup’s popularity, alternatives to it include imitation and vegetarian shark fin (“mock fin”) soup.  The former contains chicken, pork, and cellophane noodles (which substitute for the shark fin), and is served in a number of cheaper eateries and even in cans, while the latter is all vegetables (with bamboo shoots or cellophane noodles substituting for shark fin), and can be found in some vegetarian restaurants.  Both taste remarkably similar to real shark fin soup and their ingredients are more renewable, if not necessarily healthier or more environmentally sustainable.


Chinese eating habits have been the subject of much controversy. Chinese cooking is caught in a paradox of being considered, by many, to be one of the world’s three great cuisines (along with French and Italian), but at the same time, it is ridiculed by the West for the wide variety of animals it deems eligible for the dinner plate. In short, virtually anything that moves can be an ingredient in Chinese cooking. China’s population has always been large, and until recently, meat had always been in short supply. Therefore, “exotic” animals were eaten not only by the poor, who were desperate for any source of protein, but also by the rich, who ate them out of curiosity or as a sign of prestige.


While there are aspects of Chinese cuisine that tourism promotions for China would tend to omit, the Chinese, contrary to some stereotypes, do not have a monopoly on consuming unusual species. Certain animals eaten by some people in the U.S., for example, would be unpalatable to the average American, and one need only consult the Comments section in one BBC article on Pui Pui to see the number of suggestions from Europeans for turning her into a commodity (although there were many who wanted her to be saved). Go to a chic bistro in Europe or the U.S., and you may be able to enjoy some bird you might have seen in an Attenborough documentary. Irwin himself shook his head at fellow Australians who eat the animals found in their country’s coat of arms.


One more thing: industrialized agriculture, or factory farming, one of the most brutal treatments humans could mete out to animals, was invented in the West and is still practiced there.  The Chinese did, however, pioneer aquaculture, and have gradually picked up factory farming to meet their growing demand for meat.


Irwin’s dedication to saving and educating the public about scary (and not so scary) endangered species led him and his wife to found the Steve Irwin Conservation Foundation in 2002. It was subsequently renamed Wildlife Warriors and now operates independently, although the Irwin Family remains the face of the organization and serves as its benefactors. WW has put special emphasis on protecting crocodiles. They and sharks, two creatures that are often depicted as evil, have been on this planet for a combined 550 million years. Back in the late 1990s, a BBC producer who was curious as to how crocodiles with open wounds could survive in germ-ridden swamps relayed her curiosity to some scientists in the U.S., who tested a sample of crocodile blood she gave them and discovered a natural antiseptic in it, which they named “crocodillin”. [16] Perhaps this and a tough exterior were what enabled the Hong Kong crocodile to survive in the firth of filth for so long. No wonder why Irwin, when given a choice of animal he would want to be reincarnated as after he died, chose to come back as a crocodile. [17] For those of us obsessed with extending our life spans, we may find it prudent to stop treating these two species as commodities in order to study (responsibly and non-lethally) their secrets to longevity (up to 80 and 100 years for certain species of crocodile and shark, respectively) instead of killing them off.  As Irwin was fond of saying: “Don’t muck with it!”




In collaboration with WW, the Irwins tried to buy as much land around the world as possible and designate them wildlife sanctuaries. Much of the money they earned from the zoo and their TV and movie deals went for conservation. Irwin also lent his support to other conservationists who were doing the same. In 2005, he went to China to visit a sanctuary for moon bears operated by Animals Asia. Moon bears, so named because of a yellow, crescent-shaped patch of fur on their chests, have long been milked for their bile because of its medicinal properties. In bear farms throughout China and other Asian countries, moon bears housed in cages too small for them to move around are permanently stuck with catheters to get their bile out twice a day. They have been de-clawed and even de-limbed to make them less dangerous to their farmers.


Jill Robinson is the founder of Animals Asia, a Hong Kong-based animal welfare organization that also does not require its employees to wear suits in the office. Originally from Great Britain, Jill now splits her time between Hong Kong and China. In 1993, after secretly descending into the basement of a Chinese bear farm complex during a tour of the facility, Jill encountered dozens of caged moon bears living in atrocious conditions. That was when she decided to do something about it. She started AA in 1998 with a primary focus on rescuing moon bears by opening a bear sanctuary in China, but AA has also been active in the fight for the welfare of other animals. It even took part in the drive to stop Hong Kong Disneyland from serving shark fin soup.


Knowing how hard it is to make wheels turn over what appeared to be an insignificant matter in an authoritarian country like China, Jill preferred to engage the sensitive Chinese authorities through dialogue rather than through public humiliation. Since Jill and many of her supporters were Westerners, they also had to contend with charges of racism and “cultural imperialism” from farmers, many of whom were impoverished and saw little choice but to exploit animals just to survive. [18] Animals have served more as beasts of burden and food in Chinese society than as companions, and AA had to compensate farmers who agreed to give up their bear farms to take up another form of livelihood. [19]


I first met Jill by e-mail in 2000. The topic of our discussion was not moon bears, but the poor treatment animals tended to receive in China’s zoos after reading about the efforts of Jill and others to improve the treatment they received there. I finally had the chance to meet Jill in person in 2002 when I visited AA’s office with an interest in sponsoring a moon bear. Jill showed me several pictures of the moon bears that had been rescued. Of particular interest to me was one that had only three legs. This one was called Andrew, and Jill told me that he was her favorite bear. Andrew’s left foreleg was already missing when he arrived at the sanctuary, perhaps as a result of a being trapped as a cub, and his gentle demeanor won Jill over. He won me over too, and I became one of his sponsors until he died in early 2006, probably due to complications from his days as a farmed bear.


 Andrew (© Animals Asia, author’s copy) 


Irwin also took an interest in AA’s work. In 2005, he went to AA’s sanctuary to film a segment for a new documentary series to be shown on Animal Planet called “New Breed Vets”. Many of the moon bears that arrived at the sanctuary had been injured, sometimes seriously, from being trapped in the wild, and most had certainly been scarred by the catheters that were inserted into their bodies. All bears receive a health check upon their arrival, and many have their catheters, which are still impaled in their bodies, surgically removed. “The work that Jill’s team is doing is not only helping repair the decades of suffering and abuse that these gorgeous bears have endured, but they are also educating the local people to respect and protect their wildlife,” Irwin was quoted as saying in the Chinese media.



 Irwin feeding furry friend



Irwin with Jill Robinson.  “G’Day, everybody! 

Sorry about the jeans, but the khakis are in the laundry!”

(© Animals Asia)





“Animals don’t frighten me.  I’m more afraid of people and the dark cloud of terrorism.”


-- Steve Irwin


Irwin predicted that he would probably meet an early death -- perhaps from an auto accident, which killed his mother in 2000. [20] Observers, notably his critics, thought he would most likely meet his demise at the hands (or jaws) of an animal, with a crocodile being the most likely candidate.  So it was to much of the world’s surprise that a stingray should be the culprit when on September 4, 2006, one of them pierced his chest with its stinger after he got too close to it as he was filming another wildlife documentary in a section of the Great Barrier Reef.


Stingrays are usually harmless, but they are equipped with stingers for defense. A stinger is a length of poisonous, barbed cartilage that projects from its tail and can grow up to ten inches (250 mm) long. Irwin seemed to have inadvertently startled the stingray, which responded by driving its stinger into his chest. He quickly pulled the stinger out, which was likely a mistake. As the stinger’s poison is slow-acting, it was probably its sharpness that severed some major blood vessels, caused massive blood loss, and induced cardiac arrest, which killed Irwin about an hour later.[21] Although it is a natural reaction for one to pull a foreign object out of one’s body as soon as possible, Irwin’s blood loss could have been stemmed had he left the stinger in, noted a surgeon who operated on a man who was wounded the same way a month later, but survived because he did not remove the stinger. “It’s a one-in-a-million thing,” said a fellow diver. “I have swum with many rays, and I have only had one do that to me.” [22]


World reaction was swift and, despite attacks from critics (more on this later) and mockery by certain media outlets, largely sympathetic. Irwin’s favorite world leader, his own Prime Minister John Howard, attended a public memorial service for him at the Australia Zoo and offered to give him a state funeral, which his family declined. More zealous fans were suspected of taking their anger out on stingrays -- a practice Irwin would have opposed -- and their mutilated corpses began to wash up on Australia’s beaches. Jill Robinson had this to say about Irwin: "Steve so passionately demonstrated that the power of one really can move mountains.  Without a shadow of a doubt he has inspired millions of people -- both young and old -- to preserve our environment and protect the animals with whom we share this earth. Steve died far too young, but has left the most incredible footprint of hope and his legacy will continue to inspire people for decades to come." [23]




Irwin was someone who could not sit still for even five seconds, said a friend.  The energy and enthusiasm he exhibited for his work were legendary, but undoubtedly taxing on his body. His wild and sometimes foolhardy antics were what separated him from his fellow wildlife documentarians and conservationists, and that is the image he garnered. Like many other unique characters, Irwin died at the top of his game.


“Maybe the stingray was making his own film, showing how dangerous humans can be.”


-- Marcus Brigstocke


But even in death, Irwin continued to attract criticism. “The animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin,” proclaimed one of his more vocal detractors. [24] He disturbed animal habitats to film his shows, even if it was ultimately in the name of conservation. As for the animals, they had already been unwitting guests on his shows and would rather be left alone.  Moreover, their livelihoods are already under tremendous pressure, so they are apt to regard any human with the utmost suspicion. While Irwin did not intend to provoke the stingray, the stingray obviously did not see it that way.


As the world population explodes, our wildlife is under increasing pressure to survive as natural habitat diminishes every single day. Our job is to locate the croc, jump it, try and get it in the boat, and then relocate it in a section of the river so that it will never run into conflict with people again. Now it’s not the croc’s fault. He doesn’t come into our swimming pool. We’re actually going into his. They’re apex predators right at the top of the food chain, and without crocodiles, the whole ecosystem would suffer. We’ve got to catch this croc. Otherwise, they’ll shoot it dead and turn it into boots, bags, and belts. (Irwin in Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course)


Irwin’s desire to protect crocodiles was genuine, even if that meant using them for entertainment purposes. His relocation efforts worked -- until the next time humanity expanded its boundaries.  Even in a sparsely populated country like Australia, human-wildlife interaction is increasing, and the encounters have not always been friendly. Crocodiles, for one, are fiercely protective of their turf, and will defend it to the death, if necessary. But the dilemma for conservationists like Irwin is that the general public has long had the perception that crocodiles are nothing but nasty, vicious creatures that do not merit sympathy and understanding. Leaving them alone would have been best for them, but then most of the public would never venture beyond the comfort of their sofas to educate themselves on why crocodiles deserve a place in this world.  Use the crocodiles as cast members on your shows and you will face censure for that and have to put up with the whims of the animals. Irwin could have taken the middle road -- limiting his physical contact with the animals à la Attenborough -- but that was not his style.


As the world’s population becomes ever more detached from nature, seeing wildlife in its natural habitats on the tube has become the most common way for most urbanites to connect with their fellow Earth inhabitants. As audiences around the world have become enamored with reality TV, so too has this form of entertainment spread to wildlife documentaries. Such a situation seemed to be tailor-made for Irwin, and he took advantage of it. Through Irwin, viewers at home were able to get as close to nature as possible without leaving the comforts of home. As he faced and survived one life-threatening situation after another, they only whetted viewers’ appetites for more realism and danger, and Irwin was glad to oblige. His attempt to crank up the Wow! factor to please his fans might have led to his death.


Making progress on social issues is harder than letting things fester and pretending that nothing is wrong. There is always conflict among progressive-minded people over how best to effect change. Animal welfare is such an issue. People concerned with it have different ideas on how best to ensure animals a place in this world, and more often than not they clash with each other more than they spar with those who see the existence of animals in this world solely for the use of humans as they see fit. A personality like Irwin served as a lightning rod for their disputes. The progeny of the late oceanographer and ecologist, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, have disagreed over Irwin’s place in the field of conservation. Cousteau’s son, Jean-Michel, called Irwin’s death unfortunate, but he also accused Irwin of disturbing nature. On the other hand, Cousteau’s grandson and Jean-Michel’s nephew, Philippe, who was working with Irwin at the time of his death, found Irwin to be truly dedicated to his work. [25]


“I put my life on the line to save animals.”


“I have no fear of losing my life -- if I have to save a koala or a crocodile or a kangaroo or a snake, mate, I will save it.”


--Steve Irwin


Attenborough himself (whom Irwin considered a role model) praised Irwin after he accepted a lifetime achievement award for his own TV wildlife presentations from Irwin’s widow in late 2006. “[Irwin] taught [viewers] how wonderful and exciting [the natural world] was. He was a born communicator,” [26] said Attenborough, who gave Mrs. Irwin a polite hug as she handed him the award (the ceremony for which could be seen here and here). Such a eulogy would have pleased the Crocodile Hunter himself.  “Where I live, if someone gives you a hug, it’s from the heart,” Irwin once said. [27]




It has now been over half a year since Irwin breathed his last. To his family’s relief, the footage showing his fatal encounter with the stingray had been destroyed, according to his widow. His last documentary, Ocean’s Deadliest, aired in January, and his daughter also plans to carry on his work of educating the public about wildlife conservation.


What have I learned over the last six months? For one thing, several more shark species have been classified as endangered. Chinese New Year recently passed, and in Hong Kong, that meant at least one big dinner to see off the Year of the Dog followed by several big dinners just days later to welcome the Year of the Swine (er, pig). The former dinner, which I had in a restaurant, featured shark fin soup and barbecued pork. I politely turned down the shark fin soup, the most expensive item on the menu, but ate the barbecued pork and most of the other meat dishes. On the first day of Chinese New Year, I had pork shank for dinner at a relative’s home. In Chinese tradition, a pig is a symbol of prosperity. The character for “family” -- 家-- features a pig under a roof, which means that any home with such a beast slated for future consumption is a happy one. But it would not be so happy for the pig, although one could hardly tell by the way it has been commercialized to welcome the New Year, when Chinese societies around the world posted personified images of blissful pigs in front of their stores and homes. Not since those M&M’s commercials has a food exhibited such delight at being eaten!


That is the conflict omnivores like me face: is Irwin’s contradictory relationship with animals really so different from those of us who would consider ourselves animal lovers, but continue to eat meat, wear leather, and use cosmetics that were tested on animals, just to name a few examples?  After all, those of us who do are on the same boat as Irwin. Very few people today have gone vegan with the food they eat and the products they use. For all his sincerity in trying to protect sharks and other wildlife, Yao Ming has pitched McDonald’s fare, usually featuring some form of dead animal, to young people, a segment of the population that is experiencing a disturbing rise in obesity and its related diseases, particularly in Asia. Even the venerable Attenborough himself had physical contact with wildlife in all his documentaries without asking the animals for their consent. Then there are those who argue that people come first, and to many, this is a very powerful argument. But even these folks count in their ranks pet owners who treat their non-human companions as family. If any of them were to be faced with a crisis in which priority for rescue were given to people, would they follow their philosophy to the letter, or would they admit that some animals (notably their own) matter more than some humans (notably people they do not know)?


Or maybe most of us operate by the rule that some species matter more than others. How many of us would display the same amount of sympathy for a cockroach as we would for, say, a koala? People still judge by looks, and would tend to put roaches in the category of animals that are too ugly, too scary, too creepy, too slithery, too filthy, too dangerous, and too evil to co-exist with humans. I recall one time when some relatives of mine, who were Buddhist vegetarians, snared a three-inch (76 mm) roach in a plastic Zip-Loc bag. Such critters are quick and fast, so it was miraculous they managed to trap it. I saw the roach desperately trying to escape from the bag, and wanted to squash it while it was still trapped, but my relatives decided to release it into the street. I argued that it could return to our home and spawn even more offspring, but they said we must not kill any life form, however pesky, we have at our mercy. They released the roach, and it took me several years to realize they had a point. Given all the trouble they went through to capture the roach instead of stepping on it, they deserved to decide its fate. That is Buddha’s way. [28] Even though I have killed roaches and other insects since then, mostly because they invaded my home, I always had reservations about doing so. (If only I were as quick with a Zip-Loc bag.)


Selective compassion is something most of us practice -- on our fellow humans as well as on animals.  On the surface, it may not appear to make much of a difference in the larger scheme of animal welfare, but try telling that to those lucky animals (like the aforementioned roach) that have benefited from the rare act of kindness bestowed on them by some people who, in most cases, would be apathetic or even downright cruel, even to their fellow humans. If they could talk, with whom would they prefer to cast their lots? Even the hardest of human hearts have occasionally been used throughout history in the name of kindness to animals. If an act of compassion, no matter how small, begets more compassion, then it should be welcomed.


Irwin did not “ride off into the sunset” or go out in “a blaze of glory,” but neither did he go out “like some sucka”. He literally stood up, bent over backwards, and risked his life for what he believed in, even if his methods and beliefs were disagreeable at times. A fellow wildlife documentarian gave one of the more balanced accounts of Irwin: “Is he sort of half-mad?  Absolutely. Is he a zealot, a showman? Yes.  But... I think he's probably done more for the environment than a lot of the voice-of-God documentaries that have screened for generations.” [29]


Chohong Choi has lived in Hong Kong and New York, and can be reached at:


Other Articles by Chohong Choi


* Feeding the Cauldron
* The Gilded Folly of This Land
* The US is Not the Only Place With an Appetite for Energy Consumption
* Hong Kong’s “Free Market”: Someone Pays
* Revenge of the Shift Worker


[1] See Wikipedia.

[2] Kris Griffiths, “Croc Monsieur,”, December 11, 2004.

[3] Nick Gentle, “The Hunt for the Yuen Long Crocodile has turned the Spotlight on the Sorry State of a Dying Ecosystem,” SCMP, December 13, 2003, p.A11; Anna Healy Fenton, “Crafty Reptile Makes it Third Time Unlucky; Unfavourable Light and Water Levels Foil Mission to Capture Elusive Creature,” SCMP, November 18, 2003, p.A3.

[4] Gentle, “Dying Ecosystem”.

[5] Gentle, “Yuen Long Croc Finally Gets a Name to Treasure,” SCMP, August 13, 2004, p.A1.

[6] Hope Ferdowsian & Susan Levin, “Fish Still Not a Healthy Choice,” The Providence Journal (rpt., October 24, 2006.

[7] Donald Asprey, “The Sheer Brutality of Shark Harvesting is Beginning to put Hong Kong Diners off a Banquet Staple,” SCMP, December 16, 2005, p.A5; Duane Silverstein, “Paradise Lost?”, April 24, 2002; Stephen Leahy, “Climate Change Shattering Marine Food Chain,” Inter Press Service (rpt., April 11, 2006; Haider Rizvi, “More Fish in the Sea?  Soon, Maybe Not,” (rpt., November 14, 2006.

[8] “Crikey, it’s Raw Stevo!”  The Good Weekend, April 2002 (rpt. The Sydney Morning Herald, September 4, 2006); “Classic Steve Irwin Comments,” The Daily Telegraph, September 4, 2006.

[9] Hank Pellisier, “Shark Fin Soup: An Eco-Catastrophe?”  SF Gate, January 20, 2003; “Triple Threat: World Fin Trade May Harvest up to 73 Million Sharks per Year,” Pew Institute for Ocean Science, September 25, 2006; “Environmentalists Warn of Shark Troubles,” AP (rpt. WildAid), November 8, 2006; Asprey.  The 26-73 million figure was the first to use real data.  The AP article stated an estimate of 38-70 million.  Asprey’s article gave a count of 50-85 million.  The UN’s estimate was 100 million sharks, while a few experts think the tally is twice that.

[10] Larry Writer, “Irwin Inc.,” Women’s Weekly (rpt. Wildlife Warriors Worldwide), August 2006.

[11] Here is how I arrived at this figure.  The International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History documented an annual average of 4.4 fatalities resulting from shark attacks during 2001-2005.  Dividing 26 million (the lowest estimate for the number of sharks harvested per year) by 4.4, we arrived at over 5.9 million sharks killed by people for every person killed by a shark.

[12] Geoffrey York, “Shark Soup,” The Globe and Mail (rpt. Florida Museum of Natural History), August 27, 2003.

[13] Mark McCord, “Media Silent on Shark Fin Soup Affair,” Agence France-Presse (rpt. Yahoo! Hong Kong News), September 1, 2006; David Barboza, “Waiter, There’s a Celebrity in My Shark Fin Soup,” New York Times, August 13, 2006.

[14] Barboza.

[15] Carrie Chan, “Shark’s Fin Soup a Hit with NBA Star,” SCMP, September 1, 2006, p.C2; “Basketball Star Berated for Shark Fin Dinner,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur (rpt. Bangkok Post), September 2006.

[16] More recently, crocodile blood was found to be HIV-resistant.  See “Crocodile Blood Shows anti-HIV Activity,” Reuters (rpt., August 16, 2005.  (Note: the article was probably not written by someone with a background in science or medicine, but that was not the fault of the scientists mentioned in it.)

[17] Griffiths.

[18] Martin Williams, “The Great Bear Rescue,” Reader’s Digest Chinese Edition (rpt., June 2002.

[19] “Dismantling Bear Bile Farms in China, Part II: Acting Locally,” Satya, November/December 2004.

[20] Rohan Sullivan, “Crocodile Hunter Felt He’d Die Early,” AP (rpt., September 27, 2006; Writer.

[21] Richard Macey, “Serrated Knife-like Barb, Not Toxins, the Likely Killer,” The Sydney Morning Herald, September 5, 2006.

[22] Rory Callinan, “Death of a Crocodile Hunter,” Time, September 4, 2006.

[23] Quote forwarded to author by Animals Asia.

[24] Germaine Greer, “‘That sort of self-delusion is what it takes to be a real Aussie larrikin’,” Guardian, September 5, 2006.

[25] “Cousteau Family Clash over Croc Hunter,”, September 20, 2006; “Irwin Interfered with Nature, Says Cousteau,” The Sydney Morning Herald, September 20, 2006.

[26] “Terri Irwin Presents Award to Attenborough,” The Australian, November 2, 2006.

[27] “Classic Steve Irwin Comments”.

[28] Buddha himself was said to have had a similar experience.  Before he became Buddha, he was a prince called Siddhartha Gautama. Even as a boy, Siddhartha was fond of animals. One day, he picked up a wounded bird that had been shot down by his cousin, Devadatta. When Devadatta demanded the bird, Siddhartha refused. To settle the matter, Siddhartha’s father, the king, gathered the wisest men from his kingdom to decide on the matter. But they were deadlocked until the eldest wise man said that, “Even the gods cannot give back life once it is taken away.” Therefore, Siddhartha was awarded the bird, which he nursed back to health and released. Devadatta, angered at being denied the bird, began to conspire against his cousin until almost the day he died, although he failed every time.

[29] “Crikey, it’s Raw Stevo!”