Steve Irwin: Australian Naturalist
Around the world Steve Irwin’s death came as a shock. He died filming an underwater TV show when a stingray’s barbed tail punctured his heart. The Economist’s obituary said Irwin’s TV programs about wildlife had attracted a worldwide audience of 500 million. That’s a lot of reviewers.
I have a theory as to why so many tuned in to watch Irwin wrestle crocodiles and handle deadly snakes along with other assorted highly dangerous creatures. Each of us has a primitive memory handed down from our ancestors, and part of that memory is an innate fear of being killed by a wild animal. We were hunter gathers for a much long period than we have been farmers and city dwellers. Our instinct to avoid dangerous animals developed over thousands of years is hardwired in us. We know our response as fear. And we had every right to be afraid of lions, bears, tigers, crocodiles, sharks and other larger predators. They indeed did eat members of our species.
What Steve Irwin did was provide a surrogate action hero figure who, on our behalf, confronted these fear head on. He did so with passion, humor, and innocent diamond in the rough charm. He was an Auker with no fancy pretensions. When Irwin wrestled a crocodile he was doing what instinctively we all wished we could do but deep down knew we could never stand our ground the way Steve did. He overcame the fear that told us to run away. Steve didn’t run. The fact that Irwin could fight that fight against predators that have killed members of our species for thousands of years was hugely satisfying. Steve’s victory was our victory; we celebrated with him.
When Steve Irwin was killed in freakish way by a wild animal it was as if our ancestral memory for fear was replaced by our ancestral memory of grief. A sadness borne from he knowledge when Steve Irwin confronted our deepest fears of dangerous animals, we drew strength, power and hope from those encounters. His death brought home the inevitability of his dying in a wild animal encounter. We mourned his passing feeling that it provided a lesson: after one too many encounters with a predator even those most powerful hero can get unlucky. And the hero has to be unlucky only once.
Steve’s luck ran out and when it did those 500 million people find themselves orphaned until such time as someone else comes along and faces a crocodile eyeball-to-eyeball and wrestles him to the ground.