Dear lord, why not Paul Hogan?

Or Yahoo Serious, for that matter?

I was raised never to speak ill of the dead. Unfortunately that lesson, like so many others, didn’t really stick. So I thought I’d take a moment to reflect upon the early passing of Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin. I realize this is neither a China nor, strictly speaking, a PR story. But I do scuba dive a lot –and in some particularly risky circumstances– and I am always interested in situations where people meet a nasty end while in the ocean. I am also interested in how Irwin’s death is being described in the media.

I was never a big Crocodile Hunter fan. I am a product of the Marlin Perkins era; an age of more restrained approaches to nature documentaries. (Ironically, Perkins’ show, The Wild Kingdom, was sponsored by Mutual of Omaha, an insurance company. Perhaps they were onto something.) Irwin’s shtick, on the other hand, seemed to consist of a lot of molesting of animals and insightful commentary along the lines of, “Wow, look at that [insert dangerous wild creature here]! He’s a whopper! Crikey! I’m just gonna grab his tail. If he gets those fangs into me, I’m a goner. Look at that! You’re alright, fella, you’re alright.”

It’s like knowledge pouring into my head. If they’d known I’d someday be able to get that kind of information from the Discovery Channel, my parents probably wouldn’t have bothered spending all that money on my biology degree.

My personal disregard for Irwin’s pedagogical style aside, any early death is a tragedy. Irwin leaves behind a young daughter and a toddler son who will only ever know his father through reruns (and who, you may recall, was once dangled perilously close to the snapping jaws of death in what, after his execrable “movie”, was Irwins’ biggest PR blunder). But my real interest in Irwin’s demise isn’t the circumstances per se, although they are somewhat unusual. Rather, it is that Irwin’s passing is being described as shocking, both by a random sample of Australians interviewed by CNN yesterday (indeed, the headline on the CNN web video story is “Australians Shocked“) and, most notably by Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, who said…

…he was “shocked and distressed at Steve Irwin’s sudden, untimely and freakish death,” according to AP. “It’s a huge loss to Australia.”

Untimely, yes. Shocking or freakish? No.

Well, maybe it’s statistically freakish. From reports last night, I gather that there are approximately three confirmed stingray deaths in Australia since World War II. But it’s still not shocking. If Steve Irwin had died leading a hostage rescue mission on a plane full of tourists being held at gunpoint at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, or in a botched stage dive during a drag revue in Zagreb, that would have been shocking. Being killed by a wild animal was, well, predictable. Just like Roy Horn being mauled by a white tiger and Layne Staley dying of a drug overdose were predictable (my brother, gifted with a sense for such things, once described the then still performing Staley as, “clinging to life by his fingertips”). As Time noted of Irwin:

He leapt fearlessly on to the backs of man-eating crocodiles, wrestled Komodo Dragons and deftly juggled snakes as they sought to plunge their venomous fangs into his arm or face, all the while keeping up a lively commentary for the cameras of his multimillion-dollar documentary operation. Scratched, bitten and bruised, he would display his wounds like trophies, casually using gaffer tape to bind up a severe bite from a large saltwater crocodile that he had been wrestling in a mangrove swamp.

Yep, sounds like a man who stood a much higher chance of being killed by a wild animal than by, say, a Pushtun militia during a botched heroin deal on the Khyber Pass. Admittedly the animal involved was a bit of a surprise, but to be killed by a large stingray is not beyond the pale in the way that being killed by a hummingbird or a tree shrew might be. Big stingrays can be two meters across and have tail spines like those nasty, cheap serrated steak knives. The ocean is strange and wonderful, if slightly dangerous. Almost everything in it is pointy, venomous or both. In Southeast Asia people are periodically impaled by pointy, leaping trumpetfish or longtoms. That’s life. Or death, as the case might be.

In fact, it’s not unusual for adventurers to be killed while adventuring. And, presumably, the rush of cheating death, or at least pushing the limits, is part of the motivation. Cave diver Sheck Exley died while trying to set a scuba depth record. Climber George Mallory died while trying to summit Everest (or Qomolongma if you’re not into colonial names). Test pilot Scott Crossfield died in an air crash. And the Crocodile Hunter died screwing with wild animals. He did, as they say, know the risks. And it’s a good bet his insurance company did too.

So, RIP, Steve Irwin. I’m sure generations of children will see you in reruns. Unless, of course, the world simply shifts its attention to Austin Stevens, Jeff Corwin or the dangrously named “Shark Gordon”.

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