On Sept. 4, while shooting footage for his eight-year-old daughter's television show, Steve Irwin, "The Crocodile Hunter," was killed by a stingray, one of the ocean's most docile and harmless creatures. For whatever reason, none of this news makes sense to me, even weeks later. I understand how Irwin died and I understand why it was such a big news story. What I don't understand is how Mother Nature's sense of humor is dark enough for a punch line of this timbre.
When I was a little younger, I would turn on Animal Planet and admire Steve Irwin. Clad in his signature khaki short-shorts and matching shirt, he gallivanted about in search of beasts to wave in front of his camera. He taught me all about the animal kingdom -- humans included. Steve showed me what it looks like to release your fear and explore the world with confidence. He demonstrated a working husband-wife relationship by sharing the lens with his wife Terri. He radiated excitement and passion over the airwaves as the pit stains on his khaki top expanded with every marvelous creature he bested.
But what really made Steve Irwin so great was his ability to understand the peril involved in a situation, share that danger with the audience, and then instantly plunge his body into the danger. The writers of South Park poked fun at Irwin's headfirst attitude by airing his likeness delivering the line, "This croc has enough power in his jaw to rip my head right off... If I get bit out here I'm 200 km from the nearest hospital so I better be real careful when I jam my thumb in his butt hole."
It is impossible to imagine this same man with a 20 cm barb (about the size of a stapler) in his chest. Conversely, I can effortlessly imagine him ripping such a barb from his rib cage in the final moments of his life -- as he did -- his eyes bulging with their usual intensity.
Imagination will become irrelevant if the tape of Irwin's final breaths is released. For now, the only footage sits in a police safe in Brisbane. Those close to Irwin are intent on keeping the tape private or even destroying it. But isn't sharing such an intimate moment with the television-watching public the perfect final episode to a life spent on camera? The Crocodile Hunter was a man who wanted to teach the world a thing or two about animals. Witnessing his death would be the ultimate reminder of Mother Nature's superiority and dominance over human understanding.
I fear that Steve Irwin's purpose and his consequence have been lost in his death. Reports have surfaced that in recent weeks, an unusual number of stingray carcasses have washed up on the beaches of Queensland. Scores of Irwin's followers became furious after the 3,000 tickets to his memorial service sold out in 15 minutes. Some writers have even likened the impact of Irwin's death on the Australian people to that of Princess Diana on the Brits.
I accept that everyone mourns in his or her own way, but we can't let our emotions cloud our concept of the man we're trying to remember. Wasn't Steve really just someone who made us laugh with his absurdity, not a world leader or prophet? After all, even the creators of South Park did not have to stretch the truth too far to poke fun at Irwin.
Steve Irwin once said, "Fear helps me from making mistakes, but I make a lot of mistakes." However, I don't think Irwin's death was a mistake. Our world is such that circumstances frequently align to make life into one joke. If Irwin's death is just a punch line in a cosmic stand-up routine, at least we should allow ourselves a sense of humor and not forget the one-drink minimum.