- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

Steve Irwin's exploits while pursuing and extolling the wildlife of his native Queensland, Australia, are staples of the Animal Planet cable channel, a subsidiary of the Bethesda-based Discovery Channel. His show's title, "The Crocodile Hunter," is also the title of his first movie feature, which opens today.

"He's really good in the bush," observes Terri Irwin, complimenting her husband and professional sidekick of 10 years, who is known to tens of millions of television viewers around the world as the show's titular zookeeper and wildlife explorer.

Married in 1992 following a whirlwind courtship, Steve and Terri Irwin are conversing at a suite in the Ritz-Carlton hotel during a promotional tour for the film, subtitled "Collision Course," a clue to the fictionalized subplot.

The topic of conversation has drifted to Mr. Irwin's divergent levels of assurance when 1) exploring the wild or 2) occupying a home or hotel suite.

"Ask him where the elevator is," his wife teases, "and he'll be lost. When I was setting up a new computer back home, he tripped over one of the leads every time he walked into the room. I suggested he pretend it's a venomous snake.

"He'll ask me where the toothbrush is when it's right in front of his face, but he can spot snakes or crocodiles 300 yards away. It's weird. Drop him in a strange pine forest, and he'll find his way out easily."

The thought of him making short work of the "Blair Witch" forest begins to tickle the imagination. Mr. Irwin himself ups the ante: "You could drop me nude in the Congo basin, and I'd be just fine," he proclaims.

A moment of silence intervenes before Mrs. Irwin asks, "Why nude?" Someone else speculates, "Will that be your next movie?"

"We don't have to do movies," reflects the irrepressible wildlife handler, whose exuberance in his familiar TV habitats loses nothing when you meet him face-to-face. "I'm not a Hollywood actor, and we've got a really good career going in documentary films. The episodes from our three TV series are still in circulation, and we've got several new projects in the works. We'll soon do a TV special about rescuing elephants in Sumatra. We've bought a large parcel of land in Tasmania for a new park.

"I think we're at the pinnacle in getting out our conservation message. It's really rubbing off. Whatever happens with the movie, we'll do what we've gotta do. We're wildlife warriors, through and through. That's why we're here."

Mr. Irwin is just warming up for an impassioned explanation of why his hands-on approach to wildlife documentary differs from the traditional long-range approaches.

"My job is to get energy and passion for wildlife into hundreds of millions of people around the world," he says. "For so long, we've been sitting back on the long lens, looking at animals from 300 meters away. I'm sick of seeing the cheetah make the same kill on the same poor wildebeest. So I say, 'Come on, camera, come with me. Let's get over there. Let's challenge that cheetah for that wildebeest.'"

Mr. Irwin believes he came by his affinity for snakes, crocodiles, lizards, marsupials and other members of the animal world more or less naturally. He is the son of self-made naturalists Bob Irwin and the late Lyn Irwin. He took to the family trade at a very tender age.

"It happened in 1962, when I was born," Mr. Irwin says. "I totally revered my dad. For me, he was the greatest legend on the face of the earth. I just wanted to be him, from the time I was this big. I just watched him, this giant of a man, always larger than life. All I ever wanted to do was be my dad."

Bob Irwin worked as a plumber in Melbourne, Australia, but aspired to devote his life to wildlife study and conservation. Herpetology was his specialty. Lyn Irwin took a special interest in marsupials. According to their son, "She was a worldwide pioneer in raising orphaned marsupials, the little joey kangaroos, and koala bears. She designed the formulas and techniques, like the surrogate pouches, what temperatures to keep the babies at.

"This mutual passion for wildlife engulfed my parents. They bought four acres up on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland in the the 1960s, and by 1970, they opened the gates on what was called Beerwah Reptile Park. It was getting pretty big by the 1980s, and the name had changed to Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park. Terri and I took it over in 1992, and my mum and dad went into semiretirement still active in conservation, but not in operating the zoo."

Terri Irwin was born Terri Raines in Eugene, Ore., in the late 1960s. Her father owned a construction and trucking business. He frequently brought home animals who had been injured on the highway. The youngest of three daughters, the future Mrs. Irwin grew up tending to a menagerie, as did Steve Irwin and his two sisters in Australia.

Eventually, she established a rehabilitation facility called Cougar Country and moonlighted at an emergency veterinary hospital. A working holiday in Australia in 1991 took her to the Irwin domain as part of a tour of wildlife parks.

"It was a smaller zoo then," she recalls. "The entrance was very unobtrusive. I thought I'd probably see a few pitiful little animals. But once inside, it was spectacular. Beautiful gardens, happy animals, kangaroos hopping around, birds that weren't in cages. Then I heard the voice of this guy doing a crocodile demonstration. I was amazed to hear him talk about all the fabulous aspects of these creatures.

"He had these great stories about rescuing crocodiles, catching them by hand in the bush. I thought, this guy's like an action hero, but for real. I gathered he was single, but married or not, I was kind of sweet on him at first sight. So I hung around after the demonstration and said hello. We got to talking, and he asked if I wanted to meet his girlfriend, Sue. I kind of reluctantly agreed. He let out a call. Here comes this little brindle dog named Sui. I decided, 'This is the guy for me.'"

The couple were married about four months after that beguiling encounter. They have a 4-year-old daughter named Brindi Sue, who accompanies them on most expeditions, including the movie tour. She has 218 flights under her belt, as a matter of fact. Mr. Irwin will not risk taking his wife and daughter to some climes, particularly those teeming with malaria.

The Irwin TV inventory consists of 52 episodes of "The Crocodile Hunter," 52 segments of a children's series titled "Croc Files, 26 installments of "The Crocodile Hunter Diaries" and a number of periodic one-hour specials.

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