Steve Irwin Schadenfreude

On Friday Google posted a Doodle in honour of what would have been Steve Irwin’s 57th birthday. PETA, the Westboro Baptist Church of animal rights, decided to use this opportunity to take a swipe at Irwin (who died in 2006) on Twitter. The usual backlash and fulminations ensued.

Irwin’s legacy is complicated. He did a lot of real conservation work behind the scenes, but his brash, loud animal wrangling made conservationists uncomfortable: he operated at an uneasy intersection of conservation, education and showmanship, and lots of people felt he emphasized the last one too much.

Immediately after he died in September 2006, those people took shots at him and his work, suggesting that getting killed was a kind of karmic revenge. In response, I wrote a blog post that I’m reprinting below. Unless you were following me 12½ years ago, you probably haven’t seen it. Given the recent flareup, I think it might be worth another airing.

The worldwide reaction to Steve Irwin’s death has been swift, strong and usually sympathetic, but it’s inevitable that some people are insufficiently socialized that they cannot help but take a shot at the recently departed and the circumstances of his death.

Jason Calacanis says that the Discovery Channel killed him because of its focus on televising risky encounters with wildlife; Germaine Greer says that the stingray attack was the animal world extracting its revenge. The sentiment behind these posts occurs elsewhere, and can be distilled into one of two arguments: Steve Irwin was an irresponsible thrill seeker; Steve Irwin was a cruel tormentor of animals. Either way, it’s poetic justice—in other words, he got what was coming to him—and the commentariat, whether in the op-ed pages or on the blogosphere, thrives on poetic justice the way it revels in Schadenfreude.

My response to those espousing these arguments is simple: You have no idea what you’re talking about.

If you have no experience with these particular animals, you don’t know what excessive risk or abuse entails. Horses kill more people in a week than stingrays have in recorded human history. If someone dies after being thrown from a horse, do we hold the spurs and riding crop against him? Should he have known better than to jump on the back of a large and dangerous animal? Of course not—but that’s because most of us have at least passing familiarity with horsemongering.

I can’t speak to other animals, but the dirty secret of snake wrangling is that it is in fact a lot easier than it looks. Snakes’ behaviour is relatively predictable and, with experience, you can tell whether the little ripper is cranky or not. Venomous snakes are profoundly dangerous, but easy enough that idiots can keep them for several years before their first (and sometimes last) accident. Even handling non-venomous snakes—the kind I work with—looks a lot more impressive to the general public than it actually is. Sometimes what looks risky is a piece of cake, and the challenge is to make it look less dull and more interesting.

The short version: what looks risky frequently isn’t.

The charge that Irwin was tormenting animals is more serious, and much harder to refute, simply because the logic behind it is tautological. Disturbing animals in their habitat is inherently abusive to Greer, for example:

What Irwin never seemed to understand was that animals need space. The one lesson any conservationist must labour to drive home is that habitat loss is the principal cause of species loss. There was no habitat, no matter how fragile or finely balanced, that Irwin hesitated to barge into, trumpeting his wonder and amazement to the skies. There was not an animal he was not prepared to manhandle. Every creature he brandished at the camera was in distress. Every snake badgered by Irwin was at a huge disadvantage, with only a single possible reaction to its terrifying situation, which was to strike.

This is the attitude behind old-school nature documentaries, the David Attenborough sort, that makes wildlife a religion and birdwatching the only appropriate means of worship: silent, contemplative, Anglican and upper-class. Steve Irwin, on the other hand, was a loud, brash and enthusiastic ocker—and worse than that, he was a prole intruding on a gentleman’s turf.

What Greer does not understand is that protecting habitat is not enough. What makes the rockets go up? Funding. What protects habitat? Public support. Habitat gets paved, plowed, logged and drained on a regular basis: each new subdivision destroys nesting grounds for scores of species, and no one notices any difference. Nobody gives a rat’s ass about protecting endangered species unless they’re exotic and safely far away on another continent: save the African Lion, but destroy the Eastern Indigo Snake’s habitat—there’s a mall to be built.

Irwin made the public enthusiastic about species that previously drew nothing but bounties. The idea that crocodiles, snakes, sharks and other nasties might be worth saving would be a hard sell without him; in his wake, we have millions of young people whose enthusiasm for such things will have to be taken into account. Shark conservation is on the world’s agenda. Crocodile farming in northern Australia was blocked thanks to Irwin’s intervention. And I’ve never seen so many people with positive attitudes towards snakes before. They may not love them, they may not want them as pets, but they certainly don’t want to see them killed any more.

Keeping the public away from wildlife—keeping it off-limits—is the patrician’s response to wildlife conservation; engaging the popular imagination is beneath them. But an army of Steve Irwin disciples might be the best hope for many threatened species.

As for the animals themselves, the ones being “badgered” by Irwin, most of them have faced far worse things in their existence than a hyperactive man-child with a film crew. Nature red in tooth and claw; it’s no paradise. (I’ve seen too many scarred and wounded snakes to think otherwise.) Besides, I often thought that the animals Steve-o was playing with looked a little too pristine and tame for wild specimens. If they were tame captives planted for film purposes, I didn’t mind. Either way, they’re ambassadors for their species, and if the price of wildlife conservation is that a handful of individual animals have to endure being played with (not abused) for our amusement, then that price is a bargain.

Besides, one thing that Irwin made abundantly clear was what was running through the animal’s mind. (“HE DOESN’T KNOW WE’RE TRYING TO HELP,” he would shout in voice-over, explaining the crocodile’s terror as he and his crew try to restrain him.) Animals had their own motivations, which he explained and respected; they had every right to be naughty little rippers. But he did not put them on pedestals, or make them into totemic objects for a 19th-century nature cult.

Greer and her ilk would make the appreciation of wildlife as refined as a Bach cantata: ethereal, sublime—and ignored by virtually everyone. Irwin made it matter.

First posted on September 6, 2006. Featured image: Google.