We were in New Zealand when McKane’s friend Noah emailed us that the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, had been killed. At first we thought it must be a joke or a mistake because the cause of death seemed so improbable and the larger than life Irwin had always seemed invincible. Of course Noah was right and we joined the world in a shocked state of mourning. We started watching The Crocodile Hunter with Dax when he was just a baby and have followed Irwin, his wife, Terri, and their two children intermittently over the years. I had planned on a visit to their Australia Zoo in the Sunshine Coast town of Beerbah as a highlight of our time in Australia. It was. We just made the visit earlier than I thought.
Irwin’s loved ones held an internationally televised memorial service for him Wednesday morning at the Crocoseum, an entertainment venue at the Zoo. 3,000 tickets for the public were distributed along the Sunshine Coast last Friday, the day after we arrived hundreds of kilometers to the south in Sydney. We did not have tickets, but I decided I wanted to make the pilgrimage to zoo anyway. Certainly there would be thousands of sympathizers gathered around the site and loudspeakers to broadcast what went on inside. We drove from Coff’s Harbor in northern New South Wales through Brisbane to the small town of Beerbah. I figured there wouldn’t be any vacant hotel rooms, so we geared up for a night of sleeping in the van. People do it for concerts. I did it for a Duke basketball game when I was an undergrad. Why not a memorial service? None of us was thrilled at the prospect (as Dax will tell you in his next post), but I considered it a test of our mettle in preparation for third world sleeping conditions.
We got to the zoo around 9:00 pm. The front parking lot was filled with news trucks and satellites but was eerily quiet. There was one couple taking pictures of the flowers and tributes that lined the front wall, but other than that there was no sign of human activity. We wondered where everybody had gone. Tom had a lot of energy, so instead of parking nearby, he drove toward the coast to look for a hotel. As I slept, he found one. It was too expensive, so he left and proceeded to get lost. When we finally got back to the town, we cruised the local streets looking for a discrete place to park. We finally ended up in a picnic area of a park. Six hours later we roused and drove back to the Zoo. Now it was abuzz with activity: police directing traffic, thousands of mourners (some in suits, many in Irwin’s trademark khaki), and reporters and camera crews interviewing attendees. I was surprised that we were allowed to drive right into the lot even though we didn’t have tickets. No one asked for them. We parked next to the animal hospital and marveled at the ambulatory prowess of an emu with a broken leg and a kangaroo with an abdominal injury. Three people across the aisle were nursing an infant possum and wallaby with doll-sized bottles before leaving them at the hospital for the duration of the service. “They’d die if we left them alone,” they explained.
Sleeping in a van down by the river a la Chris Farley The walls were adorned with thousands of bouquets, posters, and cards
Most of these people had tickets; only a handful showed up like we did Reminders of Irwin are everywhere
I maneuvered my way to the zoo entrance and asked a khaki-clad zoo employee what was going to be happening for those who didn’t have tickets. “Nothing,” he explained. It was hard to believe there wouldn’t be a massive demonstration of support outside the Crocoseum but I accepted the Australian way. We lingered for a while, took a few pictures, and then drove to a nearby town that was broadcasting the service in its cultural center. We joined hundreds of Irwin’s Sunshine Coast neighbors who gathered to watch the service in Caloundra. I’m not sure about the others but I was unable to hold back the tears for most of the broadcast. I watched his widow with her two small children and could only imagine the devastation that lurked beneath her mirrored sunglasses.
Why did this matter so much to me? I’m not an overly sentimental person, just ask my husband. In this instance, however, with this loss, I felt I had to be involved on some level. Steve Irwin, with all his zany Aussie enthusiasm and fearlessness, represented something rare and pure on this all too often jaded planet. Critics dismissed him as goofy and irresponsible, but he was simply “a bloke doing what he loved.” That he recognized his passion and pursued it ceaselessly in an effort to make the world a better place is remarkable. To any cynic who disagrees, I would suggest they measure Irwin’s success not just by the number of animals he saved or acres of forest he planted, but by the sheer volume of smiles and laughter he inspired around the globe. More joy equals good in my book. Good on ya, Steve. We’ll miss you.