Last Thursday we made our long awaited visit to Steve and Terri Irwin’s Australia Zoo…the inside of the zoo that is. You may remember that we spent some quality time in the parking lot in September. We had promised Kieran he would see koalas and after many fruitless attempts to find them in the wild, including a visit to Gunnedah, “the koala capital of Australia,” we knew the zoo would finally deliver. In truth, we hoped for much more. Prior to the Croc Hunter’s death on September 5th, the Irwins had declared that their goal was to make their Australia Zoo “the world’s premier zoological destination.” We weren’t sure what that meant, but since we have been to many zoos including the famed San Diego Zoo, we knew it would take a lot to impress us. What we found was very different than what we had expected.
The park is relatively small and intimate as far as zoos go. The focus is Australian animals but has expanded in recent years to include Asian elephants and tigers. We had no interest in these extra-contnental critters so after the snake, bird, and croc shows we headed right for the native displays. We fawned over the wombats, pet the kangaroos, and at long last cuddled the koalas. (It turns out kangaroos are softer!) We were fascinated by the story of Harriet, the Galapagos tortoise who passed away just a few months ago. She was originally captured by Charles Darwin…yes, the Charles Darwin…in 1835 and had been in residence at the zoo since 1987. She died at the ripe old age of 176. Our other favorites were the cassowaries, freakishly dangerous birds that build huge mounds of debris as their nests, and the Komodo dragons. Tom and I have seen both of these in the wild, but it was the kids’ first time experiencing both.
The vibe of the zoo was pleasant but weird. Everywhere we looked there were images of Steve–Toyota ads, billboards, cardboard cutouts, programs, tickets. Film clips of his antics were interspersed throughout the shows. One of his old trucks sat out as a prop for kids to play on. The gifts shop was selling a line of surfwear tragically branded “Steve Lives” as well as action figures bearing his countenance. Despite these constant reminders, there was no official allusion to his passing. The impromptu memorials that sat outside the zoo in the weeks after his death had been tucked away in a secluded hallway under the Crocoseum. It was almost as if the staff hadn’t figured out how to respond to his absence and as such were just going on as if nothing had happened.
After our day at the Australia Zoo, it was evident that the Irwins are what bring it to life. It is not just a place that houses exotic animals; it is the realization of a lifelong dream to instill in people a love of wildlife and a desire to fight for its conservation. I suspect that in the coming years Terri and little Bindi will find a way to continue Steve’s work and ensure his spirit pervades the zoo. It may still become the world’s premier zoological destination, but as I ambled through the old croc pools that still form the heart of the park, I couldn’t help but wish I had visited ten years earlier when the zoo was just an isolated reptile park and Steve was a zany young bloke hosting the daily croc shows. Every now and then you are charmed to find such an undiscovered treasure. We’ll let you know the next time we do.