When Terri Irwin married TV ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Steve, she knew that any day could be their last together. But 12 years after he was killed by a stingray while filming, she still finds it difficult to move on. She tells Judith Woods about the one thing that’s helped…
Somewhere, languishing in a filing cabinet of an Australian police station, there is footage of Steve Irwin’s death 12 years ago. The film captures the terrible moment the internationally renowned Aussie naturalist and TV personality known as The Crocodile Hunter was attacked by a stingray. He was filming a documentary series named, with awful irony, Ocean’s Deadliest. His shock, the blood and the distress is all there.
‘After Steve died, 100 million viewers watched a video of his death that was released on YouTube,’ says his 54-year-old widow Terri. ‘That film was a complete fabrication exploiting people’s sadness. I have never watched the real footage. Why would I? I know how my husband died and I was relieved that the children weren’t on the boat as they usually would be; it would have been horrendous if they had witnessed it.’
The irrepressible showman and moptop father to Bindi, then aged eight and Robert, two, was 44 years old. When Bindi stood up and spoke at his televised memorial service a few weeks later, to a global audience of 300 million, her grief and courage broke hearts. ‘I didn’t suggest it and nobody coerced her,’ says Terri, who is herself a naturalist. ‘Bindi wanted to tell the world how she felt because that gave her a tiny bit of control in a situation where she had none. And don’t forget –she is her father’s daughter; she was a born communicator.’
Steve’s boots are impossible to fill, but Terri – who is single and hasn’t even dated since her husband died – has resolved to place her own stamp on the work he initiated, however tough that can be. ‘Sometimes I will be standing up giving a lecture on crocodiles and suddenly I’ll think, “This should be Steve up here,” and the tears will come. When I lost him I went into emotional freefall; he was my husband, my soulmate, my sounding board. Above all, he was my happy ever after. In the weeks that followed Steve’s death, I remember catching sight of someone in the mirror who looked so frightened. It was me.’
‘I kept Steve’s clothes in the cupboard for years,’ she adds. ‘But a breakthrough came when another widow reassured me that you never get over your loss. Weirdly, that was a relief, because I stopped waking up every morning and wondering if this would be the day when it wouldn’t hurt. That sadness is the flipside of love and I feel blessed to have had Steve in my life. I wouldn’t change a second of our time together.’ American-born Terri is a strikingly attractive woman: blonde and lean, dressed in her trademark khakis. ‘Maybe I will find love again, but I’m not looking for it,’ she says. ‘I think it’s a case of “never say never”, and I admire people who can move on and have another partner after a bereavement. That’s a beautiful, brilliant thing. I don’t know where my personal journey will lead me but I have learnt to love and accept the person staring back at me in the mirror and that’s a really good feeling.’
Steve had been filming offshore near the Great Barrier Reef with a crew. On the day he lost his life, Terri and the children – who usually travelled everywhere with him – had flown to Tasmania because there wasn’t room on the boat for them. After interacting amicably with the ray, he left the water, then returned for one final shot. Apparently confused this time by Steve’s shadow, the creature panicked and repeatedly stabbed him with its barb, fatally piercing his heart, all while the camera was running. The police examined the footage as part of their routine investigation into Steve’s death and, as far as Terri is aware, it is still in storage.
Since his death, she has continued Steve’s work in conservation, education and research, building on and expanding Australia Zoo in Queensland, which they ran together, spearheading a push to preserve the critically endangered Sumatran tiger and carrying on with Steve’s Wildlife Warriors conservation foundation.
Terri says it was hugely fortunate that she and Steve had drawn up a ten-year business plan before he was killed, so she had a sense of direction – professionally at least. She’s a tremendously open woman, a trait she says she only acquired during her marriage to a man for whom the term carpe diem could have been invented. ‘Steve didn’t drink or smoke,’ she recalls. ‘He didn’t need to because he was high on life. Being with him was exhilarating and exhausting. I learned to say “yes” to every suggestion – which was usually along the lines of “I’m going off to film sharks for a week then hang out and explore for a couple more. Are you coming? We’re leaving in an hour.” I would immediately have to abandon all my meetings and go to pack clothes for the kids and me. It was insane but such an adventure. We did everything together.’
Steve was well aware of the dangers of his job. ‘He was convinced he wouldn’t have a long life,’ says Terri. ‘Not in a morbid way but he knew that the nature of his work placed him at risk – although he insisted that nothing would happen while we were together so we were rarely apart. If we, his family, had been on board that day would things have turned out differently? I could drive myself insane going over that so I don’t.’
Terri met Steve in 1991 when she was touring Australia and visiting wildlife rehabilitation facilities. Theirs was a classic coup de foudre and they married the next year. Steve was at the helm of Australia Zoo, which his parents had founded on a few acres surrounded by orchards and farms.
In the intervening years, Steve and Terri bought the land around it. Now the site covers 1,000 acres, 106 of which are open to the public, and employs more than 500 members of staff. Bindi, now 20, lives in one of the former farmhouses while Terri and Robert share the family home with their pug Daisy.
Terri says with a rueful smile: ‘Steve would be pleased that at least he wasn’t killed by a crocodile. It would have undone all his efforts to change public perceptions about them.’ It was his passion for the reptiles that led to worldwide fame. ‘Steve was childlike in his sense of wonder,’ recalls Terri. ‘It was infectious and made him very watchable on TV. When we did our first documentary, the TV company explained that wildlife programmes were supposed to be 80 per cent about animals and 20 per cent about the presenter, yet Steve was in every shot of The Crocodile Hunter [his hit TV show began in 1996, running for eight series]. We assured them if they broadcast it, people would watch. And they did.’
To say Steve became an Australian icon would be an understatement; not even Kylie Minogue has a national day dedicated to her. Steve Irwin Day is on 15 November (the birthday of his giant Galapagos tortoise Harriet). And the end of this month sees the Animal Planet channel launch a new series, Crikey! It’s the Irwins. The ‘Crikey!’ of the title is a homage to Steve’s catchphrase, an old-fashioned expression that captured the essence of the overgrown man-cub who made it his life’s mission to make us respect and care about crocs.
The new show follows the family as they care for their 1,200 zoo animals and rescue, rehabilitate and release sick and injured koalas, kangaroos, platypuses and possums at their state-of-the-art wildlife hospital. Robert will be seen ‘wrangling’ crocodiles at his father’s famous and, slightly crazy, Crocoseum, which showcases the zoo’s leathery stars.
Legacy can be a heavy burden for the next generation to bear but Bindi and Robert were raised in their father’s image. Home-schooled, they were immersed in every aspect of zoo life, from genetic research to big cat behaviour. Steve was once forced to apologise after feeding raw chicken to a huge crocodile while cradling his infant son in his arms. But the outcome was to inspire Robert to work with them. And Bindi also paralleled her father’s television career with her own show Bindi, The Jungle Girl.
Terri came in for criticism for, at best, allowing her daughter to stay in the spotlight and, at worst, pushing her. Nothing could be further from the truth, she says. Both Bindi and Robert shared their father’s passion. Bindi specialises in treating injured wildlife at the hospital and is a vocal advocate of encouraging girls and young women to study science. Robert, now 14, is completing his education online through a distance learning programme when he is not hanging out with the crocodiles. Terri’s pride in the pair is palpable.
‘Doing this new TV series is a way of focusing on how this new generation is tackling conservation and keeping alive that crucial connection between humans and the world we live in. If we care about a species or an environment, we are more likely to look after it,’ she says.
he style of presentation is informal, gimmicky and bears no comparison to the grave tone of, say, Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet. Some are a bit sniffy about it but Terri insists there is room for both genres. ‘How could anyone fail to adore Sir David?’ she says. ‘He is a genius. But we’ve seen him in his younger days interacting with silverback gorillas. Steve’s mission was to show viewers something they could relate to on a personal level.’ And after his death, Sir David commented, ‘Steve Irwin spent a lot of his time and money in nature protection and calling people’s attention to the danger the natural world is in, so all credit to him. He did it in a way that I wouldn’t do, in fact he did it in a way that I couldn’t do. I don’t have his experience in handling crocodiles, and I wouldn’t possibly dream of handling snakes in the way that he did.’
Visions of an Antipodean version of The Durrells, with penguins in the bath and lemurs wrapped round the curtain rails, are wide of the mark. Living in a zoo means every creature has its own habitat and while Terri, like Steve before her, is unapologetically anthropomorphic about many of the animals – talking about them as though they’re people – their wellbeing comes first. ‘When guests pay to take the tigers for a walk, every penny goes towards conservation; the tigers enjoy sniffing new grass and being out. If they don’t want to leave their enclosure they just lie down and we let them be. It’s easy to be critical, harder to offer kindness and support to effect change. Conservation isn’t just about wildlife, it’s about us; if we lose our green spaces, if we taint our drinking water, we are all doomed,’ she says.
‘Children and animals force us to live in the present and look to the future rather than dwelling on the past. Steve is here in spirit watching everything we achieve; at the zoo there’s a huge billboard of him grinning, to remind everyone that what we’re doing is a hugely positive thing.’
Crikey! It’s the Irwins begins on Animal Planet at 8pm on 28 October