The untold truth of Steve Irwin

Crikey! Love him or hate him, an entire generation was introduced to some of the coolest creatures from Down Under by the ever-enthusiastic Steve Irwin. The world knew him as the Crocodile Hunter, but it was the kind of hunting most animal-lovers could get behind. Irwin preached education and conservation, understanding of some of the deadliest creatures in the world, and respect. The world's animals lost one of their biggest cheerleaders to a tragic accident in 2006, but his work is still making a difference. Let's take a look at the man inside the khakis.

There were a few animals he was actually afraid of

Clearly, anyone who sticks his face good and close to an angry croc is a few crayons short of a full box, and that pretty much describes what everyone was thinking whenever they watched Irwin setting off on his adventures. But there were a couple animals Irwin was just terrified of. They must be brutal creatures, right? Sort of.

In one 2001 clip (via Unilad), Irwin's paddling down a river in Zambia when he comes across a group of hippos. According to Terri Irwin's voiceover, groups — and particularly the head male hippo — aren't just dangerous, they're unpredictable. Given that National Geographic says they can weigh up to 4 tons, it's a surprisingly rational, sane move to go the long way around and definitely not try to ride one. More strange is what Irwin admitted to Scientific American in 2001, when asked what animal he just wasn't comfortable with.

"Parrots. Yeah, for some reason parrots have to bite me," he said. "That's their job. I don't know why that is. They've nearly torn my nose off. I've had some really bad parrot bites."

He was working with insanely dangerous animals by age 6

The usual disclaimer is that people shouldn't try things at home unless they're a professional, and Irwin had some serious cred. According to his obituary in The Guardian, he kicked off his snake-handling career in earnest at the tender age of 6, when he was given a 12-foot scrub python as a pet. (All those stories you've heard about Australia might not be so exaggerated after all.)

He named his pet snake Fred, and according to what he told Reptiles Magazine, he'd been catching snakes for a few years by then. "When I was very young, like 4 years of age, I captured my first brown snake by putting my foot on it," he said. "Dad came over and decked me out of the way — it's the second most venomous snake in the world." Of course it was. He was 9 when he jumped on the back of his first crocodile under his father's watchful eye. You might be wondering how watchful that eye actually was, but hey, he made it to adulthood.

He discovered a butt-breathing turtle that bears his name

In 1990, Irwin and his father did what's possibly the coolest father-son bonding activity in the world — they discovered a new species. It's a freshwater snapping turtle aptly called Irwin's turtle, or Elseya irwini, and they found it in an area of Australia called Urannah. According to Urannah's official site, the turtle's a bit of an odd duck. The official, scientific term for it is a cloacal respirator, and in layman's terms, it's a butt-breather. Fortunately, it's also adorable and has a brilliant personality, so we can overlook the fact that it does, in fact, breathe through the butt. 

It's also an example of a species that's not yet listed as endangered but could very well be in the future. Even though there are thousands of individuals still found in their natural habitat, there's a proportionately greater number of adult females compared to males or juveniles. That doesn't bode well for the species, making this little fella a prime example of just how important it is to start conservation work before an animal becomes critically endangered. Fortunately, that's exactly what Queensland's Department of Environment and Heritage Protection is doing.

He refused to go vegetarian

Sure, his methods were controversial sometimes, but you can't argue about whether his heart was in the right place. That's what makes it sort of strange that he outright refused to become a vegetarian. Sounds odd, at a glance, but listen to his reason.

"In no uncertain terms did I research it," he told Scientific American, right before saying it just wasn't feasible. He gave the example of a cow, a cow that would keep him supplied with a belly full of nutritious meat for a month. While the cow was being raised, she could share her little patch of paradise with trees, plants, and other little critters, while the land around her could be home to all kinds of other animals. If he was a vegetarian, he'd need a heck of a lot more land dedicated to only feeding him. "Nothing else can grow there," he adds. "Herein lies our problem. If we level that much land to grow rice and whatever, then no other animal could live there except for some insect pest species. Which is very unfortunate." And … it totally makes sense, so next time you carnivores get into an argument with a vegetarian, Steve Irwin has you covered.

He was bitten plenty but refused to carry antivenom

Irwin says, "He won't bite" several times in the above clip, right before the (non-venomous) python draped over his shoulders goes right ahead and clamps his jaws into some Australian neck meat. It's proof that you should never try to tell an animal — venomous or not — what to do, and Irwin not only asks for a close-up, but apologizes to the petrified-looking host.

You have to assume that's not the first time something like that happened, and given the clip is from 1991, it probably wasn't the last. You'd also have to assume that Irwin would be filming or traveling with a stash of antivenom and probably a dedicated EMT crew. But according to what he told Reptiles Magazine, he never carried any antivenom with him.

Most people would say that's because he was a little crazy. He would say the same thing, but in his own words: "When I grab hold of them, this karma exudes through my fingertips into the animal and they feel a lot more comfortable and I don't get bitten. And I take great pride [that] I don't get envenomated. I don't carry antivenin, never have, never will." Yeah, nuts.

He wrestled a croc that was eating his friend

Irwin had a ton of close calls, but it was Larry King who got him talking about the biggest and scariest. It sounds like an awful horror movie trope of some sort, and Irwin said it involved his best friend of years, Wes, and a massive crocodile named Graham. Graham, he said, had already bitten him once when he and Wes were tasked with shoring up his enclosure during a flood, and Graham was having none of that — mostly because he was sharing the enclosure with another croc named Bindy and their nest.

"Graham snuck up on Wes, grabbed him right by the bottom and just started killing him right in front of me, tore two pieces of meat the size of my fist right out of his bottom … which was kind of lucky, because if it had hit bone, when crocs bite, it hits bone, mate, the bones explodes."

Irwin said he hopped on the croc, grabbed his back leg, and twisted. Graham dropped his friend and they headed right to the hospital, where they got him stitched up and put back together. Oh, and Graham? They almost lost him, too, to food poisoning. You just can't make this stuff up.

His cameraman broke his silence about what really happened

When news of Irwin's death broke in 2006, it was easy to think it was just the internet being the internet and reporting a bit of fake news. While he always seemed insane, he also seemed completely untouchable, and his rapport with animals made his death seem that much more bizarre. There was footage — they were filming a documentary about the Great Barrier Reef when it happened — but that footage was given to Terri Irwin and never broadcast. It was shot by cameraman Justin Lyons, and in 2014 he revealed what happened.

Lyons (via The Telegraph) said they had come across a giant stingray, somewhere around 8 feet across. They were trying to get a shot of the stingray swimming away from Irwin, but it lashed out at him instead. Lyons said he hadn't even realized anything was wrong at first, as he'd been following the stingray with the camera. When he looked back at Irwin there was blood in the water, and that's when they saw the hole in his chest. Reports that he had pulled a barb out — an action that resulted in his death — were wrong, Lyons said, and added that his last words were simply, "I'm dying."

Irwin's father spoke up later, criticizing Lyons (via The Independent) for going public and re-opening old wounds. "For a lot of people trying to get on with their lives without Steve, it wasn't something that helped by any means."

His death really was a freak accident

Irwin spent his entire life working with some of the most dangerous animals in the world, so when he was killed by a stingray, the world's collective response was, "Seriously?" The media called it a freak accident, but just how freaky was it? Well, really freaky. According to Slate, there aren't solid numbers on how many people have actually been killed by stingrays, but estimates range between 17 and 30 incidents worldwide. Not per year; there are 17-30 stingray deaths that have been recorded by humans. (There have probably been a few more deaths, but they aren't tracked well.) The Atlantic says he was the first Australian to have a deadly encounter with a stingray in 60 years, although that maybe makes sense since he spent so much time in nature.

ScienceLine took a look at how dangerous stingrays actually are. The first issue is they're massive, up to 14 feet long and weighing in at a whopping 750 pounds. Yes, they're venomous, but they're usually not hostile. There are around 1,500 stingray-related incidents every year just in the U.S., but most involve discomfort, not death. Still, you should stay away from the 14-foot creature from the deep.

His death may have kicked off a spate of stingray mutilations

News of Irwin's untimely death reached every corner of the world, but it wasn't long before there was some seriously ugly fallout. Only days after his death, Australian authorities were investigating the killing and mutilation of stingrays left on Australia's beaches.

The Guardian reported Irwin's conservation group, Wildlife Warriors, issued a statement saying retribution against stingrays was the last thing he would have wanted. Executive director Michael Hornby said he was "disgusted and disappointed" by the possibility that people were killing stingrays in some sort of misguided revenge effort, and even though there was no concrete proof that's what happened, it seemed pretty evident. Hey, humans? Let's be better than that.

He had a bizarre plan to save endangered animals

Irwin preached conservation and education, and we can all get behind that. When Scientific American asked what he thought about areas of the world — specifically Indonesia — where habitat destruction wasn't going to be stopped anytime soon, he had a solution for that problem, too. He called it time-capsule endangered animals.

Essentially, Irwin wanted to take endangered animal populations out of the wild and put them into zoos. There, they'd be protected from wholesale slaughter (or the slow death that goes along with habitat destruction) while researchers would learn everything they could, set up habitats for them in captivity, and breed them. Then, once habitat destruction, deforestation, and other threats to their survival were reversed, they could be reintroduced to the wild and the species would be rebuilt. That's what a zoo was for, he believed, and he was hugely in favor of zoos taking responsibility for the animals in their particular region. "We have to be educational facilities with the ability to put animals back in the wild when the critical stage is over," he said.

He was very aware Australians saw him as a caricature

Irwin wasn't one to shy away from controversy, but it was the way he did it that some Australians took issue with. According to The Guardian, some of his fellow countrymen viewed his untimely death with the same shock and grief of those who mourned Princess Diana, but some Australians thought Irwin was less of a crusader and more of a stereotype. At the same time he was the embodiment of the world's opinions about Australia — down-to-earth, capable of surviving in the wildest terrain, and a fan of saying words like "crikey" and "g'day" — he was so over the top that some struggled to distance themselves from the stereotype.

He knew it, too. After his death, Australian Broadcasting Corporation quoted him as once saying, "And yet back here in my own country, some people find me a bit embarrassing. … You know, there's this … they kind of cringe, you know. … Is it a cultural cringe? Is it, they actually see a little bit of themselves when they see me, and they find that a little embarrassing?" Well, Australia, which is it?

He helped save a man's life

After Irwin's death in 2006, global media picked up and ran with a slew of tributes. An American diver named Scott Jones has probably the most incredible story, and he told it to The Sydney Morning Herald.

In 2003, Jones was diving off the coast of Mexico with a small group when they were caught in a sea surge. Jones and a fellow diver, Katie Vrooman, were battered against the rocks. Jones clung on in a desperate attempt to survive, and even tried to resuscitate Vrooman, but he failed and was forced to let her body go. After that, he climbed onto the rocks and settled in for the night.

Irwin and his crew were nearby and picked up the distress call. They were filming a documentary but halted production to join in the rescue effort, and it ended up being Irwin himself who found the stranded diver and hit the water to swim out to help him to safety.

"We'd love to go to Australia and tell his wife and kids just what a great man he is," Jones said. "He was a hell of an educator, from kids all the way up to old farts like me. … He was a hero."

He was a supporter of acts like Siegfried and Roy

When Larry King talked to Irwin in 2004, not much time had passed since Siegfried and Roy's famous — or infamous — tiger act went bad. (Roy was bitten in the neck and dragged off stage during a show, as told by the BBC.) Reactions were mixed, with some people wanting to know what the heck you expected, keeping wild animals in that kind of environment and asking them to perform tricks when you snap your fingers.

But Irwin said it was nothing short of tragic, and chimed in with his complete support of acts like theirs. Controversial? Sure is. "They did what not many people can do," he said. "They got tigers into people's hearts."

He added that he didn't take anything away from those who thought wild animals should be left in the wild but personally, he had felt that time had passed. "I believe that the time has come where if we don't get animals into people's hearts, they're going to go extinct. We're running out of time right now."

If anything, he believed controversial acts like Siegfried and Roy didn't go quite far enough, saying it was necessary for people to not only see animals, to get up close and personal to touch them. Even tigers.

He apologized for scaring people, not introducing his baby to a crocodile

Like father, like son … and grandson. In 2004, Irwin managed to send the world into an outright tizzy, the scientific term for the outrage that followed the release of photos of Irwin feeding a crocodile while holding his 1-month-old son in the other arm. According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the incident happened during a show at Irwin's Queensland zoo, and the Queensland police were inundated with complaints. While critics said it was a pretty simple, straightforward thing — that Irwin was an awful parent — he disagreed.

"I'm so sorry that it's got to this, but that's the way it is," he said. While he admitted he may have done things differently if he'd known it was going to escalate to that point, he also said he wasn't sorry about actually doing it. "But I would be considered a bad parent if I didn't teach my children to be crocodile savvy because they live here — they live in crocodile territory."

In other words, he was sorry the world had such a fit about it, but not that it he did it in the first place. Australia's a weird place.

He did some serious work off-camera

With all his over-the-top enthusiasm and stereotypical Australian-isms, it was easy to see Irwin as a showman who was just out to get attention. Even within the wildlife conservation and education community he was hugely polarizing, but what viewers didn't see was the work he did off-camera. That includes things like a partnership with researchers from the University of Queensland, who he helped trap and tag crocodiles so their movements could be monitored. That program has learned some pretty awesome things about crocodiles, the Smithsonian says, like just how far their territories reach, how deep they can dive, and how they actually live in groups with a defined — but complicated — social hierarchy.

In 2004, Irwin and the university launched a new program, awesomely called Crocs in Space. The program outfitted saltwater crocodiles with remote trackers that were monitored from satellites, and we've learned some pretty awesome stuff from these programs Irwin supported and helped fund. Did you know a non-dominant male crocodile will travel hundreds of miles? That they can hold their breath for around seven hours? Or that mama crocs spend months carrying babies in their mouths, then teaching them how to be big-boy and big-girl crocs? They're ridiculously cool animals, and we didn't know any of this before Irwin and his family got involved.

He had a bizarre story about wanting to cut off a finger

When it comes to the Crocodile Hunter, there's one thing everyone wants to know: how often he got hurt and how many appendages he was missing. Irwin spoke to Larry King in 2004, and it wasn't until halfway through the interview he admitted that his collarbone was currently broken and that he was looking a little lopsided because of it. He said even though he had an almost magical ability to communicate with animals he did get hurt quite a bit, then told a strange story about breaking a finger while catching crocodiles to outfit them with trackers. His finger snapped at the knuckle, and he said he just wanted to cut it off.

"But my daughter said, 'Oh please, Daddy.' I said, 'No, it would be great, Bindy. We'll have a little pet Daddy finger.'"

There's something inherently weird and creepy about that idea. You have to wonder how serious he was.

He was raised in a family of conservationists

Irwin's love of animals — particularly the creepy-crawly variety — isn't as unlikely as it seems when you look at his parents. He told Reptiles Magazine his love for wildlife started with his herpetologist father, Bob, and his mother, Lyn, who was a wildlife rehabilitator. Irwin spent his entire life around animals, and in 1970 the family founded the Beerwah Reptile Park. (That later grew into Irwin's legacy, Australia Zoo.) At the same time his mother was teaching him about rehabilitation techniques and introducing animals back into the wild, his father was teaching him to jump on crocodiles. Wonder how that went over with Mum.

When the family founded the Beerwah Reptile Park, they also started working with the East Coast Crocodile Management Program, according to Britannica's Advocacy for Animals. The goal was to capture crocodiles that had gotten too close to populated areas and relocate them somewhere that was safer for everyone involved. Irwin regularly went out with his father on catch-and-release missions. By the 1980s, he was doing it on his own, so Mum must have been pretty cool with the idea. Cool Mum!

He condemned the idea of 'sustainable use' as conservation

The idea of sustainable use conservation is one that's championed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and it's basically promoting the idea of a balance between using various wildlife species and ensuring their survival. Irwin had pretty strong feelings on just how bad this idea was, and condemned it when Scientific American asked him about his feelings on the possibility of a sustainable ivory trade in Zimbabwe.

The theory was that villagers would be more likely to protect elephants if they were allowed to harvest their ivory in a way that didn't destroy the entire population. Irwin called it "the greatest propaganda in wildlife conservation at the moment," claiming it had been started and promoted by people who wanted to make easy money off animals in a way that would make them look like the good guys. Harvested products like big cat skins, crocodile skins, and ivory are products mankind just doesn't need to survive, he said, meaning there's no real reason to kill for them.

"We've already got cows, chickens, turkey, ducks, sheep," he said. "We've already got domestic animals, we don't need to kill and eat our wildlife or wear it. I will die fighting sustainable use because I believe it's propaganda, and I'd like to see it stopped."

There's an official Steve Irwin Day

Steve Irwin Day is November 15, a date Terri Irwin says was chosen because of its importance for their Australia Zoo. When Huffington Post Australia reported on the inception of Steve Irwin Day in 2016, they noted it would be held on the birthday of one of the zoo's longtime (and favorite) residents, a Galapagos tortoise named Harriet. She lived to be 175, and Terri Irwin said the choice was made "In honor of their special relationship and making sure Steve Irwin Day is all about wildlife and wild places."

The biggest and baddest of Steve Irwin Day celebrations comes, of course, at the family's Australia Zoo, with things like feeding the crocs, a big breakfast, live music, and quite a number of "conservation conversations." If you're wondering if there's anything you can do to observe Irwin's special day, there is: Khaki It! They say wearing Irwin's trademark khakis can open a conversation about conservation and wildlife, and that's the legacy he would have wanted.

He was an honorary professor

Professor Croc Hunter? Call us crazy, but we'd totally take that class. In 2007, Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported Terri Irwin had accepted an honorary professorship on her late husband's behalf. The posthumous award was given by the University of Queensland, and most tragic of all, Irwin died before he even found out the university he'd done so much work with had decided to make him a professor.

The position was in recognition for not only the conservation work Irwin spent most of his life doing, but his partnership with the university in its project to tag and track adult crocs. Irwin wasn't the only one honored by the university. In 2015, Terri Irwin was also given an honorary doctorate for her continued work in conservation and education (via UQ).

That over-the-top attitude had a very serious purpose

Absolutely no one can talk about Irwin or his work without commenting on the over-the-top insanity that made him famous. It's what makes people love or hate him, and according to what he told Scientific American, that was the idea.

When they asked him what kind of impact his attitude had on his audience, he said, "It excites them, which helps me to educate. I believe that education is all about being excited about something. Seeing passion and enthusiasm helps push an educational message. That's the main aim in our entire lives. … So if we can get people excited about animals, then by crikey, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to save them."

Irwin said he knew people were a lot more likely to become invested in a conservation project when they were emotionally invested in the animals they were supposed to be saving, so he made it a point to share his own crazy, zany enthusiasm. And it worked.