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A Close Encounter with the Crocodile Hunter

Posted on 09 August 2009

The most adventurous thing the majority of people do at work is gather around the water cooler to talk about “Survivor.” But for Steve Irwin, it’s “trapping and rescuing crocodiles on my own in the rivers of North Queensland with only a net and my dog.” That’s certainly not your typical day at the office.

Irwin, who hosts Animal Planet’s popular series “The Crocodile Hunter,” took a break from catching crocs and promoting his first feature film, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, to tell us what it’s like to go face-to-face with some of nature’s most fearsome creatures and what inspired him to do it in the first place.

M: How did you get into your current career?

Steve Irwin: My dad was a recognized herpetologist and my mum was a wildlife rehabilitator. I had no choice but to follow in their footsteps.

While other kids had pet dogs and cats, I grew up with crocodiles, snakes and lizards. I guess I not only learned a lot about wildlife from my dad, but I developed a sort of sixth sense about animals.

M: What was your first job?

SI: My first job was at the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park when I was 8. I used to help my dad look after the animals and keep the enclosures clean.

M: What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve done on the job?

SI: One time I crawled on my belly onto a sandbar in the middle of the Luangwa River in Africa and waited a few feet beside a hippo carcass for some crocodiles to appear and feed. Within a few hours, I was surrounded by more than a hundred thrashing crocodiles fighting over the food. Any one of them could have changed their focus from the hippo and taken me out in a second.

M: You once captured a 14-foot-long saltwater crocodile weighing more than 1,300 pounds. How’d you do it?

SI: I catch all crocodiles with a soft-mesh trap that’s much more dangerous for the rescuer but much more gentle on the animal.

I spend days, even months, studying the movements of the crocodile I have to rescue, watching his every move, formulating the best position to put my trap and then — bingo! Once I have him, it’s a matter of securing him into my boat and transferring him to a wooden box for safe transportation to a relocation area.

M: What kind of animals have you rescued?

SI: Crikey! I’ve rescued just about every kind of animal there is in Australia: kangaroos, koalas, snakes, birds, frogs, lizards and, of course, crocodiles. I don’t think there’s any species I haven’t helped.

M: What, exactly, does “crikey” mean?

SI: Crikey means “wow” or “gee whiz.” It’s a word my grandfather used and my father after him. It’s a good way of expressing surprise, and it’s not a bad word.

M: You’ve been bitten on the arm by a python and on the hand by an alligator, rolled by a crocodile, and spit in the eye by a red spitting cobra. What has been the most painful encounter?

SI: I’ve taken a few hard knocks on my shoulder from capturing crocodiles over the years and was busted up pretty badly to the point where I’ve had a couple reconstruction operations. Also, my knee has taken a hammering, and I’ve had a couple of cartilage operations as well. That’s part of the job, I guess.

I’ve probably taken a few hundred bites, if not thousands, in my time, but I’ve never been envenomed by a venomous snake. I take great pride in that.

M: Do you ever get nervous when confronting a deadly animal?

SI: They say I’ve got nerves of steel, mate. There’s no time to be nervous in my line of work.

M: Have you ever been in a situation that made you wish you were sitting quietly at home instead?

SI: I was put on this Earth as a wildlife warrior — to bring attention to wildlife habitat conservation and, by crikey, the world’s listening. I’d never get my message out if I were sitting at home.

M: What’s the best advice you could give to someone looking to get into your field?

SI: Be passionate about whatever you do. If you’re passionate and enthusiastic for any career you choose, you’ve got a better chance of succeeding and leading a very happy life.

Crocs rule.

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