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Crikey! They Finally Got the Stevester!

One down..........

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, September 06, 2006.

Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter on various television programs, has been killed in action, as it were, by a sting ray. It was quick, apparently, and caught on video which, no doubt, will be hawked sooner than later on the web. He was young, 44, and had a wife and very young kids, and I’m sorry for their loss. Irwin was a bundle of energy, and he put his money where his ecological mouth was – no small issue – and many a child and adult alike were drafted into ecological awareness because of Steve Irwin. Hail to him.

But he drove me batty. I thought what little I could stand of his videos so contrived and stupid that like many others I kept hoping for the alligator or shark or barracuda or Venus flytrap to snap shut on him about the shoulders just to remove his presence from my life. I felt bad about this. Irwin was such an obviously enthusiastic and good hearted soul that you couldn’t help but wish him well. Just somewhere else. He reminded me of professional comedians in that he never seemed to turn off; he always wanted your favorable reaction. It was exhausting.

Irwin was not the first, merely the most successful of the type since Osa and Martin Johnson started filming themselves interacting with animals in exotic places. And the places were not only exotic to most Americans, but unimaginable, and never before seen back in the 1920’s. Martin Johnson had traveled the South Pacific for years as Jack London’s photographer, and it is fair to say he picked up dramatic and narrative expertise from that master. With motion pictures, Osa and Martin were regulars in theaters as introductory short films to the main events. For Americans to see Africa and its incredible array of animals through the often condescending eyes of the Johnsons was such a earth shattering visualization built upon Tarzan tales and Joseph Conrad stories, and being the first pilots to fly over Mt. Kilimanjaro, that entire generations of children never entirely recovered. Americans received their indoctrination into the earth’s variations from the lenses of the native Kansans Martin and Osa Johnson. It could have been worse.

The Johnsons were frequent frauds, though. They casually introduced alien plants to Africa, and they would stir up inoffensive animals to get some action for the cameras, apparently including fights. They may have been the first, but they were by no means the worst, and both deceptions remain today.

The Walt Disney Company, in a film narrated by Winston Hibbler in the 1950’s, fabricated the lemmings suicidal march off the cliff into the sea. Lemmings don’t actually do that, it’s a myth, and Disney was guilty of fraud.

The late Marlin Perkins was not given to that sort of thing, but he was a crashing bore on Wild Kingdom, and you eventually understood that animals are like us: couch potatoes not given to exertion to no known point. On the other hand, animals don’t break into our homes very often, poke us and slap us and then point to indicate our spouse did it to get us fighting for the cameras. Nor do they hold us by the scruff of the neck and emote for the ages into the camera about us, as if we weren’t there. It’s entirely one way.

And despite all the correct introductions about some animal he was holding in his hand – a poisonous snake, a huge hairy spider, a foaming Tasmanian Devil – Irwin would inevitably be forced to shriek “isn’t he beautiful?” as the creature eyed him with the sort of gaze normally associated with death dealing hangovers or serial murderers working up inspiration. If looks alone could kill, Irwin would have been dead a decade ago.

While watching Irwin displaying an animal to the world with his hyperventilating delivery, I was often reminded of the languid and dignified British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. Balfour once said "I am more or less happy when being praised, not very comfortable when being abused, but I have moments of uneasiness when being explained." I see Balfour in many of the creature’s eyes Irwin presented to us by his hand or restraints.

I find it irresistible to compare Irwin to Timothy Treadwell, a true nutcase who wanted to be a specialized Irwin but dedicated solely to the Grizzly Bear. Treadwell wanted to be a star, no question, he wanted the fame and fortune and thought he’d get it through his work with the bears. The problem was, nobody is quite sure what that work was, whether it helped or hurt, whether it informed or just served as a saddle to ride into our living rooms. Irwin was an actual scientist, was schooled, and knew what he was about – everything Treadwell was not. But there remain irritating similarities.

Irwin’s influence was so great he has many imitators on the tube to this day, who are generally far less informative and far more annoying in their stupid presentations. The question is, do we learn more from robotic cameras operated in safety or from ADD victims dropping into every shot? It’s supposed to be all about the animals, isn’t it?