We've all seen him on television, the crazy Australian who, with all the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old boy, catches crocodiles and venomous snakes with his bare hands-the Aussie who tackles kangaroos and wild boars and lets the deadliest snakes in the world tongue-flick his face. Together with his American wife, Terri, Steve Irwin, better known as The Crocodile Hunter, has created one of the most popular shows on television.
I first corresponded with Steve in late 1995, before The Crocodile Hunter series had reached America. I knew him as a fellow varanid enthusiast who had bred rare Australian monitors. It wasn't until I visited his wildlife park, now called Australia Zoo, in 1996 that I learned of his enthusiasm and of the show. He gave me a tape of the first episode to watch and in hysterical disbelief I simply asked, "When will we see this in the States?"
The show aired a year later in America and it was a tremendous success. Since that time, we have worked together on rattlesnake episodes of the show and we still correspond about all things non-human. While herping Australia's east coast in December of 1998, I caught up with Steve at Australia Zoo. I taped the following interview to introduce Reptiles' readers to the Steve I know:
Steve and Terri Irwin pose with Jeff Lemm and a large white-throated monitor (Varanus albigularis) in San Diego, California.
Jeff Lemm (JL): Tell me about your mother and father, how Australia Zoo started, and what life was like growing up in a zoo.
Steve Irwin (SI): Well, my dad (Bob Irwin) is quite a globally recognized herpetologist who has since retired. He still keeps a really fond interest in wildlife in general, and he's got taipans and four species of goannas and all types of stuff in his backyard in the wild. During the '60s, he had a huge interest in conservation and wildlife which was shared by my mum (Lyn Irwin). Coming into the late '60s, he started developing on that. He had a very successful plumbing business in Melbourne and his interest in wildlife grew to be an overwhelming passion. And mum was really big on rehabilitation with native species back into the wild, so by 1970 they bought this block of land and built the Beerwah Reptile Park, which was 40 cents for adults and 20 cents for kids. And it just grew and grew from a menagerie that we had where I was born in Upper Fern Tree Gully up in the Dendenong Ranges, to the Beerwah Reptile Park which became the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park, which is now Australia Zoo. Mum's forte was rehabilitation with wildlife, always has been, always will be, from koalas and wombats to tiger snakes. And Dad was ahead of his time in herpetology here in Australia in conservation and designed some brilliant conservation techniques and strategies which are in place both federally and statewide, as well. He's ahead of his time. I've always been involved in it, and ever since I can remember, I've been out in the scrub with Dad catching and looking at wildlife.
As an example, when I was very young, like 4 years of age, I captured my first brown snake by putting my foot on it. Dad came over and decked me out of the way-it's the second most venomous snake in the world. So he's like, "Get off it!" and I'm like, "I got it, Dad, I got it!" (laughs). By 9, he had me jumpin' my first croc, a freshwater croc. "Whack!" I jumped it, and I was barely able to hang onto it. But the strength of Dad's arm come up and pulled me and the croc into the boat.
So that's where it started. I have had an exceptional hands-on experience with native Australian wildlife from the womb. Mate, from when I could walk I've been in the Australian bush. Nowadays, it's still goin'. Nothing's changed except now I'm touring throughout the world doing what I've always loved doing-getting in close to wildlife. I've taken Mum and Dad's strategy of conservation through education, and I've taken the next step through our wildlife documentaries and through setting up Australia Zoo. We eat, sleep and live for education for conservation. And with our wildlife documentaries, all we want to do is get the cameras right fair smack in where it's happening. We want to get you in there. Same with Australia Zoo. You come to Australia Zoo and you will have an experience of wildlife rather than "look over there, there's a crocodile," or "there's a koala."
JL: What other interests did you have as a child? Everybody knows you were the total animal kid, but what else did you do? Tell me anything you did.
SI: I surfed. I was the maddest surfer. I still am very passionate about my surfing, although now I get very little time to surf. But there's no doubt about it that wildlife has been my total life.
JL: Did you play any sports?
SI: Yeah, mate, I played football.
JL: Australian Rules, no doubt.
SI: No, mate, I played Rugby League. I played a little bit of Australian Rules, but I wasn't that good at it. I wasn't real good at kickin'; I was better at chargin' into a big mob of people and bustin' 'em up.
JL: (laughs) That's the way it should be.
JL: Okay, you talked about the park and what you're doing here. But how about fieldwork and breeding? I know you've bred keithhornei (the canopy goanna), and it was the first ever breeding. What type of fieldwork and breeding would you want to be known for?
SI: My scientific background has been rather focused on varanids, but we're stemming out a lot further than that. Australia Zoo will always have a big interest in varanids and we'll do our best, and we are currently involved in some rather large varanid projects like semiremex (the rusty monitor) and giganteus (perentie). They're two huge projects that have been going on for quite a few years and will probably go on for the next 10 years or more. We're starting to wind down on our keithhornei project. We've been very successful there. Myself and my staff, particularly Wes Mannion, who's my right-hand man and has been my best friend virtually all of my life. He's now the director of the zoo, and he's an ugly bastard.
JL: He smells horrible, too!
SI: No doubt about that! (Both laugh, because Wes is in the room.) Back to it, though, we're working on Oxyuranus microlepidotus (the fierce snake), and we're also really heavily involved with the woma (Aspidites ramsayi). There's a Brigelow Belt population of woma which is really endangered here in Queensland, and is only found in Queensland. Wes and I have been studying this woma since we were kids, and we're getting there. We're making some major breakthroughs.
JL: Breakthroughs in that you're producing these animals in captivity?
SI: No, we're talking fieldwork-strictly fieldwork. We're doing more with captive varanids than with any other family. We've now got a huge interest in working with Brachylophus (Fijian iguanas). Myself and Terri, we went to an island in Fiji and discovered another population of iguanas that were once thought to be there.
JL: In Monoriki?
SI: Yeah. They're there all right, and they're very endangered, so we're working on that, too.
JL: Speaking of Terri, tell us how you met and how she's influenced you and the park through her mammal background, because I know you were strictly a herper before Terri came along!
SI: (laughs) You got the inside story, mate! Back in 1991, I was cruising along, heavily involved in the East Coast Crocodile Management Program. My entire life revolved around the conservation of crocodiles. I was in the field with my dog (Sui), backed by Wes and my dad, catching, removing and releasing large "problem" crocodiles that people wanted dead. We live for our crocodile conservation and are very passionate about it and so we were doing this really heavy work, and I was up there for a couple of months on end. So anyway, I came back here and I was doing a crocodile demonstration (at the park) with one of my favorite crocodiles, "Agro," a really naughty croc who hates my guts and wants me dead. So I'm in there and "Whack!" he takes this pig or chicken, or whatever it was out of my hand. I jump back and go, "Whoa! Isn't he beautiful?" and I looked over and here's this Sheila in the crowd, mate, and I swear I just went "Whew, happy day!" She's in the crowd! And our eyes met, and it was like a connection. It was a total connection-there and then-with first contact of our eyes. And I could feel myself drifting into this haze, and I look down and here's Agro coming up to kill my a$@ and I was like "s*&#!" So, I jump out of the way and think, "I'd better get out!" I jumped out and "Blah, blah, blah," finished my demonstration, just staring at this girl. She comes over and starts talking to me and asks me these tough, politically hot conservation and wildlife questions. Given her background with Cougar Country, she owned a big wildlife rehabilitation center in Oregon, I must have answered them right, cause I made her smile a lot and we talked for hours and hours. I thought, "This is my kind of girl!"
I couldn't believe it. I wasn't interested in girls. Man, all I wanted to do was do my crocs and herps. Girls? Who cares? She was pretty well the same. She was into cougars, bears, raccoons and possums and stuff. It was love at first sight. But she had to go. She went down to Byron Bay, but rang up in a couple of days, and I was like "Come up here, come up here!" So she came up and spent a few days here, and I got her rakin' and cleanin' out croc pens and got her right in amongst it. She was at one with reptiles from the first two seconds she landed in this paddock, mate. It was great, but then she left to go back home to Oregon, and within a couple of months I was over in Oregon, and then a few months later we were married.
JL: That quick, huh? Wow. Okay, how has she influenced the park? I've seen some changes since I've known you.
SI: We got married in 1992, and I was strictly herp. Mammals were really good reptile food (laughs). Terri walked in on the scene, Mum and Dad had retired, and from the moment she came along we had a major swing towards mammals. And that hasn't stopped. We're still punching ahead rather rapidly with mammals. No, Jeff, I'm not using them for goanna and crocodile food (laughs). We've actually enhanced our mammal exhibits a thousand-fold. We're big on koalas and other native mammals, and its going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.
JL: She may be used to it now, I don't know, but how does Terri react to your risky handling skills.
SI: Uh-huh (laughing). Well it started out that she was nervous, yet willing. And pretty soon it worked out that she wanted to be involved. It wasn't a matter of me asking her to be involved or not be involved. She was passionate about being involved. So we never had a conflict of interest about the danger that my work involves, because she is in it.
As a prime example, we're conducting research on the fierce snake (inland taipan) which Wes and I had been doing for many, many years in conjunction with Bob, my dad. We took Terri out there and on the way out there she says, "When are you going to let me do venomous snakes?" I said, "Well, you know sweetheart, you'd have to prove to me that you're at one with snakes, because we tail 'em and the only way you can do that is to have a total passion about the animal, become at one with it in the first 30 seconds or you're going to get bitten. And our snakes are quick, they're some of the quickest on the face of the Earth, and they're certainly the most venomous. A lot of times they think you're going to kill them. So you have to demonstrate to me that you'd be able to be at one with let's say a slower venomous snake like a tiger snake, and then we'll work our way up. But let's start with non-venomous." So, she was like, "Yeah, I'm happy with that."
We get out onto the blacksoil plains in the guts of Australia, and the (camera) crew is along and "Bang!" there's this fierce snake! I run up to it, and Terri's there and her eyes are as big as dinner plates, and I don't know what happened to me, Jeff, I just had a mental blackout. I'm going, "Okay, Ter, you get it!" And she's like, "Ahh!"
So, here's this steamer fierce snake, as thick as three fingers, it's a bloody good one, over 5 foot, and it was 30 degrees Celsius, pretty early in the morning. She's seen me do it a thousand times, so she has a catch bag and she's going to grab it by the tail, and it turns on her. She goes to grab again, and it turns on her. Half a kilometer later, this snake's starting to go, "Are you going to grab me or what!" (laughs) The snake's starting, "I've had enough of you following me," which in fact was beautiful 'cause the snake got to understanding in that 10 minutes of her trying to get it that "this thing doesn't mean to kill me." Which was beautiful, it worked in well with the snake, and then it's goin', "Right O', I'm gonna start looking for a hole to go into, you know, back into my labyrinth." And Terri's goin', "What am I doin' wrong? What am I doin' wrong?"
"You're just too flaming scared!" I said.
"Oh!" So she just walked up to it, grabbed it by the tail, and put it in the catch bag, swoosh, straight in. Just like a professional. So she's totally involved with what we do. When it comes to really hardcore dangerous work, like some of the crocodile work, she doesn't have to stand back and wait for the moment to hit. She does it instinctively. And she's very good at listening. So when we come in on something and I'm a little apprehensive and say "Get back!" she's back. When I go, she goes. And I think that's beautiful because the rest of our 20-odd staff we've got here can see her and Wes and go "This is how we work. When he says go, we go." Because if they don't go, I die. And so it's a very important gut reaction to make. She's good at it, mate, she's the best in the world.
JL: I believe you, I've seen her in action. She's a heck of a lady. Perhaps the question people want to hear most, in my experience anyway, is how did the "Crocodile Hunter" series get started and what was the reaction of the general public to the show?
SI: In 1992, just after we got married, we thought, "Right, well let's have a honeymoon." So we zip back to Australia where I get a phone call from north Queensland saying "We've got these problem crocodiles, is there any chance you can come up and remove them?" I'm going, "Oh no, the honeymoon. Well, Terri?" And she's goin', "Yeah, well, I'm keen."
And a real good friend of mine which I've been working with for a long time, John Stainton (he owns the Best Picture Show Company, which is one of the biggest commercial producers in Australia), he said, "Look, if you ever do any more crocodile work, I'd like to be in on it." I'd shown him these hours of home video of me catching crocs in the years gone by.
So we're on our honeymoon, and he goes up and films it with this film crew. I'm like, "Holy smokes, it's pretty hard to have a honeymoon." That was our first two documentaries, catching these crocodiles. They showed in Australia and Canada and hit real well, and then over in America it hit like a ton of bricks! By the time it had shown in America (1997) we were already in full production. Making documentaries every spare moment we could. And once they hit the U.S., they hit like a bomb-it has just totally gone ballistic. Now we spend about a third of our time in the U.S. working on docos, working with U.S. wildlife. But by the same token, in the last three months I've been playin' with headhunters in Irian Jaya, I've been to a couple different countries in Africa doing Nile crocs and black mambas, and I just got back from Oregon in the U.S. getting a shoulder reconstruction (laughs). So it's all over the paddock! So that's how we started; the first two docos was our honeymoon.
JL: Okay, well here's a question that you probably hear all the time, the favorite question of the interviewer: How has stardom changed your life?
SI: It hasn't. It hasn't changed my life one iota. You know I'm not a movie star, I do television documentaries.
JL: You sure (jokingly)?
SI: Walk around and get a thousand different opinions, please. Honestly, it hasn't changed me at all. What you see on television I've been doin' since I was a boy. My earliest childhood memories, as far back as my tiny little memory can go, I've been doin' this stuff, still am. So as far as the adventures are concerned, nothing's changed. As far as the stardom and how big my head's gotten, or how big my ego's gotten, I'd like to think I haven't changed one iota. What it (television) has done is it's given me a stepping stone to get to some other countries and really wild destinations throughout this world, which perhaps I would have had to struggle to get to. Through wildlife documentaries, now I'm able to go to Africa right smack into the Nile crocodile territory in a canoe and get attacked by hippos! Just what I've always wanted to do (grinning)!
So that's how it's changed my life, and I'll tell you what, I'm lovin' it! Imagine how proud myself, Terri, our families, our staff, our colleagues are to see how well our shows are doing in the U.S. When you look at television or any media in this world, the U.S. is the biggest, it is the greatest phenomena in media on the face of this Earth, and it brings us the greatest amount of pride and honor to work over there and have people come up and get our autograph-want to have our photo taken and all that kind of stuff.
We're not movie stars, we're wildlife documentary people, so we can see that our wildlife message is now going to over 130 different countries across the world. We've got a viewership of over 500 million people! Whew! Talk about pride! Here is the greatest conservation message the world can see. It's going everywhere! What's our life revolve around? Wildlife. And so conservation of wildlife, that is our gift to this world. I don't care what anyone says, man, it's one word-habitat. And we can see how we're helping to save habitat, and we are lovin' it!
Regular Reptiles writer Jeff Lemm conducted the following interview while in Australia during December 1998. Part 1 appeared on the Web site last week; look for it in the Library section if you missed it.
Jeff Lemm (JL): America loves your [television] show, Steve. I've known you for awhile now, and I also know a number of other herpers around the world. I'm on the Internet, I talk to a lot of people and everyone's talking about Steve Irwin.
Now, most Americans think that Aussie herpers have a pretty crazy way of doing things, maybe because we don't work with the same kind of animals and aren't aware of the easiest ways to handle animals such as elapids, for example. Things here are different, and the animals are different. So Americans naturally think you're not careful and that you do some pretty crazy things. For these people, have you ever been severely injured or envenomated by a reptile or other animal?
Steve Irwin (SI): Never. As a testimonial to how crazy Australians are, you're right, we are. But I would like to add to that, Jeff, if I could. What people see me doing, predominantly with venomous snakes, I hope they would never try. My apprenticeship has been 36 years. The gift that I've got I share with one other person, Wes Mannion, my definite right-hand man. The gift that we got was Bob Irwin. He was out in front of his time, mate. He showed us how to do it. We now possess a force that has taken us a long time to get. He never trusted us until we could prove to him that we could do it. And it is becoming at one with an animal. When you go in on a venomous snake, the first time you touch it, it thinks you're going to kill it. Now it goes into predator/prey mode, of course. It's loaded. I encounter some of the worst snakes in the world, but I'm tailing them, handling them freehand. And it's because pretty soon the snake understands that I don't mean to kill it. And this might sound really weird, everyone calls it "the force." You've seen it happen, mate. 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 in telling you, the world, REPTILES magazine, everyone, I don't get envenomated. I don't carry antivenin, never have, never will.
JL: What would happen if your dad found out you were bitten?
SI: I tell you what, I would sooner die of a taipan bite then tell my dad that I got bitten by a taipan. Because my nose would bleed from his kicking my a$@. I still live in fear of this man, and I love him more than anyone else.
JL: Okay, a second part to my previous question: I hear all the time about Steve Irwin, how crazy he is and how he's going to get hurt. Why do you get so close to the animals in your films? I've seen you stick your face right up next to venomous snakes, and get right in with big crocs.
SI: The easiest way for me to answer this is to point out the obvious. A lot of people who work with wildlife work with wildlife to satisfy their own egos. And I don't really agree with that. What Terri and I do is we get in nice and close to the animal to make the animal look good.
My aim in this world is to make that brown snake, that crocodile, that koala, that red-backed spider, that black widow, look good. That's my job. I have absolutely no problem with my ego or my staff's ego. The first rule you learn when you come into Australia Zoo, when you enter into this family unit, is you leave your ego at the back door. And that is the only way we can work, because our job is to make the animal look good. I believe that the technique that we have, as a filming unit, as Steve and Terri Irwin, as the Croc Hunter, is to get that camera right fair smack into the action. And it works.
Typically speaking, there are only a small percentage of people who would watch wildlife documentaries because they're filmed on a long lens, on a tripod, at a distance. Well, we have made some of the greatest documentaries in the world because we get ourselves and the camera involved, because we want to make the audience feel what we feel. We've gotta have the sensation of the fierce snake's tongue coming out! You know, that's what ya gotta do, if you can't feel, hear, see and smell this animal, then you can't interest people, and you can't conserve that animal.
As an example, the other day I was reading this very upsetting letter which was bagging people who do whale watching. This man was going on about "Stop harassing the whales, whale watching is wrong." And it near makes me cry, it makes me so upset. I wish he could focus his passion and aggression towards the real enemy-whale hunting, whale killing-which is happening this very second in Australia's great Southern Ocean. If it weren't for whale watching, if people couldn't see the whales through the camera or on a boat, then the whales would have been extinct a long time ago. And that is what we've gotta go for. So, I applaud this man's enthusiasm and aggression in (not) harassing whales, but we need to focus that aggression on people who are killing them. So Terri and I are a little bit sick of sittin' on the fence. We wanna get you involved in wildlife-that's what we do.
JL: So, by getting so close are you also trying to show that these animals don't want to harm people, that they don't attack people?
JL: Okay, so when you're doing this would you agree that you put in a little showmanship? Also, going into my next question, since the first "Crocodile Hunter" episode, you've become more noticeably animated. You're more hyper, more excited. I know the truth, but for those who think you're an actor, is that something you're doing on your own or are the producers trying to get you to do more of that because people like to see you being excitable or spastic on television?
SI: Great question, mate. You know better than anyone, I am Steve Irwin. What you see is what you get. Whether it's here at this interview or tomorrow down in the voiceover, or last week when I was in Africa, I am Steve Irwin-here he is, this is what he looks like, this is how enthusiastic he is, he doesn't change for anyone. And, as a man who's met and worked with our film crew, you'd have to agree that our director/producer Johnny Stainton sits back and lets it happen. He doesn't say anything. It's a beautiful way to work.
Wes Mannion: Here's an interesting point to make if people are saying he's acting different than what he was when he started. They have to realize that in the beginning he'd never been on camera before. And when you first get a camera shoved in your face, until you can work it out and become yourself, it's a long time in between. When that camera gets stuck in my face, I clam up and don't say a thing. So it's taken a long time for Steve to be himself. I saw you (Jeff Lemm) change dramatically when that camera was in here a few minutes ago (taping for an upcoming show about Australia Zoo). That wasn't the bloke I know. But now that there's no camera here, you're acting like your normal self.
JL: (Laughing) Thanks, Wes. I thought I was getting good at it. But it's true, with the work we've done on camera, it's very difficult to be yourself. Especially when they get right up on you.
SI: It's true, we've got a series of cameramen, everywhere I go, they go. How's this? They filmed Terri givin' birth.
Wes Mannion: We've even got one (a camera) in the bowl of the toilet!
SI: (Laughing wildly) There's no camera in the bowl of the toilet! But Wes hit the nail on the head in good words, and if you don't mind I'd like to spew 'em back up to ya. That is, now I'm a little more at ease with the camera and I've learned "Don't change! Just be Steve Irwin, you'll be cool!" It's the way to go.
JL: Another question that I seem to hear people ask all the time is "How much of the show is staged?" Are any sequences staged, or are any tame animals used?
SI: Very little. Some of our shows are done in zoological facilities and that part is all very obvious. But when we're out in the wild, quite often it takes us months and months to locate the target animal, and sometimes we have to put up with not finding the target animal. (Smiles) For example, I spent a lot of my time looking for sidewinders and I never got 'em. And that really hurt my feelings. But myself and an expert on sidewinders spent a long time...
JL: (Laughing, because he is the referred-to sidewinder expert.) Easy, easy! I brought you out in the prime month!
SI: (With a large grin) And ya know, the weather conditions can never be that good. But we made do with what we found in the sidewinder location. And it's good television and they're beautiful animals. So we missed the sidewinders, but we got a lot of other good species and I had a really good adventure, which makes up for everything. So rarely, if ever, do we go into captivity. Our documentaries are about goin' into the wild-and what you see is what you get.
JL: More family stuff. Congratulations on your new daughter! Tell us about how you chose her name, and how she's affected your job and your behavior.
SI: Well, just four months ago the most exciting time of my entire life took place. My wife gave birth-there was a camera in there I might add, I have a bloody camera crew following me wherever I go, but there is no poo-cam in the toilet!
Anyways, Terri's givin' birth with her fingernails firmly embedded in my thigh, and this little baby pops out-I actually delivered her. Her little head came out, and our obstetrician said, "Grab it!" So I'm grabbin' it, and I'm like "Oh, my God!" and he says, "No, really, grab it!" and puts his hands around mine and made me really grab the head of this newborn child. I pulled it out, and its shoulder got caught, and I had to pull it up and "Bang!" out she came, this beautiful little baby girl.
I put it on Terri's chest and out of the blue I went, "Sweetheart, what do you think about Bindi?" And Terri responds by goin', "Bindi Sue!" So it was Bindi Sue Irwin. It stuck. Bindi is aboriginal for "young girl," but most importantly, Bindi is one of our favorite female crocodiles. She's full of gutso and personality. "Sue," that's her second name, and that's after Sui, my dog. And Irwin, our family name. Bindi Sue Irwin-after a croc, my dog and our family name. We didn't want to know what gender the little baby was going to be, we wanted to keep the excitement there and it was beautiful. And so, four months later down the track I'd have to say as far as changing my lifestyle, it hasn't altered mine a great deal except for that I'm a very doting, very proud, very prejudiced father. If I look at her for any more than two minutes I start to cry. She's so beautiful. I mean she's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. It has changed Terri's life a lot. Now I'm doing these wildlife films on my own. And it's a real bummer because everything in our world is 50/50, me and Terri. But she's a very good mum. And so the last three or four wildlife films I've done I've been in very remote areas, so it's put a lot of pressure on Terri to just let the documentary thing slide and just let me do it. I don't have as much fun doing it, but pretty soon Bindi will be able to handle some of the vaccinations for Malaria or yellow fever, or whatever, and we'll be able to travel together as a family unit and all three of us will be on the wildlife documentaries. I'm pretty sure of that. It's the same with poor little Sui. I'd like to have Sui involved every step of the way but she can't go to other countries. So Bindi has changed my life a lot in that I really miss them when I'm on a wildlife shoot. Man, I could cry about it right now 'cause they're in America and I've only been back for two days, and I totally miss them.
JL: How about when you're in with the crocs or tailing a taipan...
SI: No, mate, nothing's changed. I just came back from Africa tailing black mambas, green mambas in the trees. "Woo hoo!" I never thought I'd get to see the day when I was in a tree with a green mamba! Good stuff!
JL: Since I was here last (1996) and since your show became a huge hit, I've seen the park expanding. What is the future or what do you want the future of Australia Zoo to be?
SI: People cruise around this world thinking that Terri and I are millionaires. I love that! It's a stigma that's attached to anyone that's on television. First, I've got to say that every single cent that we have earned, that we are earning, that we will earn, will go into Australia Zoo and the conservation of wildlife in this world. As an example, Australia Zoo just purchased 325 acres of prime koala habitat. And that is the new strategy of this zoo. It's that before we get koalas, we are going to secure the most important conservation thing in this world, and that is habitat. So we went out, we bought a block of land that has a diminishing colony of koalas on it, we planted 40,000 koala food trees. We are rejuvenating it back to its natural state so as this colony of koalas will flourish and get back to a very natural level. So we did that and now we've got koalas here, which are utilized to promote education about koalas, eucalyptus forest destruction and habitat destruction. And so until the day we die we probably won't have a great personal wealth, but by crikey, there's gonna be some great habitat and some beautiful conservation taking place.
JL: What about here on site? What are you going to do with all the land you just purchased next to the zoo? Is it going to be strictly Australia or are you going to move into the "big zoo" realm?
SI: Globally there is a new zoo strategy. It's called regional awareness. Our region is Australasia, which incorporates Southeast Asia Pacifica, and so we believe in it, this regional zoo approach. So we will be expanding into a regional approach to our wildlife. Currently we are going on like a bull at a gate, enhancing our native Australian mammalian species and bird species, 'cause we've already got one heck of a reptile exhibit-Australian reptile exhibit with some exotics. Soon we will be expanding into Southeast Asian or Asiatic species so we can best represent our region
JL: Are we talking elephants here?
SI: We're talkin' Indonesian elephants, man. I've just come back from Sumatra, and I'm not just gonna do elephants, I'm gonna go fair smack into Sumatra, into Way Kanbas (now so excited he's stuttering). Man, I've just come back from there, Jeff. I'm ridin' the elephants, I'm seein' with my own eyes the habitat destruction. I'm in there with the loggers, I'm catchin' wild elephants out of a crop of corn, I'm smellin' it. I'm in there talkin' to the villagers who just got rampaged by "Gladiator" the bull elephant who killed eight people, I'm feelin' it! Cameras have been in there, so do you wanna talk elephants? You wanna talk elephants with me, man? I've just come back from elephantsville! The Sumatran elephant is a subspecies of the Asiatic elephant, yeah? They're smaller, they've got more pink pigmentation on their head and ears, and so that is the elephant I'm gonna do. But what I'm gonna do, the Australia Zoo strategy, is I'm going to find out some way that I can help secure a piece of habitat that we can rejuvenate back to its natural state in Indonesia, in Sumatra, and then we'll take on the Indonesian elephant.
JL: Sounds great. We are seeing a lot more overseas topics on the show now. Is this going to continue? Are you going to come back to Australia? What do you want the future of the show to be?
SI: You know, Jeff, unfortunately I can't give you a direct answer to that because... Well, let me put it to you this way. I've got 15 brand new shows ready to go right now. They'll be seen in the next 12 months. Then I've already started work on a half-dozen more. I can't tell you where I'm gonna go, I can't tell you where I'm gonna be. Here I am at the moment with a big chunk out of my shoulder (from shoulder surgery), but I guarantee you that if big great whites (sharks) start mobbin' around our humpback whales, I'm gonna stick a chunk of Goretex in this thing and I'll be divin' with great white sharks tomorrow! Let's say the gaboon vipers start movin' in Cameroon-you'll see me in Africa next week. If there's wildlife happenin' somewhere and my heart takes me there, we're there. If you see our docos (documentaries), you'll see that we go when it's happenin', and it must drive people nuts! There's no rhyme or reason-it's because we're wildlife people, and the only way to do wildlife is when it's happenin'.
JL: So with all the traveling, you're working on animals you've never worked with. How difficult is it trying to handle animals you've never even seen in the wild before? For instance, the rattlesnakes-they're completely different from what you've ever worked with.
SI: I don't know, man, I just seem to take it all in stride. I'm really lucky that I've got a gift to go from an emu, to an orangutan, to an Indonesian elephant. Then "Bang!" over to Irian Jaya to do cus-cus and tree kangaroos, then "Whamo!" over to Africa to do mambas and crocodiles. Don't know, mate, just take it in my stride. But one thing that I do ensure is before I touch ground on the next adventure that I'm goin' on, I have literally read and researched every little thing that I can cram in during awake hours-I've gotta sleep sometime, unfortunately.
I'm also able to tap into people such as yourself and access hardcore factual information about what I'm up against before I get there. The rest is easy because I'm at one with most animals. I'm just lucky, you know, because before I could walk and talk I was in the same pouch as joey kangaroos. My mum had 12 joey kangaroos the same time I was born! But we've got some good research centers, as well, in other zoological facilities, the net, and I've got three libraries.
JL: I'm throwing this question in because I've been asked it so many times. As you know, Americans are really into Australian herps. Do you have any plans to do as many shows in Australia as you do everywhere else?
SI: Yep! Recently I haven't been spending a lot of time in Australia. I am Australian. I am the proudest Australian you are ever gonna run into-guaranteed. And I can't promise you anything except one thing: When I travel Australia, what I see you'll see. If it's a pygmy python or a tawny frogmouth and I see it and we can get our cameras out quick enough, you'll see it. My encounters are yours.
JL: Finally, what's your favorite herp?
SI: Favorite herp? Salties (saltwater crocodile). Well, do you want my favorite herp, because it's probably not fair to say a saltie is my absolute favorite. I kind of have a favorite in each category.
I'll rattle off my favorites. Salties are my No. 1. I'm pretty passionate about salties. In the venomous category, I have got a real soft spot for fierce snakes (inland taipan). I love them dearly, they are beautiful animals. In nonvenomous snakes, green pythons, Morelia viridis. Of course, out of any lizard, perenties.
JL: Yes, well done. Okay, let's get one for everybody: favorite gecko?
SI: Nephrurus asper (rough knob-tailed gecko).
JL: Favorite frog?
SI: Caerulea (White's tree frog). Mainly because I've got so many of these little beauties right here around the park. I've got one that lives in my yard. It's like "Ruh, ruh, ruh," really nice to try and go to sleep.
JL: Any favorite colubrids?
SI: Yeah, corn snakes. Man I love corn snakes. But for the record, I'm pretty funny with Gilas, too. We found one in Gila Bend (Arizona) in March. It was cold and we were looking for snakes. He was in a rocky outcrop.
JL: Will we see this soon?
SI: Yeah, you'll see it.
JL: Excellent. Well, do you have anything else to add?
SI: Yeah, herps rule!
JL: Oh, so now it's changed from "Croc's Rule!" to "Herps Rule!"
SI: Yeah, well, you know, they're just a big herp. The biggest herp goin'!
But seriously, good luck to everyone and thank you very much (for the interview). It brings me great pride to do an interview with Reptiles Magazine. I've always been a subscriber. I've got the new issue sittin' on my table right now-eyelash vipers!
Hey, mate! I'm not givin' up on those sidewinders-I reckon third time lucky. I'm keen if you are!
JL: No problem. I'm in.
The author would like to thank Steve and Terri Irwin, Wes Mannion and the staff of Australia Zoo for their time, comments and incredible hospitality.