05 September 2006

"Crikey, I'm dead." Famous last words.

I suppose we should all have seen it coming. The man was a kind of crazy you just don't see every day. I imagine, he was in his khaki shorts, field shirt, and hiking boots-flippers attached of course- when his end came. The shear improbability of death by stingray perhaps makes up for his generally cavalier attitude, and behavior in the face of many more deadly animals. If you cross the street enough times, given enough time, you will eventually get hit by some vehicle.
But a stingray? Jesus Steevo!
How do I feel about the passing of Steve Irwin, most widely known as the "Crocodile Hunter?" It would be obvious to say that I am sorry he has died. But I wonder if the alligators, crocs, snakes, lizards, turtles, and lets not forget stingrays aren't saying a thankful prayer to whatever gods they worship that he is gone. I've always had mixed feelings about the personality that was the "Crocodile Hunter." He seemed so sincere. I am certain that his reverence for the natural world was genuine. I just don't know how much good he did for it.
I want to think that his show, and his antics were good for wildlife, and conservation, things for which Irwin had an obvious passion. But, for all his obvious enthusiasm, he had no knack for really explaining the natural world. His desire seemed only to be close to these beautiful, wild beasts. In some ways he is a milder version of the Grizzly Man, busily romanticizing nature and ignoring its reality. His show never did much in the way of helping lay viewers understand the unique ecology of the creatures he molested. He was like a guy showing you his pets. There was never very much depth. Just the power of his personality-which lets admit it-was considerable.
It isn't that there is no merit in seeing some of these creatures. It is likely that most of his viewership will never see even half of what he saw. But it could have been so much more in the hands of someone actually trained in ecology, evolution, and wildlife biology.
Steve was just a dude.
Albeit a dude who loved nature.
But there is a danger in what he did I think. His message, unitentional to be sure, was that to enjoy nature, to be a part of nature, was to somehow make physical contact with it, to grab it. Literally. There was never any way for the viewer to see that, often, learning, and careful unobtursive observation was to be just as connected to nature. His wife once said on the show-in voice over as the video showed stevo sitting amid a gaggle of Komodo Dragons- that this was how he became one with nature. What ever the hell that might mean. If it does encourage people to go handle wildlife, even a little bit, it-the show-has been a complete failure as it relates to his conservation ideals. Habituating wildlife to human contact typically ends in twin disasters. Someone gets bitten, killed or otherwise injured, and then an animal is put down. This happened with Timothy Treadwell-another well meaning, but ultimately misguided fellow. He carried romantic notions of nature into the field and got his girlfriend, himself and, ultimately, two bears killed.
At least Stevo's stingray will not pay for his foolishness. Though his family certainly must.
In addition to the strange message he delivered to his viewers, the wild success of his show inspired a sleu of pale imitations. Some insipid thing called "X-Treme Encounters" stands out in my mind. Its heroes were a trio of losers lead by a red-neck who seldom wore a shirt that wasn't missing sleeves. There was no pretense of education here, just a "lets go touch some dangerous animals." I always got the sense that these 2 guys and girl, had almost no clue as to what they were doing. So watching it was much like watching NASCAR or Formula One.
Just the wrecks man, just the wrecks.
Now we have Jeff Corwin. His show is a bit heavier on the evolutionary biology, a bit stronger on the ecological perspective, but he still bugs the shit out of the organisms he wants us to appreciate, and understand.
The Animal Planet mission is just plain wrong. Always presenting the cute, or romantic side of nature is terribly wrong-headed. The world has teeth as Stephen King once said, and it would good if we accepted that fact. That way when it's teeth show, we aren't surprised, and our appreciation of nature isn't diminished.
Addendum: 20 November 2006 As it turns out there were quite a large number of revenge killings of harmless stingrays in retaliation for the death of Steve Irwin.