Steve and Terri Irwin – Big Thinkers

Written by Fran Molloy

Steve Irwin was a boy from Beerwah in Queensland who became a mega-celebrity, world-famous for hamming it up with deadly creatures in front of the cameras as ‘The Crocodile Hunter.’ Behind the Aussie larrikin, Steve Irwin was a serious conservationist – and before his untimely death, he set up a legacy to protect his beloved wildlife long after he was gone. His wife Terri and good mate Barry Lyons spoke exclusively to Fran Molloy about the legacy of the Crocodile Hunter.

For 200 million regular viewers worldwide, Steve Irwin was The Crocodile Hunter, a larrikin khakiclad TV star who wrestled crocodiles into submission every week on The Discovery Channel.

But most fans were unaware that behind the comic croc-wrestling, Steve Irwin had a grand plan. Before he became a mega-celebrity, before The Crocodile Hunter was sold, before Australia Zoo took off, he was channelling every cent he had into purchasing land in ecologically sensitive areas to be set aside to protect his beloved wildlife.

And following his untimely death in 2006, his wife Terri has vowed to protect – and expand - the Crocodile Hunter’s legacy of hundreds of thousands of acres of pristine wildlife, purchased as sanctuary for native animals.

Terri spoke exclusively to thinkbig in late May. She had just returned from an outback trip where she was out of contact for a blissful three days and was headlong into managing the Irwin empire, giving media interviews about the mining threat to the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve in Cape York and running Australia Zoo.

The tiny 1.6 hectare reptile park established by Steve’s parents in the midseventies became Australia Zoo when Steve and Terri took over in 1992. Now, it’s a 28-hectare tourism success story with 550 staff and over 1,000 animals, attracting about a million visitors a year.

Australia Zoo is a private company and so its turnover, profits and asset base are confidential. Recent land purchases adjoining the zoo have expanded the site to an estimated 600 hectares and there are plans to develop much of the land further.

The property holdings alone are worth many millions of dollars and now, the whole outfit is controlled by Terri Irwin.

It’s a formidable empire; and Australia Zoo is run by a tight-knit group of devotees. The general manager is Frank Muscillo, married to Steve’s older sister, Joy Irwin. Wes Mannion, Steve’s best mate, is the director of Australia Zoo and has been with the Irwins since the mid-1980s.

Terri says she is continuing Steve’s dream, with planned improvements to include a lemur-island, orangutan exhibit with treetop walkway and even a recreation of the Florida Everglades, complete with airboats and over a hundred alligators.

“Steve was very driven, passionate about what he wanted to achieve and a larger-than-life force. It was marvelous being able to unleash him to the world through filming the Crocodile Hunter series, it really brought this global message to the masses,” Terri told me.

I must admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect before I spoke to Terri last month. Other media reports had showed a self-possessed woman, media-savvy beyond belief, with an uncanny ability to turn any interview into a PR spruik.

Rumours abound. The Sunday Mail reported that Terri’s staff had leaked plans that the zoo was going to be sold to the Animal Planet entertainment group and turned into a Disneystyle wildlife theme park; Terri was supposedly moving back to the US with Bindi and Robert, her children; New Idea reported that Bob Irwin had been tossed out of the park after a family argument.

A rumoured rift between Terri and her father-in-law generated plenty of headlines with little substance behind them; frustrated journalists seemed to struggle to find a negative angle on Terri – and yet were reluctant to fall victim to the relentless cheerfulness of the Australia Zoo publicity machine.

And despite the constant media attention which she encouraged, even sought – it was still just eighteen months since she had lost her husband; she had been obviously devoted to him, and I wondered how she could cope with yet another interview about Steve.

I was pleasantly surprised. Terri in person is warm and sincere. Though she’s keen to talk up the conservation work that she believes is her destiny, she’s quite self-depreciating about her own talents – and has a dry humour befitting her outback lifestyle.

Terri was named the 2008 Queensland Businesswoman of the Year award for her massive success running Australia Zoo and managing Bindi’s burgeoning TV and fashion career.

Steve Irwin’s phenomenal success during his life has become legend. But what isn’t so well known, is that the man who had such an enormous impact on wildlife conservation during his life had the forethought to set up a legacy that will protect many endangered creatures long after his time on Earth.

It’s hard to tell how much of this forethought was spurred on by Terri, who taught herself to type at eight so she could help her dad do the accounts in the family business in Oregon.At twelve, she enrolled in a summer business college and in her teens had even set up her own wildlife sanctuary complete with native cougars.

The Queensland properties that Steve and Terri purchased, and land reserves since put aside, now approach nearly half a million acres dedicated to safe habitat for native wildlife.

Some estimates put the value of the land at around $26 million, but it’s impossible to get an accurate assessment of its worth.

“You know, easily the greatest threat to the wildlife globally is the destruction and annihilation of habitat,” Irwin told Andrew Denton in a 2003 interview. So, to fix this he decided to buy some of this habitat and preserve it. He credited the business-savvy Terri with making it happen. “My wife is an American so she’s a good capitalist… she’s very clever with money… so whenever we get enough cash and a chunk of land that we’re passionate about, bang, we buy it.” Their first venture was a 350 acre property, Ironbark Station, near Blackbutt on the Great Dividing Range, bought in 1994.

“It was beyond our budget but we just fell in love with the property. It had koalas and kangaroos – so we managed to make payments on that property, then eventually we purchased more land with great biodiversity or endangered wildlife,” Terri says.

Ironbark needed a fair bit of work to restore it to a suitable habitat for local wildlife.

“Steve said: I bet these koalas are having trouble getting from tree to tree because of the masses of lantana growing at the bases of the eucalyptus tree - and since his original observation it has been proved that lantana is a real problem for koalas,” she says.

Steve worked around the clock to rehabilitate the property, pulling out feral pest species and planting and fertilising tens of thousands of eucalypt trees.

The small koala population has since increased and formal research projects established on the property, with wildlife rehabilitation reintroducing injured animals into the wild.

“Over a period of time, we purchased more land adjoining that particular one until now today that 350 acre land is 3500 acres and then of course we’ve got other properties as well.”

The couple found a way to harness Terri’s capitalist instincts and Steve’s passion for conservation into an unstoppable force. “Being raised Christian I found it really interesting how often people misquote the Bible when they say that money is the root of all evil and yet the actual quote is, the love of money is the root of all evil and that money can do some incredibly good things,” Terri says.

The couple agreed to take a wage from Australia Zoo – and put the rest back into conservation. Initially, there wasn’t much left over; but as The Crocodile Hunter juggernaut went global, the conservation kitty grew exponentially. Even last year, Terri says, 60 percent of the profits from Australia Zoo went back into expansion plans and the remaining 40 percent was directed into conservation programs outside of Australia Zoo.

“That’s my life quest, to continue his work and get as much accomplished as possible in whatever time I have here,” Terri says.

“We’re not dealing with humanitarian issues and wildlife issues separately anymore, we’re all intrinsically connected and if our wildlife and wild places are depleted, it will ultimately affect all of us.”

Steve Irwin’s death in 2006 from a stingray attack was a freak accident that didn’t make sense to the millions who had watched the cheeky Australian subdue huge crocodiles and swim with man-eating sharks.

“I eat, sleep and live for conservation,” Steve told Reader’s Digest in 2002. “That is all I do.” Many Australians were somewhat bemused by his old-fashioned slang and over-the-top showmanship, and to them, Irwin’s global influence was puzzling.

But he’s been credited with singlehandedly boosting Australia’s tourism profile exponentially, and thanks to Steve Irwin, eco-tourism has suddenly become one of this country’s big export success stories.

The Crocodile Hunter series has now screened in 140 countries, bringing the Discovery Channel cable network over 70 million new subscribers. After top-rating talk-show host Jay Leno started inviting Irwin to appear on his show in 1997, some pop-culture analysts claimed Irwin was the most famous Australian – more famous than Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe or Kylie Minogue.

Getting other people to share his love for the wild was a lifetime goal for Steve Irwin – one he achieved beyond his wildest dreams.

The little boy from Essendon who got a 12-foot python for his sixth birthday present idolised his reptile-mad father; and in the early 70s, Steve’s dad Bob Irwin, sold his plumbing business and moved the family north to set up a twohectare reptile park on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

The initial video footage caught the attention of director John Stainton, who filmed The Crocodile Hunter series, sold to the Discovery Channel in 1996.

Terri’s uncanny instinct for business kicked in – and she encouraged Steve to make the most of his enormous talent; and the rest is legend.

“He was just such an amazing, unique, one-of-a-kind person, and that person that I fell in love with was the person that I knew up until we lost him.His ethics never changed,” she says. “I always felt that I was here just to be Steve’s right-hand woman, to work with him and share the dream and it wasn’t until we lost Steve that I thought, you know maybe this is what destiny had in line for me.”

She says that Steve once asked her to promise that if he died, she would keep Australia Zoo going.

“At the time I made the promise, I think we had 10 staff and about four acres. Now there’s 589 of us and 1500 acres and we’re just embarking on a 150 million dollar expansion program and I think it’s just a little more daunting but I’m still unwavering.”

Whether Steve Irwin’s greatest legacy is the half-million wild acres in Queensland, his two little over-the-top children or the business-savvy Terri is anyone’s guess, but one thing is for sure, he will not be forgotten in a hurry.

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