'Crocodile Hunter' death brings unscripted danger into sharp relief

'Crocodile Hunter' Steve Irwin displayed a passion for wildlife – and a penchant for risk.

Perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise. This was, after all, a man who made a career of teasing death. Captured on camera, indelible images of Steve Irwin being spat at by venomous cobras, leaping onto the backs of writhing crocodiles, or grappling with monitor lizards have become imprinted on the popular imagination.

This was a man who, in his own exuberant words, had been "gored, clawed, chomped, bitten, savaged, jumped on, whacked, peed on, and even groped" by the wildlife he so lovingly provoked.

And yet somehow the Crocodile Hunter's death did come as a crushing surprise. As news reports circulated Monday – Web traffic was so frantic that a number of sites crashed under the interest – the response seemed universally to be one of utter shock.

Under the headline "Crikey," for the antiquated Australianism resurrected by native son Irwin, Slate's daily newspaper roundup called his death "tragic news." In a reaction echoing so many others, the online magazine went on to say this was an outcome it "naively believed was simply impossible."

Something about the medium of television, the act of viewing Irwin's exploits, each laced with dramatic bits of showmanship, through that small box, made him seem invincible. Television personalities may, as Irwin did, tempt fate, court danger, cheat death. But dying – that was never in the script.

"Probably, a lot of people think of the Crocodile Hunter as fictional, a sort of mythical character not permitted to die in real life," says Keith Semmel, a communications professor specializing in pop culture at Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Ky. "It has a little bit to do with our inability to see the difference between reality and fictional programming."

Blame genre-blurring reality TV. Blame entertainment costumed as education. Blame Irwin's shows, predicated on the theater of near misses and narrow escapes. Perceptions became distorted. Risk came to feel normal. Rote. And in many ways unreal.

"We're willing to play the game, excited to watch 'Fear Factor' for the very reason that someone might get hurt," says Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and pop culture at Syracuse University in New York, referring to the reality show. "But we've come to believe it's not going to happen."

One fan reportedly left a note at the gate of the Australia Zoo, where Irwin lived with his wife and two children, that read: "I thought you were immortal. How I wish that was true."

The one truth for those who handle wild animals is the constant possibility of the unexpected. Television may be highly scripted, even when promising "reality," but the wild kingdom defies the containment of a tidy story line.

"People underestimate the power of these animals and the unpredictability," says Steve Russ, who relocates dangerous snakes around Fort Collins, Co. "I never know if a snake is going to change its mind and totally surprise me with something different than it's done before."

Though the risk was undeniable and very real, Irwin's animal encounters were engineered with camera and audience in mind – even his controversial decision to clutch infant son Bob, as a sort of costar, with his left hand as he fed a croc with his right. For the sake of electrifying television, Irwin always appeared more daring and more cavalier than he actually was; he made handling wildlife look both more dangerous and more casual.

Few viewers are knowledgeable about snake handling. So it's shocking to see Irwin lurching for the tail of a deadly tiger snake. With relatively weak bodies that make it difficult for them to snap when held this way, it's actually the preferred method for capture. Still, no herpetologist would then dangle a tiger snake in front of his face – but that added flourish is what makes for great television. And Irwin wore his many scars from these antics like a badge of honor.

Off camera, "biologists are boring," says Sam Sweet, a herpetologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has been traveling to Australia's Kakadu National Park to study monitor lizards since 1988. "We don't have Steve Irwin moments."

Personality-driven nature documentaries date back to the 1950s, well before Irwin made his debut. There were the likes of Jacques Cousteau; David Attenborough; and Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler, the safari-shirt-clad hosts of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" – recently given new life on Animal Planet, the network that first introduced Irwin to American audiences in 1996.

Irwin reinvented the form. He interacted with animals with a hyperbolic zeal unmatched by any host who came before him. His enthusiasm was contagious, and it endeared him to millions.

When he appeared as himself in the 2002 movie "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course," Irwin further muddied the line between cinematic fiction and real life, becoming even more an immortal movie character, rather than the vulnerable naturalist he in fact was.

But it was this crossover from natural history to popular culture that captured a broader audience for wildlife programming. "Natural history film had always been on the fringes," says Jeff Corwin, host of "The Jeff Corwin Experience" on Animal Planet. Now, thanks in no small part to Irwin's inimitable style, "it's become mainstream."

Because it was a freak accident, the shock of Irwin's death ran deeper than it might have otherwise. In the water on the Great Barrier Reef, he died at the tail of a stingray, not by the jaws of one of the more overtly terrifying and deadly creatures he regularly faced-off with in the Outback.

The less threatening, though still tragic, circumstances further underscore how perilous his job as crocodile hunter was. "The proof of the danger, unfortunately, is in his own demise," says Professor Thompson.

Christina Couch contributed to this report.

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