'Croc hunter' painted controversial picture of Aussies

Steve Irwin, who died Monday, used a rough-edged caricature to promote conservation.

In his short khaki shorts, his baby face, and his loud drawl, crocodile hunter and TV sensation Steve Irwin was warmly embraced abroad as a real-life "Crocodile Dundee" – even if some of his fellow Australians didn't always appreciate the stereotype.

Mr. Irwin explained animal behavior with a steady stream of colloquialisms like "crikey" and "you beauty." The clownish conservationist also, clearly, enjoyed rolling around in the mud.

"I remember I was in London when I first saw Steve Irwin on TV in 1996, and I almost died of embarrassment at the way he portrayed Australians as total caricatures of themselves and one dimensional," says Australian writer Ashley Hay. "I thought it was just a spoof. But the audience loved it, and I realized that he was for real."

Irwin died Monday following a stingray attack while filming an underwater documentary on the Great Barrier Reef.

While some Australians resented his act for reinforcing attitudes abroad that folk from "down under" are unsophisticated, other Australians embraced him as a modern-day "larrikin," a traditional class-clown and irreverent prankster that draws on the country's puckish Irish and convict traditions. Either way, as a dedicated conservationist, Irwin used his Australian caricature to his advantage to help him in his life's work.

"Irwin, in his khaki shorts and rough-and-ready manner was totally single-minded about his conservation work," says molecular biologist Nigel Beebe. "Whether you agreed with his ways or not, he got things done at a very local level. He may not have understood environmental issues at a global level, but he resolved problems like the diminishing of habitats, by just buying tracts of land so that there could be no more degradation in that area."

Mr. Beebe says that his showmanship and his American wife were keys to his success. "He was pretty strategic in the way that he presented himself on TV.... He came across as the larrikin and the crazy guy, while she was the sophisticated part of the team, and the two appeared together."

Irwin had previously got into controversy when, during a trip to Antarctica, he allegedly got too close to the whales and the penguins there. No charges were laid against him.

He was also at the center of a fire storm a few years ago when he dangled his baby son in front of the jaws of a crocodile to a shocked and disapproving audience. He later said that he was teaching people not to be afraid.

"He did manage to change people's minds about some of the most dangerous animals in the world, and it's ironic that he was killed by one of these creatures that he loved," says Ms. Hay.

Attacks by stingrays on humans are very rare and only one other person is known to have died from a stingray attack in Australia in 1945. Stingrays sting out of self defense.

Prime Minister John Howard memorialized Irwin as a great Australian "character." Indeed, for many, he became the face of Australia.

One European traveler named John in a Sydney Internet cafe said, "We are from Sweden.... We don't really know who the prime minister of Australia is, and frankly, we don't care. But we feel very, very bad that Steve Irwin has died so suddenly like this. We all know who he is."

Tom McCawley contributed from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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