There is, face it, something a little narcissistic about pop-culture obituaries; when people memorialize a singer or TV host or actress from the past, as often as not they’re really eulogizing their own lost youth. But at least there’s something normal about that. Burying one of your kids’ pop-culture icons upsets the natural order of things.
I was born about thirty years too late to be a real fan of Steve Irwin’s. But as a parent, I saw first-hand how effective he was with his target audience. As I wrote about him in 2001, the star of Animal Planet’s Crocodile Hunter–killed in a freakish mishap with a stingray–was essentially a kids’ performer, "narrating [his show] breathlessly and popeyed as if reading a scary story to a three-year-old." What made him such an effective entertainer was that he didn’t feel the need to dress up his show with highfalutin scientific pretensions. He knew that whatever a croc or a black mamba snake or a ray might tell us about biology or the planet’s delicate ecosystem, their real fascination was ancient and elemental: they could kill us.
He made the point over and over again, eluding jaws and fangs by inches, a feat of endless appeal to kids, who are far more death-fascinated than any of us might like to admit. Ironically, this is also what made him a good conservationist. In older, anthropomorphic nature documentaries, predators tended to be villains. In Irwin’s world, they were cool: not your friends, not hardly, but compelling rogues whose killing power was to be respected. These dangerous animals, he tirelessly convinced people, needed to be protected, not because they were good, or despite the fact that they were
evil–human terms irrelevent to the animal world–but because they were awesome.
To some people, the fact that Irwin died at the hands, or rather the spike, of one of the creatures he sought to protect will seem ironic. Really, it was only fitting. In death as in life, he got closer than most modern humans ever will to the natural forces of predation, showing himself, like the creatures he studied and videotaped, to be a striking example of his species: an irrepressibly curious animal.