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Farewell, Steve - we hardly knew ye

What we learned from the Crocodile Hunter, both in life and in death.

As is now known to virtually every soul on the globe, famed "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin was killed yesterday afternoon in a "freak sting ray accident" while filming a documentary on dangerous marine life at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. He was 44.

Having made the snap decision to interrupt his normal filming schedule to take advantage of a large school of rays unexpectedly swimming in the area, Irwin was snorkeling above an eight-foot bull ray when the animal, apparently spooked, swung its tail upward in a defensive move. A mere two feet above, Irwin never had a chance to move out of the way, and the ray's highly poisonous 8-inch barb struck him in the heart, causing a cardiac arrest and likely killing him instantly.

His wife, Terri, wasn't notified about Irwin's death until well after the rest of the world was, due to the fact that she was trekking in Tasmania at the time. She will now be left alone to raise the couple's two children, Bindi (8) and Bob (2).

Australian Prime Minister John Howard described Irwin's death in north Queensland as a "huge loss to Australia" and actor Russell Crowe said Irwin was "the Australian that we all aspire to be." I cannot disagree with either of them.

Known for his risk-taking and daredevil antics around some of the world's deadliest creatures, Irwin brought us all closer to wildlife, and made passing on the messages of nature and conservation a fun, interactive, and often adrenaline-filled pursuit. An environmentalist who loved his work and preached a heartfelt respect for nature, Irwin taught his audiences more about animals through his hands-on teaching approach than many of us ever would have learned, or have paid attention to, had it come in a less action-packed, daredevil-ish package.

While many watched his show with the same morbid fascination with which they would view auto racing or ultimate fighting -- namely, watching because of the chance of seeing spectacular crashes or horrible injuries -- we viewers always came away not only with our money's worth of thrills, but also with an education which we likely would not have gotten anywhere else.

The Crocodile Hunter television show, and the educationally voyeuristic experiences it provided, will be something that I will never forget.

The first time I remember seeing the show, which aired for several years on the Animal Planet channel, I was a teenager. The episode was his special on the ten deadliest snakes in Australia. To my amazement, he was capturing one of each, on camera, with his bare hands -- often by inducing the snake to strike and, with dazzling quickness and agility, seemingly rematerializing from within the snake's "kill zone" to a safe place behind the reptile, from where he deftly grabbed each snake and placed it into a bag for transport.

Nothing I saw from him after that was ever any less amazing. He would often bring film crews along on "recsue missions," when a crocodile, posionous snake, or other animal had gotten hopelessly far from its proper habitat (and often was threatening people), and then dazzle both the live crowd and later televison audiences by putting his body on the line to catch the oft-deadly creature by hand, and relocate it.

His advertising appearances were no less entertaining, from his Toyota commercials (where he wrestled blow-up crocodiles) to his ESPN ad, in which he took down the Florida Gators' mascot, while uttering both of his taglines ("Crikey!" and "Isn't she gorgeous!").

Even Irwin's death itself reinforced his life's mission, as with it he has taught us another invaluable lesson about the deadliness of animal life not properly, and precautionarily, respected -- as well as just how quickly the consequences of such action can be felt.

While many expected a spectacular end to the man who gambled his life every day, the death of possibly the world's number one on-camera risk taker was fairly anticlimactic. From The Australian:

"The footage shows him swimming in the water, the ray stopped and turned and that was it," said boatowner Peter West, who viewed the footage afterwards.

"There was no blood in the water, it was not that obvious ... something happened with this animal that made it rear and he was at the wrong position at the wrong time and if it hit him anywhere else we would not be talking about a fatality."

In the end, the man who appeared to cheat death every day of his career finally ran out of lives. He died doing what he loved more than anything in the world: teaching us all about the beauty, wonder, and inherent danger of the animal world. Whether it is the way that he would have wanted to go, only he could say; however, it seems strangely fitting, though not at this age, nor with such a young family to leave behind. According to the Australian, Irwin once insisted, "My number one rule is to keep that camera rolling. Even if it's shaky or slightly out of focus, I don't give a rip. "Even if a big old alligator is chewing me up I want to go down and go, 'Crikey!' just before I die. That would be the ultimate for me."

In his own eccentric, risky, and larger-than-life way, Steve Irwin captured the imagination of, and touched, the world. He grabbed life by the horns and, day in and day out, lived it to the fullest. For his sake, the sake of his family, and the sake of all that he sought to accomplish in his all-too-brief life, I hope -- and strongly suspect -- that neither he, nor the lessons he taught us all, will be forgotten any time soon.

Rest in Peace, "Crocodile Hunter." We knew you for all too brief a time -- but wouldn't trade a minute of it for the world.

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