Authors: Steve Irwin,Terri Irwin
Loaded up, heading on another mission.
That’s what we’re all about at Australia Zoo—securing information so that in the event a species like the canopy goanna becomes endangered, we have the published information to ensure we can easily and effectively breed the animals so that we can release them back into the wild.
Canopy goannas are not very cuddly, but by crikey, they need our love. Like all of our wildlife, we have to understand them to conserve them. Our scientific research in the jungles of North Queensland is often hot and sweaty but always rewarding. The notorious taipan is one of the species I respect most. We encounter them often yet always unexpectedly. They are considered the most dangerous animal in our tropical North and should be avoided at any cost. It’s important that we have a complete understanding and respect for the taipan. Without this apex predator the tropical North’s biological diversity will diminish.
Canopy goanna. What a little beauty!
The American Invasion
y first trip to Australia happened because of a chance meeting with an old school friend while I was celebrating my twenty-second birthday. I’d known John since kindergarten. We’d grown up together and he seemed more like family than a friend.
When he told me that he was leaving to spend a year in Australia, I was green with envy. He suggested that I should go over for a visit, too, and that started me seriously thinking about it. A trip that far away sounded both fantastic and frightening. This first Australian adventure took me from Manly, New South Wales, all the way to the Great Keppel Islands in Queensland. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I actually had feelings of homesickness leaving Australia. I’d fallen in love with this country of sunshine.
My next visit didn’t happen until several years later. It was the summer of 1991 when a friend of mine, Lori, invited me to accompany her on a diving trip to Australia. At this point in my life I was quite settled in Oregon and flying off to Australia wouldn’t be easy. I was paying off a house, running the family business and a wildlife rehabilitation facility, and working part-time at an emergency veterinary hospital. I didn’t even have time for a social life, much less to fly halfway around the world. However, I had begun to live by the philosophy of grabbing hold of opportunities whenever life offers them: when opportunity knocks, break down the door! So I rounded up the money, called Lori, and September 1991 saw us arriving in Brisbane.
Lori had arranged for us to stay with two of her friends and we spent several days shopping, enjoying the nightlife, and relaxing in the sun. The only things missing were the things Lori and I found the most interesting. Lori hadn’t yet gone diving and I hadn’t yet visited a single zoological facility. On our last weekend in Australia we agreed to take that diving trip. I was going to go along and enjoy the boat ride as diving has always been a little too scary for me.
Before diving that weekend we headed for the Sunshine Coast and a good old Aussie barbecue. I couldn’t know that this day would change my life forever.
The Glasshouse Mountains, location of the Reptile and Fauna Park.
On the way to the barbecue we drove all the way up to Noosa, enjoying the sights along the way. On the way back, we turned off onto the Glass House Mountains Road. It was mid-afternoon and I was a bit sleepy after a late Saturday night out on the town, so I started dozing off in the back seat. I woke to find that we had turned off the main road. As I looked around to see where we were I saw a sign that read “Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park.” I figured it must be just a little roadside zoo with a few snakes in a shed, but desperately needing a wildlife “fix,” I decided to head in.
As we went in, we were informed that there was a crocodile demonstration going on and we hurried over to the demonstration area. As I maneuvered my way to the center of the crowd I saw two men with a large crocodile talking about the reptile’s eating habits and territorial behavior.
Steve in the early nineties.
Before I really knew what was happening, one of the men calmly walked up to the croc and held out a piece of food. As the croc’s huge head lifted up and his powerful jaws opened wide, it astounded me how cool and collected this zookeeper seemed. I was used to the hype and fanfare that went with even the simplest task when handlers were working with dangerous wild animals in the United States, and here was an Aussie bloke with one of the most dangerous animals on earth looking more like he was mailing a letter than depositing food into bone-crushing jaws. What’s more, he spoke with genuine love and affection about a crocodile that was large enough to consider the keeper himself as a food item.
I was captivated. Sadly, the demonstration was quickly over. A million questions went through my mind and I desperately wanted to see more. Then we were told that another crocodile demonstration would start in just a few minutes in the environmental park. I couldn’t get to the admissions office fast enough to buy my ticket. What luck!
The keeper I’d seen was back for this demonstration as well. His enthusiastic love for these animals was contagious. It became impossible to see freshwater crocodiles as snappy little monsters. As he continued his talk I found my focus shifting from these most impressive crocodiles to the man who was speaking so passionately about them.
When we came to the last enclosure, the keeper began explaining why and how the crocodiles are caught out of the bush. I didn’t need to be convinced that someone could be frightened of even a small crocodile; that was easy to believe. The amazing part was the way the crocodiles were captured. The keeper told of going out at night in a small boat and locating the crocs by their eyes glowing red in the glare of a spotlight. As one man idled the boat up to the crocodile, another keeper would position himself at the bow of the boat. As soon as the boat was close enough, he would leap into the water and grab the croc around the neck. As the crocodile struggled, man and beast would end up at the bottom of the river. After a bounce off the bottom, the crocodile would be flipped into the boat and become the driver’s problem from there!
This was too incredible. Who was this man who spoke so casually of jumping into the water to wrestle crocodiles? He looked to be about my age and wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, but surely this wonderful guy must have already been snapped up by some lucky girl. How could I possibly get a chance to talk to him, anyway?
As we were leaving this enclosure for our final educational talk in the museum area, I was struggling to think of something terribly witty to say. I had no idea of how to get the keeper’s attention when I turned around to see Lori talking to him. I couldn’t believe it! I edged my way out of the crowd and waited for Lori to catch up. As I looked toward them, his eyes met mine. It was as if we had always known each other. As I edged closer, he smiled and introduced himself as Steve Irwin.
We started talking and became lost in conversation. Maybe a few minutes went by, or maybe an hour. All I knew was that I wanted this day to go on forever. Suddenly, we were aware of a car horn blaring in the car park. I had to go. As we walked toward the entrance I realized that I didn’t even know if Steve was “taken” or not! He seemed to realize what I was thinking as he smiled and asked me if I’d like to meet his girlfriend. Had I misunderstood the chemistry between us? How could I feel such a strong attraction with someone who already had a girl?
I was relieved to discover that Sui was not a human competitor for Steve’s affections.
Steve was calling out to Sui now, so I tried not to look the way I felt. Inside I was dying. As he continued to call out, a little brindle dog came running up. I was then formally introduced to his girlfriend, Sui. Steve said that Sui was his little Staffordshire bull scrub yowie and he loved her dearly. This only made Steve even more special to me and I wondered how I’d ever get to see him again.
I was about to leave the park and walk out of Steve’s life forever when he handed me a park brochure with his name hastily written on it. He told me that he hoped he would see me again.
I must admit that the barbecue that afternoon was just a blur. My wheels were turning, trying to figure out a way to see this man again. Lori and I boarded a bus for Byron Bay and all I could do was think about Steve. When we returned to Brisbane I’d made my decision. I called Steve to ask if I could come visit the park again while Lori was spending the day scuba diving. Not only did Steve think this was a good idea, he invited me to stay at the park for the entire weekend. I agreed in an instant. Since Steve’s parents and sister also lived at the park, I decided not to worry.
I was terribly nervous as Lori and her friends drove me up to the park on Friday afternoon. Lori and Julie were teasing me about my handsome crocodile-wrestler and my heart was pounding so hard I was sure it could be heard.
Steve took me to the house, and there I met his sister Mandy, and his mum, Lyn, and his dad, Bob. Bob, Steve, and I sat on the sofa and discussed the work I was doing in the United States with predatory mammals. I think my cougar rescue work interested them as much as their crocodile rescue work interested me.
Steve had arranged for me to stay at the Glasshouse Mountains Motel and when we arrived to check in, the couple who operate the motel were having a bit of a giggle at Steve’s expense. They merrily announced that they’d given me the honeymoon suite!
Steve and I were to have dinner at Caloundra and the drive there went by all too quickly. I don’t remember the road at all. I only had eyes for Steve as he told story after story of his bush adventures.
When we went in to eat I was pleased to discover it was a seafood buffet. We grabbed our plates and merrily piled them high with mud crab.
While we were eating and talking, Steve suddenly got a very misty look in his eyes and I steadied myself for his saying something terribly romantic. Instead, with awe in his voice, he looked down at the crab spread up to my elbows and said, “Gosh, you’re not ladylike at all!” Lucky for me, this was a good thing.
Steve and me in Los Angeles in 1995.
When Steve dropped me back at the motel there was no tension over that first kiss. There was no first kiss at all! I had prepared myself the entire drive back for the possibility and, instead, Steve simply said that he’d be back first thing in the morning.
He was back, first thing, as promised. As I scrambled to get my things together and get out the door, I wondered what the day would hold. It was turning out to be a typical hot Queensland day. When we arrived at the park, Steve handed me a rake and it was suddenly down to business. I was painfully aware of my sweat-drenched hair and flushed face when we’d finished raking the park clean of leaves and debris. Steve didn’t seem even to notice as we sat down for the mid-morning “smoko” break. And it amazed me to see Bob and Steve sit down to a hot cup of tea when all I wanted was a cold glass of water.
After our break Steve decided to show me something of the community he lived in. We visited the local museum, oceanarium, rainforest, and finally the Glasshouse Mountains lookout. The view was breathtaking and we were all on our own. Once again my heart began to pound. Surely this would be an appropriate spot for our first kiss? But instead, Steve proudly told me the names of all the surrounding mountains and landmarks before starting up the truck to go. Strike two!