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Nature's loss too

September 06, 2006

STEVE IRWIN WAS A DAREDEVIL, a performer, a celebrity, a bit of a ham -- and one of the most effective advocates for nature preservation in the world. His death Monday while filming footage for a TV special prompts a question: How much did his success as a conservationist depend on his role as an entertainer?

Far from the staid reverence of "Wild Kingdom" host Marlin Perkins, Irwin made the subject of wildlife into an extreme sport. On his show, "The Crocodile Hunter," and in countless appearances on other programs, he didn't just describe potentially dangerous reptiles, he picked them up, pried into their mouths and leaped on top of them while extolling their ferocity and their magnificence. If ever there were a fire-breathing evangelist for animals, it was Irwin, with his colorful theatrics, rhapsodic passion and contagious enthusiasm.

The irony is that Irwin was done in not by a crocodile or a snake but by what experts have called a one-in-a-million chance occurrence when a stingray barb pierced his heart. Unlike other high-profile wildlife-related tragedies -- such as the tiger mauling of Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy, or the case of controversial grizzly bear activist Timothy Treadwell, who was killed in 2003 by a bear he was following and filming in Alaska -- Irwin's death was more a fluke than an inevitability.

It's neither possible nor appropriate to assign blame in this tragedy. But reality television, in which Irwin was a major player, may be more of an accomplice to his death than it's willing to admit. Whether the show is about feuding families, desperate addicts or animals (and the people who love them) doing the darndest things, there's little question that when it comes to shock value, the bar is constantly being raised. Once upon a time, merely spectacular footage of nature was sufficient to attract viewers. Now television programmers are convinced that ratings depend on death-defying, personality-driven antics. And they may be right.

Irwin's success on television allowed him to do significant conservation work. He didn't just show millions of people that reptiles were more than just scaly monsters, he also bought large swaths of land in his native Australia in order to save the habitats of numerous animals.

It's worth asking, however, how much more he would have been able to accomplish if not for the demands of a culture that wants its education entertaining and its entertainment dangerous. As much as Irwin's fans will miss him and his signature exclamation of "crikey," the creatures he championed stand to miss him more -- and all the years of work he might have done on their behalf.

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