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Steve & Me
By Terri Irwin
Simon Spotlight EntertainmentCopyright © 2007 Terri Irwin
All right reserved.
The name of the zoo was the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park. As I crossed the parking area, I prepared myself for disappointment. I am going to see a collection of snakes, lizards, and miserable creatures in jars, feel terribly sorry for them, and leave.
It was October 1991. I was Terri Raines, a twenty-seven-year-old Oregon girl in Australia on an unlikely quest to find homes for rescued American cougars. A reptile park wasn't going to be interested in a big cat. I headed through the pleasant spring heat toward the park thinking pessimistic thoughts. This is going to be a big waste of time. But the prospect of seeing new species of wildlife drew me in.
I walked through the modest entrance with some friends, only to be shocked at what I found on the other side: the most beautiful, immaculately kept gardens I had ever encountered. Peacocks strutted around, kangaroos and wallabies roamed freely, and palm trees lined all the walkways. It was like a little piece of Eden.
After I paid my admission fee, I saw that the reptile enclosures were kept perfectly clean -- the snakes glistened. I kept rescued animals myself at home. I knew zoos, and I knew the variety of nightmares they can fall into. But I sawnot a sign of external parasites on these animals, no old food rotting in the cages, no feces or shed skin left unattended.
So I enjoyed myself. I toured around, learned about the snakes, and fed the kangaroos. It was a brilliant, sunlit day.
"There will be a show at the crocodile enclosures in five minutes," a voice announced on the PA system. "Five minutes."
That sounded good to me.
I noticed the crocodiles before I noticed the man. There was a whole line of crocodilians: alligators, freshwater crocodiles, and one big saltie. Amazing, modern-day dinosaurs. I didn't know much about them, but I knew that they had existed unchanged for millions of years. They were a message from our past, from the dawn of time, among the most ancient creatures on the planet.
Then I saw the man. A tall, solid twentysomething (he appeared younger than he was, and had actually turned twenty-nine that February), dressed in a khaki shirt and shorts, barefoot, with blond flyaway hair underneath a big Akubra hat and a black-banded wristwatch on his left wrist. Even though he was big and muscular, there was something kind and approachable about him too.
I stood among the fifteen or twenty other park visitors and listened to him talk.
"They can live as long as or even longer than us," he said, walking casually past the big saltwater croc's pond. "They can hold their breath underwater for hours."
He approached the water's edge with a piece of meat. The crocodile lunged out of the water and snapped the meat from his hand. "This male croc is territorial," he explained, "and females become really aggressive when they lay eggs in a nest." He knelt beside the croc that had just tried to nail him. "Crocodiles are such good mothers."
Every inch of this man, every movement and word exuded his passion for the crocodilians he passed among. I couldn't help but notice that he never tried to big-note himself. He was there to make sure his audience admired the crocs, not himself.
I recognized his passion, because I felt some of it myself. I spoke the same way about cougars as this Australian zookeeper spoke about crocs. When I heard there would be a special guided tour of the Crocodile Environmental Park, I was first in line for a ticket. I had to hear more. This man was on fire with enthusiasm, and I felt I really connected with him, like I was meeting a kindred spirit.
What was the young zookeeper's name? Irwin. Steve Irwin.
Some of the topics Steve talked about that day were wonderful and new. I learned about the romantic life of crocodiles. There are courting rituals between males and females, and the male crocodiles are very gentle as they nudge up and down alongside the female, waiting until she is receptive. I'd never imagined that these dinosaur-like creatures could be loving, but he explained that they were quite passionate lovers and seemed to develop real affection for each other.
Affection for each other, sure, but not for Steve. I watched the still, dark, murky water erupt with an enormous ton of saltwater crocodile. The croc nearly snapped the buttons off of Steve's shirt as he neatly deposited a piece of meat into its mouth. The reverberation of the jaws coming back together sounded like a rifle report.
From where I stood on the other side of the fence, I could barely breathe. I didn't know how he did it.
Other topics were more familiar. "Sometimes just seeing a croc in the wild can scare the daylights out of people," he said, passing among the rows of subadult crocodiles. "But if you know to follow some simple rules, these little tackers pose no threat at all to human life."
It was a situation that I'd encountered many times in the United States with predatory animals. People would frequent a boat ramp, for example. They'd come in with their catch and fillet it right at the dock, tossing the fish bones and scraps into the water. In the States, this might attract black bears, posing a potential problem for tourists. In Australia, the same practice brought the crocs into contact with humans.
"If we get a report about a particularly naughty little crocodile bothering people," Steve explained, "I go out with my dog, Sui, in a dinghy. We'll capture the croc so it won't get shot."
Then he described what he meant by "capture." As he told the story I was totally captivated, and so were the other zoo visitors. Maybe it was because Steve was detailing the most astonishing set of actions any of us had ever heard about, accomplished by a man who'd lived to tell the tale.
"If the croc is young, six feet long or smaller," he said, "I'll catch it by hand."
By hand. I'd had to capture all kinds of wildlife in Oregon, but never anything as dangerous as a six-foot-long saltwater crocodile...in the water...in the dark...by hand.
"We go out at night with a million-candlepower spotlight, shining bright across the water," he said. "That way, I can pick up the eye-shine of the crocodile. Their eyes glow bright red, right at the surface of the water. The croc thinks he's camouflaged by the darkness. He doesn't understand that my spotlight is revealing his location."
Idling the dinghy, bringing it quietly in closer and closer to the croc, Steve would finally make his move. He'd creep to the front of the boat and hold the spotlight until the last moment.
Then he would leap into the water.
Grabbing the crocodile around the scruff of the neck, he would secure its tail between his legs and wrap his body around the thrashing creature. Crocodiles are amazingly strong in the water. Even a six-foot-long subadult would easily take Steve to the bottom of the river, rolling and fighting, trying to dislodge him by scraping against the rocks and snags at the bottom of the river.
But Steve would hang on. He knew he could push off the bottom, reach the surface for air, flip the crocodile into his dinghy, and pin the snapping animal down.
"Piece of cake," he said.
That was the most incredible story I had ever heard. And Steve was the most incredible man I had ever seen -- catching crocodiles by hand to save their lives? This was just unreal. I had an overwhelming sensation. I wanted to build a big campfire, sit down with Steve next to it, and hear his stories all night long. I didn't want them to ever end. But eventually the tour was over, and I felt I just had to talk to this man.
Steve had a broad, easy smile and the biggest hands I had ever seen. I could tell by his stature and stride that he was accustomed to hard work. I saw a series of small scars on the sides of his face and down his arms.
He came up and, with a broad Australian accent, said, "G'day, mate."
Uh-oh, I thought. I'm in trouble.
I'd never, ever believed in love at first sight. But I had the strangest, most overwhelming feeling that it was destiny that took me into that little wildlife park that day.
Steve started talking to me as if we'd known each other all our lives. I interrupted only to have my friend Lori take a picture of us, and the moment I first met Steve was forever captured. I told him about my wildlife rescue work with cougars in Oregon. He told me about his work with crocodiles. The tour was long over, and the zoo was about to close, but we kept talking.
Finally I could hear Lori honking her horn in the car park. "I have to go," I said to Steve, managing a grim smile. I felt a connection as I never had before, and I was about to leave, never to see him again.
"Why do you love cougars so much?" he asked, walking me toward the park's front gate.
I had to think for a beat. There were many reasons. "I think it's how they can actually kill with their mouths," I finally said. "They can conquer an animal several times their size, grab it in their jaws, and kill it instantly by snapping its neck."
Steve grinned. I hadn't realized how similar we really were.
"That's what I love about crocodiles," he said. "They are the most powerful apex predators."
Apex predators. Meaning both cougars and crocs were at the top of the food chain. On opposite sides of the world, this man and I had somehow formed the same interest, the same passion.
At the zoo entrance I could see Lori and her friends in the car, anxious to get going back to Brisbane.
"Call the zoo if you're ever here again," Steve said. "I'd really like to see you again." Could it be that he felt the same way I did? As we drove back to Brisbane, I was quiet, contemplative. I had no idea how I would accomplish it, but I was determined to figure out a way to see him. The next weekend, Lori was going diving with a friend, and I took a chance and called Steve.
"What do you reckon, could I come back for the weekend?" I asked.
"Absolutely. I'll take care of everything," came Steve's reply.
My heart was pounding as I drove up the coast again a few days later. There was the familiar little sign, the modest entrance. And here he was again, as large as life -- six feet tall, broad shoulders, a big grin, and a warm and welcome handshake. Our first real touch.
"Well, I'm back," I said lamely.
"Good on you, mate," Steve said. I thought, I've got what on me?
Right away, I was extremely self-conscious about a hurdle I felt that we had to get over. I wasn't entirely sure about Steve's marital status. I looked for a ring, but he didn't wear one. That doesn't mean anything, I told myself. He probably can't wear one because of his work. I think he figured out what I was hinting at as I started asking him questions about his friends and family.
He lived right there at the zoo, he told me, with his parents and his sister Mandy. His sister Joy was married and had moved away.
I was trying to figure out how to say, "So, do you have a girlfriend?" when suddenly he volunteered the information.
"Would you like to meet my girlfriend?" he asked.
Ah, I felt my whole spirit sink into the ground. I was devastated. But I didn't want to show that to Steve.
I stood up straight and tall, smiled, and said, "Yes, I'd love to."
"Sue," he called out. "Hey, Sue."
Bounding around the corner came this little brindle girl, Sui, his dog.
"Here's me girlfriend," he said with a smile.
This is it, I thought. There's no turning back.
We spent a wonderful weekend together. I worked alongside him at the zoo from sunup to sunset. During the day it was raking the entire zoo, gathering up the leaves, cleaning up every last bit of kangaroo poo, washing out lizard enclosures, keeping the snakes clean. But it was the croc work that was most exciting.
The first afternoon of that visit, Steve took me in with the alligators. They came out of their ponds like sweet little puppies -- puppies with big, sharp teeth and frog eyes. I didn't know what to expect, but with Steve there, I felt a sense of confidence and security. The next thing I knew, I was feeding the alligators big pieces of meat, as if I'd done it all my life.
That evening he put me up at the Glasshouse Mountains Motel, a few miles from the zoo. Steve was very chivalrous. I met his parents and had dinner with the whole family. I also got my first taste of Australian humor. That night at dinner, I poured myself what I thought was a nice glass of juice. The entire Irwin family sat quiet and straight-faced. As I took a big swig, it nearly choked me.
That's when I learned about cordial, which is supposed to be mixed with water. I had poured it full strength. We all had a good laugh.
The next night Steve and I went to dinner in Caloundra, a nearby town. He took me to a resort that featured an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner -- seafood banquet, my favorite. I loaded my plate high with prawns, crab, oysters, and everything I loved. I didn't know it then, but Steve was a bit worried that I was going to eat more than he did.
At one point a little piece of crab flicked onto the crook of my arm. I deftly reached down with my tongue and managed to grab it off my elbow and eat it. Suddenly I felt self-conscious. Steve was staring at me. He looked at me with such love in his eyes, and I thought, He's going to say something wonderful.
Steve leaned forward and said affectionately, "Gosh, you aren't ladylike at all." I burst out laughing. Apparently I'd done the right thing. I reflected back on my dad's advice: No matter what, always be yourself. And it sure had worked.
As we left the restaurant, Steve said, "You know, I smell ducks."
We walked outside, and sure enough, there was a flock of beautiful ducks bobbing around on a pond.
"Steve, you are the most amazing bushman I've ever met," I said.
Of course, the resort and the pond had been there for years, and Steve had known about the ducks for just as long. "I smell ducks" was a Crocodile Dundee trick that had nevertheless worked its magic on this naive American girl.
And then, suddenly, the weekend was over. Steve drove me back down to Brisbane. I had the biggest ache in my heart. I had fallen hard. As we said good-bye, he put his arms around me for the first time, and I felt all his strength and warmth in that embrace. But it was over. I was going back to my side of the world. I had no idea if I would ever see Steve Irwin again.
Copyright © 2007 by Terri Irwin
Excerpted from Steve & Me by Terri Irwin Copyright © 2007 by Terri Irwin. Excerpted by permission.
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