In Defense of the Crocodile Hunter

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Steve Waterson is the editor of TIME Australia

If there were an international prize for mean-spiritedness, controversial author Germaine Greer would be on the podium this week delivering her acceptance speech. Steve Irwin's body was barely out of the water before the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper published the expatriate Australian's opinion that the animal world "has finally taken its revenge" on the Crocodile Hunter.

Greer made her point with a sustained, supercilious sneer that gracelessly combined ignorance with exhibitionist pseudo-erudition. "The film-makers maintain that the ray that took Irwin out" — nice touch, that, took him out, like a hit man hired by vengeful Mother Nature — "was a 'bull ray,' or Dasyatis brevicaudata," she writes, "but this is not usually found as far north as Port Douglas." Sniff. Is that a whiff of Google in the air? Biology lesson over, Greer flicks her tail and begins sticking her own barbs into the man. She relives the incident when he fed a crocodile — she describes the animal as simultaneously "depressed," "catatonic," and "stir-crazy" — while carrying his baby son. It was a revolting spectacle, she says, "but that's entertainment at Australia Zoo."

There may be substantive points to be made about Irwin's approach to conservation and the communication of his passions, although common decency suggests discussions of his legacy might hold until his wife and two small children have buried him. He was, after all, a television personality, not a president. It is true that he was sometimes criticized by conservationists and wildlife experts. Some claimed his handling of animals caused them stress, though the reptiles seemed content to slither off afterward into the bush, perhaps for counseling. Others questioned the wisdom of his campaigns against the culling of crocodiles, or the fact that he maintained a zoo, which was considered exploitative and anachronistic in some eyes.

But one thing no one doubted was Irwin's passion to protect the world's wildlife from the threat of dwindling habitat. Sorry, did I say no one? Greer again: "What Irwin never seemed to understand was that animals need space. The one lesson any conservationist must labour to drive home is that habitat loss is the principal cause of species loss." Yet here's Irwin, interviewed on Australia's ABC TV network in 2003: "Easily the greatest threat to wildlife globally is the destruction and annihilation of habitat."

I can find no record of what Greer has done to preserve habitat, but Irwin bought many thousands of acres of wilderness in Australia and the U.S., in Fiji and Vanuatu. He made a lot of money from his business and used millions of dollars to purchase land and keep it wild. "Whenever we get enough cash," he told the ABC, "and a chunk of land we're passionate about, bang, we buy it." If only Greer had paused long enough after his death to research Irwin's life as thoroughly as she did her Latin classifications.

Of course, for the Greers of this world Irwin's real sin was his lack of sophistication, his puppy-like boisterousness, his artlessness, his showmanship. Good lord, the man was little better than a common entertainer. People with joyless lives circumscribed by cynicism could never comprehend his mad enthusiasm, and needed to mock it to justify its absence in themselves. Greer is in a hurry to mock it too, but she'd really like an Irwin quote to make fun of, and we know she's used up her research budget on the Dasyatidae. The Guardian deadline looms. What to do?

Greer is not an intellectual for nothing. In one of the great feats of opinion writing she will channel the dead man and berate him for the words she puts in his mouth. "You can just imagine Irwin yelling: 'Just look at those beauties! Crikey! With those barbs a stingray can kill a horse!'" Greer bravely sets her imaginary Irwin straight: "Yes Steve, but a stingray doesn't want to kill a horse. It eats crustaceans, for God's sake." I had previously assumed British editors consult Greer because they mistake her tedious prejudices for some special insight into Australia, including, it now appears, its marine life. As they say in academic circles, you couldn't make it up.

Greer is disgusted by a vulgar fellow like Irwin, just as she has previously been disgusted by Australia's vulgar choice of prime minister, its lack of culture, its shameful history and so much else Australian that doesn't meet the standards of her refined intellect (how she must have agonized before accepting the invitation to appear on Celebrity Big Brother). Let's pay tribute to that intellect by employing her rhetorical device of invented quote and response. I imagine her yelling: "I am a loathsome creature who lacks human feeling and has so completely lost touch with Australia that I vow to be silent on its affairs." Yes Germaine, that's a great idea. And start today, will you, for God's sake.