Steve Irwin’s life was cut short when he was impaled through the chest by a stingray in 2006 near the Great Barrier Reef. But his legacy remains immense. He was a popular television personality, a zookeeper, science educator, and a conservationist. He would have been 57 years old today, and a Google Doodle not only honors him, but also the work he dedicated his life to.
You might be most familiar with Irwin from his Crocodile Hunter television series, which documented his very, very close and dangerous-seeming encounters with animals (including crocodiles), which he co-hosted with his wife Terri from 1996 to 2004.
In the eyes of critics, his stunts sometimes went too far, like the time he fed a crocodile while carrying his infant son in his arms. There was also a time he was investigated for filming too close to humpback whales and penguins, possibly putting them at risk. (He was never charged with any crime.)
Antics aside, his devotion to animals and conservation began long before the show ever existed.
His father, Bob Irwin, is a herpetologist who founded a zoo in Queensland, Australia, where Steve grew up. Steve would come to run the park, now called Australia Zoo, and promote the educational and conversation efforts there. “My job, my mission, the reason I’ve been put onto this planet, is to save wildlife,” he once said. He had reason to worry. The average vertebrate (birds, fish, mammals, amphibians) population has declined 60 percent since 1970, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The future for biodiversity on planet Earth, due to human activity, looks bleak.
And they weren’t just words. His Wildlife Warriors charity bought up hundreds of square miles around the world for wildlife conservation. The charity, which is still operating today, is also involved in conservation efforts for animals like Sumatran tigers, koalas, Cambodian elephants, and more. The Australia Zoo even manages a 500-plus-square-mile reserve in the north of Queensland, named after Irwin.
Whether or not you approved of us his up-close and aggressive approach to videotaping animals, it’s clear pop culture could use more science and wildlife celebrities like Irwin. For too many, the enormous diversity of life on Earth is a remote abstraction, something that belongs to another, more fantastical world.
People like Irwin, Jane Goodall, and David Attenborough help us appreciate the natural world by bringing it into our homes, and selling us on its importance and vulnerability with their care, wonder, thoughtfulness, and enthusiasm.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for Irwin’s programing, here’s some footage from the very first episode of The Crocodile Hunter, which first aired in 1996.