Magazine article The Spectator

Steve Irwin's Death Shows That Nature Still Has a Few Nasty Tricks Up Her Sleeve

Magazine article The Spectator

Steve Irwin's Death Shows That Nature Still Has a Few Nasty Tricks Up Her Sleeve

Article excerpt

Rod Liddle says that the Australian wildlife expert was more than a hugely popular national stereotype: he gave the animal kingdom the chance to fight back

It was not, in the end, a crocodile which did for Steve Irwin - something we might all have understood and, in time, come to terms with.

Nature took its revenge instead with a deliberate and subtle sense of anticlimax.

Being harpooned by a stingray is certainly less risible than being killed by a pig falling upon one's head, or being savaged by a rabbit (as once happened to the former US president, Jimmy Carter). But still, as we all mourn, at the back of our minds is the unspoken question to Mr Irwin's departing soul: a stingray, mate? Crikey! Are you sure?

Couldn't you have seen one of those off, tough guy?

Steve Irwin, a television personality known around the world as 'The Crocodile Hunter', was killed when a stingray lashed out at him while he was filming a bunch of them (known technically as a 'shoal') just off the Great Barrier Reef. To you and I, stingrays may appear to be weirdly elegant, flappy creatures which we would be delighted to admire from a safe distance, preferably behind glass. The wildlife experts, who this week made their way into the television studios to offer condolences with their noses ever so tightly held (I'm not sure they had very much time for Mr Irwin's methods and distinctly Antipodean chutzpah), were all agreed on one point: stingrays are incredibly gentle beasts, disinclined to attack unless strongly provoked, a sort of marine version of Geoffrey Howe. Whenever they mentioned the word 'provoked', the wildlife experts would raise their eyebrows meaningfully. They knew that Steve Irwin's stock-intrade was precisely to provoke all manner of telegenic beasties, the more dangerous - great big snappy teeth, huge glands full of nerve agent, whatever - the better.

Antagonising crocodiles and extremely venomous snakes was his favoured pastime, the thing which got the crowds gasping and the TV contracts rolling in, year after year. But, to give him credit, if you were to show him any of God's creatures, he'd poke it in the belly with a stick, slap it around the eyes, call it names or taunt it with the presence of swiftly withdrawn repast (such as, on one infamous occasion, his own baby son, Ben, whom he dangled in front of the jaws of a slavering croc). The implication was that Mr Irwin had done something very similar with the stingray in question - maybe invaded its space, become horribly over-familiar with it or even punched it. He must, surely, have done something.

Not so, according to his best mate, John Stainton. He had done nothing more than swim over the top of the fish and the stingray lashed out. Maybe it had just got out of bed on the wrong side that morning, or had received an unexpected council tax demand.

Anyway, according to Mr Stainton, 'The stingray's barb went up and into his chest and put a hole in his heart. He possibly died instantly when the barb hit him. I don't think that he felt any pain.'

Apparently, the venom-coated barbs on a stingray's long, whippy tail can be anything up to six inches long, and they are serrated, thus leaving deep wounds in flesh when they exit the body. You see, while John Donne might well be right that every man's death diminishes us, it is also true that sometimes we learn stuff. …

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