Terri’s love for animals led her to The Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. Now they live with their children at Australia Zoo. She talks about her experiences, overcoming fears and scary moments.
What is it like having wild animals as neighbours?
It’s incredible living at Australia Zoo. Every morning I wake up to brolgas bugling and parrots talking, alligators and crocodiles roaring. I think our daughter Bindi is blessed to be growing up in this environment. Everyday she’s learning something at the zoo, having a good time and it’s exciting! We do 24-hour wildlife rescue work and we never know from one minute to the next what might happen.
What should women do in the wild to keep safe?
Women have the most incredible instincts, that’s why they call it “women’s intuition” but we have pushed down that instinct and tried to overcome it. For example, you’re getting in an elevator and there is a large man in that elevator, instinctively you go, “small space plus person bigger than me equals danger situation,” but we get on the elevator anyway and get off and everything’s fine. We have lost our instincts in the wild so what I’d say is if you instinctively think, “I feel uncomfortable going in this cave or going in this water”, listen to those instincts.
If you see a snake and you run away, it’s probably a good idea. You’ll live longer! In Australia though, even the most remote areas have good signage. Wherever there are crocodiles that frequent water holes, there are signs posted by the government that say, “Caution, don’t swim here”. It’s a very safe country because there aren’t hordes of venomous snakes marauding through downtown Sydney so you can visit the cities and you’re only got the regular city danger, which we’re all accustomed to.
Out in the bush though, it’s common sense – going with a guide, taking plenty of water, dressing to protect yourself from the sun. I think exploring the Australian bush is just magic, because most of the animals are platypus, kangaroos, koalas – wildlife that can’t possibly hurt you.
What tips would you have for women who might be afraid of lizards, snakes and crocodiles? What can they do to maybe overcome their phobias?
I think it’s admirable to try to overcome phobias, because losing a fear of something means you are empowered. You are conquering your fear and you’re much more likely to be successful in other areas. This is particularly important for little girls. We are raising Bindi with respect for crocodiles, not fear of crocodiles. She knows she can’t swim with them but she doesn’t have nightmares about them. And I think she will be a stronger person because of it.
For women it’s particularly empowering to know that if you see a snake it’s not going to chase you. Only the largest Reticulated Pythons would see a person as food and you’d have to be awfully unlucky to be in that situation. In Australia we have venomous snakes but they hunt rats and mice, so the most empowering thing for me was learning what to do in the event of snakebite. Not that I know I’m not going to die if I’m working with Steve, I’ve handled the 11 most venomous snakes on Earth and I’ve never been bitten. It doesn’t mean you have to handle snakes, it just means you have to understand them to not be afraid.
Crocodiles are simple, you just don’t swim with them. Lizards are easy, unless you’ve got a situation where you’re with Komodo Dragons, lizards don’t hunt people. The only venomous lizards in the world are in the USA, there’s two species and they’re very shy. You’d be awfully lucky to see one, let alone be bitten by one. So the key to overcoming your fears really is just to understand the animals. You see a Lace Goanna in Australia, enjoy it. It’s not going to be hunting you, it’s not going to be hunting your children. I mean you’re not going to leave your kids unattended on Komodo Island (Terri laughs), so that’s how you work it.
What’s been your scariest moment?
I’ve had a few. Probably one of the scariest happened in the US when I was working with a cougar. She was in an enclosure and I turned my back on her for a moment and she decided to pounce on me. She grabbed me on the back and had her mount completely engulfing my head, I though I was going to die. I managed to fight her off and she pounced on me two more times before I got out of the enclosure.
It is very frightening, but whenever I get nailed by an animal it’s my mistake and I think in hindsight, I shouldn’t have turned my back on that cougar. I have her the opportunity to jump me. I’ve had close calls with Black Bears, I’ve been bitten by smaller crocs, but I think some of the biggest life and death situations are actually just getting to the wildlife. I’ve fallen down cliff faces, I’ve fallen out of boats in the middle of the night. But it’s always my own dumb fault. It’s never the animals’ fault.
Are there any encounters that stick out in your mind?
I think some of the most spectacular animal bites are from non-venomous snakes because when I’m doing snake rescue with a harmless python, I tend to handle them more gently because I know they’re not venomous and if they bite me, all it’s going to do is just hurt. Pythons have 200-plus teeth in their mouth. They are designed with curved teeth to grab a hold of a food item like a rat or a mouse and the teeth are curved so that the animal can’t get away from them. So when they are afraid and they bite defensively these needle sharp teeth go in quite deep and there is a lot of blood. The ironic thing is you look like you’re been spectacularly injured with blood pouring out and it’s actually a bunch of little pin pricks with heal up quite quickly.
How did you and Steve meet?
Steve and I met on October 6, 1991 when I came to Australia Zoo as a tourist. He was doing a crocodile demonstration and I though he was the most amazing man. Here he was in a life-threatening situation demonstration how a crocodile launches a strike out of the water, and all he could say was how wonderful the crocodile was. He spoke in such endearing terms about crocodiles being wonderful mothers and tender lovers and about all there attributes that I had never considered crocodiles having; and I just had to talk to him. Besides that I though he looked fabulous in those little shorts!