News source: Sunshine Coast Daily Revive, Saturday July 22 2006
By Tara Conway
One of us
A CONFIDENT young Aussie bloke wooed his fresh-faced American sweetheart in the most unconventional way.
Their first date was spent working at the Zoo. A year later he proposed in the shade of a tree where they rested, dripping with sweat and backs aching after a hard day's work.
More than a decade later, Terri Irwin is recognised as the driving force who turned the struggling Beerwah Reptile Park into Australia Zoo: a major tourist attraction and national icon.
While her khaki-clad husband Steve might be most recognisable of the pair, Terri's also found fame and fortune and has millions of fans of her own all over the world.
Not only ahs she starred alongside her daredevil celebrity husband in her blockbuster hit Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course , toying with nature's most fierce creatures, but she, alongside the rest of the Irwin clan – Steve, daughter Bindi and son Robert – even have their own merchandise.
The animal-loving American has been keenly embraced by Aussies as on of our own, having recently been awarded an Honorary Order of Australia medal for her work with animal conservation.
But despite her good fortune and celebrity lifestyle, Terri Irwin is still very real.
One of the most genuine, down-to-earth and warm-hearted women you're ever likely to meet, the passionate wildlife conversationalist never loses sight of her purpose in life: saving wildlife.
Not many millionaires would give away their hefty pay packets and live simply in the name of nature. But for Terri, who lives with the rest of the Irwin clan in their old, three-bedroom, one-bathroom Zoo house, it's all for the animals.
And she insists her fortune has never been taken for granted.
“When we first started, my marketing budget was $12,000 a year and I was the marketing department,” she recalled.
“To save costs, Steve even milled his own timber to build things. Everything we earned went straight back into the Zoo. We had a very modest wage for incidentals and groceries.
“I feel tremendously blessed with the life we have. I take nothing for granted.”
Terri said she also ensures her children stay grounded and don't take their luck or fortune for granted.
“It's a parent's responsibility to make kids appreciate how lucky they are. Bindi and Robert definitely realise how lucky they are,” she said.
“Not every family in Australia can travel the world and show their kids, but Bindi has had the good fortune of visiting places where the people are doing it really hard, such as Indonesia , the South Pacific and in some places in the US where the African American life expectancy for males is 25. There's some awful ghetto-type places in the US .
“It's explained to her what goes on in the world. She needs to understand and not take things for granted and she doesn't.
“Travelling is a wonderful gift that you can give your kids.
“Bindi has slept on a grass mat on a remote island in Fiji and experienced the Four Seasons in LA. She's done it all and appreciates every bit.
“It's just appreciating people, which is very important because, at the end of the day, that's all we are – just people.”
When Terri, who ran a wildlife rehabilitation organisation and worked with predatory mammals, met Steve 15 years ago as an American tourist looking for somewhere to house her cougars, it was love at first sight.
“I had put a lot of time into cougar rescue and putting them into educational facilities,” she said.
“Although there were a lot of wildlife parks in America , I was having trouble placing the animals, so I came to Australia .
“Steve was doing a crocodile show at the time and I thought he was the most amazing man – his passion for wildlife.
“Even now when you see him on TV, that's who he is. He's not a TV presenter. He's always just been himself and I admire him for that.
“It's contagious how excited he is about wildlife and I wanted to talk to him.
“I said hi and we talked until the park closed. My friends were honking their horns in the carpark for me to hurry up.
“He said t me if I was ever in Australia again – I thought: ‘Yeah right, like I'm always back and forth from Oregon all the time' – he'd like to see me again.
“He wrote his number down and said: ‘Call me'.
“I thought it was cute how he gave me the Zoo number,” she laughed.
Not long after, Terri returned to Australia and caught up with Steve.
“Steve put me up at the Glasshouse Mountains Hotel and we worked at the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park (the Zoo's original name) all weekend,” Terri recalled.
“We raked the grounds and cleaned the cages, but I loved it. It was love at first sight, like a meteorite had landed on my head.”
Steve casually proposed to Terri under a fig tree during her visit to the country the following year, both dripping in sweat with sore backs and covered from head to toe in dirt from a hard day's work at the park.
“The wedding was in Oregon and there were about 400 people – it was really overwhelming.”
With a vision to expand the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park , Terri and Steve combined their savings and purchased their first couple of acres.
“When we married, I sold my business and house in America and with the little money I had in the bank, purchased our first couple of acres to expand,” she said.
“When we started, we had big dreams.
“Growing rapidly in business is a big risk but we struggled together and had a global vision.
“Steve started selling the Crocodile Hunter wildlife movies, and while it did well in Australia , it really took off in America .
“Crocodile Dundee was such a huge hit in the ‘80s. I loved Crocodile Dundee and that mistaken image about Australia , but Steve is really like that.
“He's really out there catching crocodiles and snakes and has a love of wildlife.
“While Steve didn't se it, from day one I knew he was going to be bigger than Crocodile Dundee and now he is. I just didn't know I'd be so much a part of it.”
Terri admits f she hadn't met Steve, things wouldn't be much different for her.
“But I often say we're so lucky to have met because together we can accomplish so much more.”
Some would say it would take a special someone to be able to keep up with the enthusiasm, passion and undying energy that Steve oozes. But for Terri, it suits her just fine.
“I'm more normal than Steve. I can sit down and read a book,” Terri laughed.
“My biggest fault is that I'm a procrastinator. Steve's the opposite. He's a real do-it-now man.
“Whether he's going into a business deal or is excited about a conservation project, he's got to do it right now.
“Literally keeping up with him is hard – he walks really fast; he does everything really fast.
“We'll try and do a five-year business plan and that will really frustrate him because he's such a now man.
“He's very passionate about his kids and wildlife. I have a real passion for the community and humanitarian aid and he's been incredibly patient and supportive of that.”
To their credit, much of the Irwins' fortune is injected back into animal conservation and various charities.
“We work with about 2000 different charities and always try really hard to contribute to auctions or fundraising events,” Terri said.
“There are areas in which we really put forward some funding. The animal hospital is one of them. We put over a million dollars into the hospital every year.
“Everything Crocodile Hunter – from movies, DVDs and merchandise – goes back into conservation.”
The Irwins have poured a staggering $40 million into the Australia Zoo enterprise over the past 10 years, with ongoing expansions planned over the next decade.
When the Irwins aren't residing at their Zoo house, they escape to their Minyama canal-front “getaway” home or their Dalby-based conservation property.
Terri said although there have been many significant experiences throughout her animal conservation years, she carried one memory close to her heart.
“There's been millions of amazing things, but I'll never forget the time when I rescued a bear out of a trap and the tranquilliser wore off and it woke up in my lap,” she said.
“Instead of killing me and eating me, she sat up and looked me in the eye, then ran away – it was amazing. I thought I was dead for sure.”
Terri said her ultimate goal was to make people realise the incredible lies behind sustainable wildlife.
“There's an amazingly vogue idea that by killing and consuming wildlife, you can save it,” she said.
“Tourism is the answer. It's about educating people and looking at non-consumptive ways of exploiting wildlife – not eating it, wearing it or using it as a trophy.
“If people said: ‘You're right, you can't save wildlife by killing it and instead, we're going to view it, photograph it and share faith with it', that would be my ultimate goal.”
Terri marvels at her life today, her ability to save and protect wildlife and her newfound love of Australia .
“When catastrophic things happen and people lose everything, like with the tsunami, you see that real mateship. When the chips are down, Australians do it better than anyone lese in the world.
“I really admire that.
“So many things have made me feel at home, especially putting down roots and having a family.”