News Source: Sea Salt Magazine, Summer 2005 - 2006
By Kate Johns
Terri Irwin has been fighting for the cause of wildlife ever since she was a young girl. From looking after injured animals that her Dad would bring home from the highways, to picketing in court houses for the cause of cougars, caring for wildlife has always been her utmost priority.
Born in Eugene , Oregon , Terri Raines was the youngest of three girls. With a significant age gap between her and her sisters, Terri was left to her own devices on holidays, dividing her time between working alongside her father in his construction firm to running her backyard businesses.
Every summer Terri would set up her lemonade stand. But this was a lemonade stand with a twist, normally the seller would pick the lemons, make the lemonade and sell the lemonade for $1 on the street corner. No, this budding entrepreneur was too smart for that. Terri would organise people to pick the lemons, make the lemonade for her, and then she would sell the lemonade at a profit.
“I would always sell everything as a kid – I've always been a capitalist, unabashed capitalist, and I always tell Steve that if you want to save the world, then you have to charge more then $6 admission,” says Terri in her broad American accent.
In between Terri selling lemonade, mowing lawns and washing cars, the determined ten-year-old saved enough to buy a horse, bridle, saddle and a tone of hay.
Sitting in the board room at Beerwah's Australia Zoo, Terri recalls her childhood pony. The tale sparks her memory; she quickly ducks out of the room.
Returning in a matter of moments, Terri plonks an old wooden plaque on the table. It has four rusty horse shoes nailed to it, the name Terri Raines written down the bottom, and in the middle a black and white photo of a young girl with her trade mark fringe sitting on a pony.
Terri's eyes sparkle as she remembers the story behind the plaque.
“My mom made it for me, when I was just a little kid and these people cleaned their barn out and sent it to me,” says Terri. “And there I am, ten on my horse, they mailed this to me and wrote ‘thought you may like this ‘– isn't that great!”
Terri has an uncanny knack of grabbing people's attention when she speaks, whether she is addressing thousands of tourists in the Crocoseum at the Zoo or pitching to potential investors in the United States . It's the intensity of her voice - its energy, vibrancy and lilting American accent - that engrosses the listener.
This talent was harvested at a young age, when her mother taught the scriptures. Terri would enter public speaking competitions in churches throughout the state, where she would memories ten Bible verses and recite them to a panel of judges.
“I learnt that you had to deliver it with meaning and if you did that then you would win,” says Terri. “You would learn how to talk to people and that was a huge tremendous blessing.”
At twenty, Terri brought the family's construction firm and she traded partying and dating boys for learning the finer details of running a business. She clearly has a head for things once deemed “men's work”.
“I am one of the few women that can read a map and remember the first time I changed a tyre in front of Steve. I just jumped out and went to change the tyre and he was standing there, and I thought, I must have been doing it wrong, and I go ‘what?' and he says ‘you're the first chick I've ever seen change a tyre'. It was funny, it was really cute,” chuckles Terri.
Driven by a desire to save native wildlife, at twenty-two Terri establishment Cougar Country, a rehabilitation center for native animals, while still running the family business and working as a veterinary.
Terri emphasis that there are three essential approaches to conservation: habitat protection, species protection and caring for the individual animal.
“With Cougar Country I wasn't making the kind of money that I could make a contribution that would make a substantial difference to habitat or endangered species breeding program, but I could make a difference to the individual animal,” says Terri.
With these principles in place, word began to spread and Terri was traveling across the country rescuing baboons in Pennsylvania and saving cougars form the pet trade. The rehabilitation center was treating up to 300 animals a year.
“I remember I could budget $100 a month in groceries- I was thin back then – and if I had a choice I would sit down at the end of the day with $5 and I could either feed myself or my cougar – I would feed my cougar,” says Terri.
Strong parallels can be drawn between the previous Cougar Country and the existing Australia wildlife hospital, a non-profit organization aimed at rehabilitating native wildlife.
Both Steve and Terri's undying passion and commitment to conservation led to the establishment of the hospital to rescue and rehabilitate native wildlife in the south east region. The hospital has already treated up to 5000 animals since its opening in March 2004.
They have also purchased 34,800ha of land. This are is divided up between 101ha in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, 1396ha at Iron Bark Station and 33,588ha at West Bore in the southwest region of Queensland . Steve and Terri have purchased this land in a bid to protect koala habitats and safeguard against land clearing.
It's amazing to think that this formidable partnership may never have existed if Terri hadn't known the dating game so well. She followed the universal rule amongst all women – never ring first.
After meeting the knock-about Australian block – who was 29, still living with his parents and sporting a pair of tight King Gee shorts at a croc demonstration, Terri decided to revisit the zoo over the weekend. Typical Australian hospitality prevailed and Terri was put to work mowing lawns, raking at the zoo and cleaning out the enclosures.
“We just totally hit it off; we had so much in common with the wildlife work, our passion and our goals, we had this great weekend and he put me up at the Glasshouse Mountains Motel. He was very chivalrous,” says Terri.
Exchanging numbers, Terri returned to Eugene , Oregon where she resumed her busy working life. A month passed and Terri still hadn't heard from the larrikin Australian.
“I never called him, and a month later he called, and this Australian voice came over the phone ‘G'day – I just want to let you know I can't stand it. I'm coming over in November – I will be there in two weeks and I am staying for 10 days', “says Terri.
Leaning across the table and looking me straight in the eyes, Terri says with a hushed voice: “I am telling you – don't call, no matter what, don't call – it worked brilliantly.”
Since that fateful phone call more than thirty years ago, Terri the exceptional businesswoman that she is has played an instrumental role in developing Australia Zoo as an award winning tourist destination and building Steve Irwin into an internationally recognized personality.
The crocodile Hunter phenomenon all started with Terri visiting her parents in the United States and tying in an appointment in Washington DC to meet with a woman called Maureen at The Discovery Channel.
“I took the tape in and said “This has done really well in Australia ', and I said “Here is the show',” says Terri. “Maureen said ‘here is the problem, wildlife documentaries are 80% animals and 20% presenters. So you see David Attenborough, it's the lifecycle and it's only got David through bits of it, and it's fantastic and I'm a total David Attenborough fan, but its mostly of the animals'.
“And she said, ‘this is not documentary style, it's 80 per cent Steve in it, and 20 per cent just animals. It will never work'.”
Fortunately, Terri was granted a second meeting with a panel of executives from Discovery. Terri laughs as she remembers being scared to death, with nothing to wear except an eighties power suit with bad shoulder pads.
“I told them ‘I know what everyone says, but if you just try it, it will be phenomenal, I kid you not… what is so appealing to Australians will be twice as appealing to Americans, because we don't have all this stuff'.”
She returned home to Australia without knowing whether she had been successful or not. Terri and Steve found out a few days later that Steve was to be launched on a relatively new channel called Animal Planet.
And the Crocodile Hunter was born.
Speaking with Terri is a delight – she is so animated and vigorous, sporadically jumping out of her chair to tell stories of her adventures with Steve, catching fierce snakes in Central Queensland and jumping crocs in the Northern Territory .
She speaks with passion, enthusiasm and energy for the things that matter most in her life – the protection of wildlife on all levels, her home, Australia Zoo, her children Bindi and Robert and of course, Steve.
When asked what the future holds for the young Irwin family, Terri responds with a smooth sense of confidence: “It's entirely up to how destiny steers us.”