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News Source: The Courier-Mail (14th August 2007)
by Glenis Green
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BIG boys don't cry and Wes Mannion's jaw clenches to fight back the lump in his throat as he talks about his best mate, Steve Irwin.

It's been almost a year since the seemingly indestructible Crocodile Hunter died in that encounter with a stingray, but emotions are still raw.

Not only has Mannion had to step in to fill the boots of one of the most popular Aussie icons and keep Irwin's Australia Zoo dream alive, he has had to do it while still grieving for the best friend he also regarded as a brother.

"There's not a day I haven't thought about Steve simply because he's been so much a part of my life," Mannion, the director of Australia Zoo, told The Courier-Mail in an exclusive interview ahead of the first anniversary of Irwin's death on September 4.

"The weirdest thing is that, as time goes by, I miss him more and more. The first six months you miss him.

"Then a few more months go past and that's when the reality sets in and you really start to miss him and that doesn't go away.

"It just gets heavier and heavier."

Mannion, 37, who first chummed up with the eight years older Irwin at the tender age of 14 after his childhood passion for snakes led him to the zoo, says Irwin's death last year was the hardest thing he had ever had to go through.

Mannion said the freaky nature of Irwin's death - stabbed through the heart with a stingray barb - had made dealing with it a little easier in one sense.

"It was fate.

"Thousands of people swim with stingrays every day of the week."

Mannion said he had never seen, nor wanted to see, the controversial film footage of his friend's last moments and was relieved it had been destroyed.

He said he would also guard the secret of whether Irwin was buried or cremated and where his remains lay.

"Steve, as much as he was an open book to everyone, he was a private man as well," he said, but added that talk of a commemorative statue of Irwin somewhere on the Sunshine Coast was "a cool idea".

Mannion said that even in his own grief his first thoughts were for Steve's wife, Terri, and their two young children, Bindi and Robert.

"My main concern was the kids and Terri because no one was as close to Steve as those three.

"We (the family) all just stuck together – nothing broke apart. At the end of the day we had to get through that shock, that realisation.

"I still do (sometimes) expect him to come walking through that door, because everything I do in my life revolves around Steve.

Mannion said while there had been no days when he thought he could not continue on without his friend, he drew some comfort from the fact that Irwin had always lived in the moment."

"He was a machine and that's why we've all gone for (his dream) and not fallen over and crawled up in a ball and gone to sleep.

"He tried to jam as much as he could in a short amount of time. The only time that didn't happen was when he had his kids. He was an incredible father, an absolutely awesome dad and he put so much time into the kids. That's the only time when I can honestly say he ever slowed down.

"Like, if he was in a meeting and Bindi would come up and go 'daddy, daddy' he wouldn't go 'uh-uh, this is a really important meeting, off you go'. He would grab her and play with her and love her."

Mannion said that, next to his family and wildlife conservation, Irwin had loved his zoo with a passion.

It's a passion matched by Mannion who has vowed to do anything he can to keep it going and expanding.

"Sometimes I think: 'I hope people don't think I'm trying to be Steve here', that people understand where I fit in the picture and that I'm not and never will be (Steve) but that he was my brother.

"The one thing I want to do more than anything in life is to keep his dream alive.

"I've been in a lot of documentaries with Steve over the years but it's not my passion. I can do it, but I ain't Steve and I'm never going to be.

"Bindi will be Bindi. She's not going to be Steve. She will be what she wants to be and do what she wants to do. And the great thing about (young) Bob is that he's ended up with Steve's personality and he'll be like 'I'll just go and do what I want to do'.

"Terri is such a fantastic mum. She's not going to pressure them to do anything or say 'you can't do it' because people will say I'm pushing you into it.

"Anyone who's spent time with Bindi knows she does what she wants to do. She knows how to get her own way and she's a typical nine-year-old.

"There's a couple of things she has to do and one is school and the other is brushing her teeth at night – other than that she understands she doesn't have to (do anything).

"She has fun. Bindi's a wonderful little kid and she'll be what she wants to be. At the end of the day you can't pressure your kids to do anything because if you do they'll buck it."

Mannion said Australians tended to handle death really badly.

"It's like 'let's not talk about it, let's sweep it under the carpet, let's get rid of the photos, don't mention his name', instead of embracing that person," he said.

Which is why Mannion is glad that all the Steve Irwin signage still abounds at the zoo as well as everywhere else to continue promoting the Irwin brand and his conservation message.

Mannion is now pushing on with Australia Zoo's massive development plans, with an estimated $200 million-plus set to be spent in the next 10 years as the zoo expands to more than 300ha from its original 2ha humble beginnings when it was started by Irwin's parents, Bob and Lynn Irwin.

But Mannion said one of the things he had learned from Irwin was to take the time out to put family first and enjoy the journey as well as the destination.

With his wife, Jodie, at his side as the zoo's assistant director and their young son Riley, 2, Mannion said he now realised – as Irwin did – that parents should take a leaf out of their children's books.

"Kids have an attitude to get on with things and have fun," he said.

"Steve was a jokester as well, always into having fun. He'd get bored pretty quick.

"With Steve there was always something exciting happening and if there wasn't he'd say: 'let's make it exciting'.

"There will be no one like Steve ever again. He was one of a kind."

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