December 2004
 
Hunt for bigger game

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The Courier Mail , December 2004

HUNT OR BIGGER GAME

Source: The Courier Mail, Page 33, Friday December 17 2004
By: Glenis Green

Steve Irwin, Tourism Export of the Year, talks to Glenis Green about his family, critics and expanding wildlife empire.

It will be a brave man who asks Bindi Irwin out on her first date in a years’ time.

Her father, Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, already has laid down the rules.

The first person who wants to take her out will have to swim Agro’s pond.” He sais – Agro being one of Australia Zoo’s biggest crocodiles.

“Then, if he can get to the other side, he’ll have to deal with me.”

You get the feeling that Irwin is only half-joking. Family means everything to him and he’d rather face deadly snakes or snapping croc jaws than risk anyone or anything harming so much as a hair on his children’s heads.

Which is why the infamous Baby Bob crocodile feeding incident, which made deadlines all around the world last January, stung him to the core.

Blasted by child advocates and labeled “a bloody idiot” by one crocodile industry veteran, Irwin found it hard, at first, to understand the fuss he had created by holding his one-month-old son Robert during a croc feeding demonstration.

After all, his zoo pioneering parents, Bob and Lyn Irwin, dad brought him up the same way and Robert’s oldest sister, Bindi, also had been introduced to crocs and snakes at a tender age.

Like an injured animal, Irwin retreated from the criticism and limelight for a while to lick his wounds.

But it was not long until he was back to his irrepressible self – albeit a little more media-wary than he had been in the past.

As open, ebullient and larger-than-life in private as he is on television, Irwin has not really changed much since fame first found him about 10 years ago.

It was a back-to-front sort of fame which saw him lauded internationally from the US and UK to Switzerland and Sweden, where his television documentaries had gained cult status, while, at the same time, Australian had yet to appreciate his talents fully.

But all that has changed and through the sheer power of his personality and branding power, Irwin is now one of the most recognized Australians in the world.

His rapidly expanding Australia Zoo at Beerwah on the Sunshine Coast has become an award-winner, including recognition as the nation’s foremost tourist attraction – but it was last week’s gone for being named the country’s Tourism Exporter of the Year which brought the biggest grin.

Organised by the Australian Trade Commission, Australian Chamber Commerce and Industry and Supported by leading businesses, the awards acknowledge businesses which have helped bring recognition to their respective industries in the global marketplace.

Irwin says that after working for 15 years “and running around all over the world to get people excited about coming to Australia”, the export accolade was especially sweet.

“But it’s everybody here (the zoo) that’s made this possible” he says. “There’s nearly 500 of us and we’re all a lot of wildlife warriors. I’m just the figurehead for everyone here.”

Irwin says the export industry has been doing it tough, faced with such issues as terrorism, the Iraq war, SARA virus, bird ‘flu and the souring Australian dollar.

“But when the going gets tough, the tough gets going and that’s what we’re been doing,” he says.

“Getting going” is an understatement for Irwin, who also has announced plans to open franchised versions of his hugely successful Australia Zoo in countries around the world.

He says the recently announced proposal to build an Australia Zoo in Las Vegas could be just the start.

“I’m talking to a very clever franchise guy – and we’re the smartest in the world – and we’re talking about establishing satellite Australia Zoos around Australia and around the world. “Irwin says.

“It would be the greatest marketing tool for Australian tourism on the face of the Earth.”

Irwin says there is a huge fascination around the world with Australia’s unique wildlife and culture, and he would like to see zoo’s established in the US, Japan and Europe which would showcase “Australian lingo, wildlife and culture”.

The croc Hunter says “where, when and if” the Australia Zoo concept spreads to other countries, he would like to continue personally conducting crocodile feeding demonstrations during peak holiday periods at each zoo, as he did with his zoo at Beerwah.

Irwin says he already has been approached by investors keen to know more about his plans to build and open an Australia Zoo in Las Vegas by 2006.

He says that with 35 million people visiting Las Vegas each year, the zoo would be an unparalleled vehicle to promote Australia internationally.

And never one to sit still for long, Irwin also is negotiating to make more movies to follow his Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course film success. “These will be very different films, big-screen products but not ducu-dramas – but I can’t say too much yet,” he says.

However, Irwin did say that he had just finished filing a television series called New Breed Vets, which would be shown soon on the Discovery channel in the US and subsequently in Australia

He says the series will bring to life the extraordinary advances in medical procedures and treatments that could be applied to wildlife suffering everything from neurological disorders to cancer.

Irwin has his finger in son many pies now that it’s hard to keep track of what tangent he’ll take next.

But his first loves are his zoo, first opened as a modest wildlife and reptile park by his parents in 1972, his Oregon-born wife Terri and Bindi, six and Bob, who turned one on December 1.

If counting snakes as your pets and helping feed crocodile before you’re even out of nappies can give you confidence, then it has surely worked with Bindi, who already oozes charm, good manners, poise and a knowledge of wildlife ways beyond her tender years.

Even Baby Bob, who looks like and Irwin clone, seems well used to the spotlight at just 12 months – even taking to the catwalk during a fashion parade to mark his first birthday celebrations.

Irwin almost bursts with pride when he mentions his kids, and even hinted that there could be plans for even more mini-Croc Hunters.

“You never know what can happen,” he says.

“They (Bindi and Bob) are the most perfect children you’ve ever seen and Terri is the most perfect mother – she would have 100 kids if she could.

“Let’s put it this way (regarding more children) – we might build a cricket pitch.”

Irwin says he knows that he’s now a big target for the critics who might not like his over-the-top Ocker style and his plans for expansion, but he says he has learnt to take the good with the bad.

But he is a little peeved at the recent row over his proposal to base a helicopter at the zoo, which would be used for scenic flights in the Glass House Mountains region, as well as for medical emergencies.

He says helicopters were based at a host of other tourist attractions and centers around Australia and it would be detrimental to the entire Australia Zoo if it could not get is chopper services off the ground.

Irwin says his proposal to build a Crocodile Hunter theme park in Brisbane also had hit a snag with the election of Campbell Newman as lord mayor earlier this year.

While former lord mayor Jim Soorley had been supportive of the plan, Irwin says Newman does not seem keen.

“There’s a negativity towards Australia Zoo (from Newman), so the proposal is harder how to get off the ground,” he says.

But right now Irwin is bubbling at the prospect of introducing four new cheetah cubs to his Beerwah menagerie.

Flown in from African after quarantine they will join the Sumatran and Bengal tigers which are now a big drawcard in the zoo’s expanding big cat section.

Themed exhibits featuring animals from around the world will be part of the new $40 million expansion. “ Disneyland had better look out,” he says. “We’re coming hard and fast.”