January 06, 2004 | Graham

Bob and Croc affair owes something to politics

Steve Irwin, the world famous “Croc Hunter”, is in trouble. He held his one month son Bob in the crook of his arm while he fed a whole chicken to a four metre crocodile named Murray as part of a feeding display at his Australia Zoo. As concern that he might accidentally feed Bob to Murray rather than the chook mounted the Queensland Department of Families and the Police were called in and the acting Premier was giving press conferences. What’s worse Irwin has said he will do it again.
I’ve never been a fan of Irwin. While some might call him an “environmentalist, conservationist, naturalist, and animal lover” and “unique” Australian for me he is a boof-headed self parody who bears the same relationship to real naturalists and film producers like Richard Attenborough as a boy running his ruler over the palings of the neighbours fence to make their dog bark does to Pavlov. If he really is an “ambassador” for Australia I’m not sure that it is a country that I am entirely comfortable living in. His TV programmes are smart alec, gimmicky and should be filed under “entertainment” rather than “science”.
Having got that off my chest, I don’t think he deserves the carpeting he is getting at the moment, but he had it coming – for two reasons. The first is the tall poppy syndrome. Irwin was becoming so omnipresent that someone was bound to try to find a way to pull him down a peg or two. Yet our relationships with famous people are subtle. If being a tall poppy was enough, then we’d all be happy to see Steve Waugh play his last test. There has to be something more.
Irwin provided that something more when John Howard visited Australia Zoo in October last year. Not only did he say John Howard was the best Prime Minister we have ever had but he also impliedly supported our involvement in Iraq. His overly fulsome and presumably unscripted support made the PM whince, but it got right up the goat of that significant proportion of the community who believe it is their holy mission to obliterate John Howard and all he stands for from Australian life. What’s more, Irwin, with his boofy unsophisticated approach to life is a pretty good proxy for the aspirational voter (except he hyperventilates rather than aspirates) who has embraced Howard.
So the “Bob and Croc” affair owes something to politics. It also owes something to the way we perceive risk and our sensitivity towards children’s issues. Essentially the charge against Irwin is one of child abuse and exploitation, in a very similar way that the charge in the “Children Overboard” case was also one of child abuse and exploitation. This raises the question as to what risks Irwin was really running. My suspicion is that the risks are not much higher than taking my children by the hand and standing on the corner of Main and Vulture Streets at peak hour waiting to cross over. Yes, the Croc might jump towards Irwin, but this Crocodile is well-fed (as a reptile they don’t eat a lot anyway, taking significant energy from the environment); it’s been regularly taking its meals this way so is trained; and Irwin presumably knows its habits inside-out and has his eye on things, just in case. Just as I know that as long as I stay off the road and keep an eye out for the one-in-a-million out-of-control truck that might jump the kerb, my kids are going to be O.K.
Irwin hasn’t helped himself since the incident. First he apologized. Now he has essentially retracted and promised to do it again, but that when he does he will not get caught. His explanation that his reason for exposing the child in this way is to teach it about crocodiles would make even an alligator smile. At one month of age children are still learning to work out the expressions on their parents’ faces, how to get their nappy changed when they need it, and how to get to that nice soft source of food between their toothless gums. They don’t have a sense of personality, and they are certainly not ready for a lesson in what constitutes crocodileness.
It’s much more likely that Irwin did this with his son because he is proud to have a son, and wanted to show him off. Most dads are like that. It’s also obvious that Irwin has a strong sense of family and a feeling that his family is a special case because of the family “trade”. When he held Bob in his arms he was stamping him as not just any one-month-old, but as a one-month-old Irwin. The selfish gene would have been at work as well. Why do we father children? Generally because we want to reproduce ourselves (even in the case of unintended pregnancies). So Steve was also saying “Look, my boy is just like me, he’s not scared of crocodiles either.”
My father used to cart me around the ships he worked on. Sitting on their front verandah with my “coudabeen in-laws” the other day they asked me whether it wasn’t dangerous to take a 14 year old through the centre of a cyclone sitting on top of a ship filled with highly flammable gas. Well, I guess it was, but hey, we were a seafaring family, and at least I wasn’t on the roads. Not that Dad actually wanted me to go to sea, but he did want me to be “practical”, a concept that encompassed a bit more than being able to bring furniture home from Ikea and assemble it.
Irwin also wanted to accentuate the perception that his act is dangerous. He is more an entertainer than a naturalist, and he makes his living by arbitraging between the impression of danger and the reality of it. As he is still alive you can be sure that there is a fat margin here from which to prise a substantial living. By having Bob with him he drew attention to the riskiness of the situation, thus accentuating the perception of risk, without having to increase it at all. Holding Bob was the inverse of alternatives like prodding the crocodile, or putting your head between its jaws which would have the same effect on the audience, but a potentially more fatal effect on Irwin.
This is the same psychological mechanism that the circus knife thrower employs when he uses his youngest and prettiest daughter as the target, or the magician when he saws through the teenage and nubile model when they both could have just as easily done it to one of the 50 year old stage hands. Humans are more distressed at the thought of something vulnerable or beautiful being destroyed than something robust or ugly. Next time you take your 5 iron to a cane toad wonder whether you could do the same thing to a green tree frog. So the vulnerable and beautiful at risk make the risk seem higher, even though it has remained the same.
Can Irwin extricate himself from his problem? Well, I’m not sure that it is really a big problem if you define it in terms of attendances at his zoo. If anything, they are likely to climb after this. In terms of his wider reputation and regard, I think he can kiss good-bye to any chance he had of being Australian of the Year this decade.
He could get around some public condemnation by delving into the nature of the human being and explaining his deeper feelings and what it means to him to be a father, but I’m not sure he’s spent a lot of time touring his internal geography. Irwin has made his living thus far from provoking wildlife, so probably best to stick to what he knows best. Who knows, if he can provoke the PC crowd, not to mention the Department of Families, enough they might turn him into a martyr – and Pauline Hanson, not to mention others, demonstrate what a strong force for self promotion that can be.

Posted by Graham at 2:49 pm | Comments Off on Bob and Croc affair owes something to politics |
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