By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
September 8, 2006
"Fuck Diana, fuck the Pope, I miss the Crocodile Hunter."
I'd had it with Japan, so I fucked off to Australia for a while. (Or, more accurately, Austraaalia!) I have some friends in Brisbane, so I used that as a starting point. Excitingly, I landed on Census Day, which meant that my friends had to include me as a member of their household when they filled out the form. (The customs officials handed out pamphlets at the airport that were very specific about that.) I have an passport from the USA, I pay taxes in Japan, and I've been counted as part of the Australian census. My life is finally starting to look the same way on paper as it's always felt. So I've got that going for me, which is nice.
We drove along the coast for a couple of days, and my friend suggested we stop at the Australia Zoo. I'd been meaning to do some research on wombats, so I thought that was a good idea. And I had already made about a dozen dingo / baby jokes by the time we got to the zoo, but doing it in the presence of actual dingoes took the comic potential off the charts, as far as I was concerned.
It's always funny when you arrive in a new land and find their main cultural export all over the place. I guess you expect to see something different when you're on the inside, but then it's right there and people really seem fond of it, and you realize that's probably how and why it got exported in the first place. On the flight in, the first thing we saw - after a video about Australian theme parks, aimed at Japanese tourists, in which Batman was standing on top of the Batmobile in broad daylight - was Mr. Crikey himself, exhorting us not to smuggle any fruit or vegetables into the country. You see the same video while you're waiting in line at customs. ("I've tangled with a lot of deadly creatures in my time," he enthuses. "Crocs! Cobras! But this is one guy I don't want to mess with." Cut to a beagle sniffing a bag. The Crocodile Hunter leans down and ruffles the beagle's head. "Quarantine matters.")
The Australia Zoo is owned by Steve Irwin and his wife Terri. It's an excellent zoo. The size and diversity of their collection isn't overwhelming, but the care given to the animals is. I've been to a fair number of zoos, but I've never seen one with bigger habitats - and not just for the showpiece animals, either. Every enclosure is lush, designed from the inside-out (e.g. for the occupant first, the viewer second) and full of enrichment for the animals. The zoo is well-staffed, too. They do lay it on a bit thick with the Crocodile Hunter shtick - everyone wears khaki and gestures a lot, and they end every conversation with a fervent testimony to the belief that crocs rule. One wonders about the possibility of an anti-croc separatist group somewhere in the zoo, but I didn't see any evidence while I was there. (You know what else I didn't see? My baby. Where...) But there's plenty of the staff around, and they love giving the animals attention and chatting with visitors. It's obvious that a lot of them are just there in case a visitor wants to ask a question - there's no zoo in America that wouldn't consider that excess salary and replace them with plaques. If I treated my students half as well as they treat their animals, I'd be exhausted by Wednesday. (My work week starts on Tuesday.)
Not that it's a non-profit operation, of course. The tickets aren't cheap, and there's clearly a marketing genius somewhere in that family. The sheer amount of Crocodile Hunter swag was almost as memorable as the animals themselves. (I bought a "Crikey!" button and some plastic animals to use in an Outback photo series that never materialized.) But check this out:
Harriet was a giant land tortoise, one of the three collected by Charles Darwin during his famous trip to Galapagos. Over a hundred years later, she became one of the original residents of the Australia Zoo when Steve Irwin's parents opened it. (For most of her life, Harriet was known as "Harry". The Australia Zoo staff were the first to notice the need for a name change.) She died a few weeks ago and the zoo assembled this tribute in her enclosure.
That photo shows about one-sixth of the space that tortoise had to itself, by the way, just to give you a sense of the size of things.
So there was a sorrowful tribute with a plush tortoise in a Crocodile Hunter uniform; and now the man himself is dead. He wasn't at the zoo when I was there because he was off making a new series, Ocean's Deadliest Animals, the one he was working on when he died.
Back in Japan, we were about to go bowling when the news broke. I bowled reasonably well, but my heart wasn't in it. At first, we cursed the stingrays.
"God damn it," I said. "What the fuck was that stingray thinking?"
It's not like I watched all that many of his shows. But, fuck it, I know what I like, and I liked the Crocodile Hunter. I've seen Un chien andalou and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise and I liked them both well enough, but there is no more pure experience of surrealism in cinema than watching The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course in Spanish. I have never, ever seen anything that made less sense and was more enthusastic about it. (I have a theory that it's the exact same way in English, but I'm content to leave it untested.)
"It's like The Life Aquatic," Ron mused later, on the way back from the bowling alley.
So I watched The Life Aquatic that night as a memorial. I had that photograph of me with his cardboard cut-out, and I thought about how the man called the Crocodile Hunter helped get legislation passed to stop people from hunting crocodiles, and what ugly bastards crocodiles and alligators are, and how my mother's nickname for me was "Gator", and how Steve Irwin almost certainly didn't want anyone to take revenge on the stingray that killed him.
"This is an adventure," Steve Zissou said, softly, the last line of the movie.
I kept thinking about how absolutely blown away he looked in that photograph. He was standing there, holding a crocodile for what had to be something like the 500th time that year, and he was still able to connect with that awe. I respect that. I don't think it was simple-minded, idiot savant enthusiasm. I think it was pretty fucking Gonzo, actually, and I'm willing to go so far as to say that he was the closest living thing to Hunter S. Thompson, until he, too, wasn't alive any more. And I guess that's why his death bothered me so much. If you have a notion that you have some talent - and you have a suspicion that you're wasting it because you're not doing enough with it - Jesus, you need to know those people are out there.
My first reaction to the news of his death was "That's terrible." I went downstairs and told Ron about it; Ron's first reaction was also "That's terrible." And the first thing that came to my mind was, "Yeah, but at least he didn't die in a car accident, you know?" So that's what I said, even though it wasn't until much later, after the movie and after I slept, that I did know.
I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.
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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.