Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Zookeeper Irwin preached the wrong message

  • 24 December 2006

The only creatures [Irwin] couldn't dominate were parrots. A parrot once did its best to rip his nose of his face. Parrots are a lot smarter than crocodiles. — Germaine Greer, Guardian, 5 September, 2006

The Australian public is eagerly waiting. Thousands have camped out for a few days for an allotment of 3000 free tickets. The occasion is Steve Irwin's memorial service to be held on Wednesday, 20 September at his Australia Zoo. John Williamson is scheduled to play. The service will be screened before a worldwide TV audience. The "crocodile hunter" (a title used by his fans without self-irony) was dead, killed by the jab of a docile stingray off Port Gladstone on 4 September while filming a documentary.

The story of his life, already being written, will conclude that he was a good conservationist, a global ambassador for protecting "dangerous" animals. But can the owner or manager of a zoo ever claim such a title? Zoos: cordoned off spaces, celebrating the subjugation of nature. They demonstrate a cruel pecking order: you are on show, it tells animals, because you are in captivity, because you are not free, and your ancestors were exterminated. You must sing for your supper; you must perform for the public.

When one sees the praise heaped on this man, it is fitting to bear in mind the historical raison d'etre of zoo keeping: displays of power through entertainment, imparting knowledge on people about their status in society. Whether it was the Chou Dynasty in the 12th century BCE or the biologically-crazed nobles of Europe during the Enlightenment, animals were exotica, symbols of power. The agents of Imperialism, assisted by improved technologies, caged the animals of colonies first in private menageries, then public exhibition spaces called zoos. By the late 19th century zoos were no longer elitist. Democratised (Irwin was "egalitarian", one of "us" and the great leveller), the zoo became a space of civic virtue. The public could see the wonders of the "wild".

If natural conservation is dependent on the televisual orgy, the gladiatorial contest (Will Steve be eaten? Will the reptile eat Steve's child?), we must be desperate indeed. The images he produced are akin to those that shaped the West's consciousness of the developing world: the dying child, the famine-stricken family. In many ways, both sequences are tasteless: they denigrate their subject in the name of publicity.

Mark Townsend of the Queensland branch for the