The only creatures [Irwin] couldn’t dominate were parrots. A parrot once did its best to rip his nose off his face. Parrots are a lot smarter than crocodiles.
German Greer, Guardian, September 5, 2006
The camera is trained on Bob Irwin, bespectacled with sunshades. A live shot, streaming across the web and national television, broadcasts from Beerwah, Queensland. American tourists will know this town: home of Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo. ‘He died doing what he liked doing’, stammered Bob. ‘Far better than being hit by a bus.’ His son, Steve Irwin, was the ‘crocodile hunter’, a modern media phenomenon. And he was dead, killed by the lethal jab of a docile stingray off the resort down of Gladstone on Monday while filming a documentary.
His death triggered an immediate loss of perspective. News web sites collapsed under the strain of queries for confirmation. Australian commercial networks had no room for any other item. Irwin’s death made breaking news on American channels with blistering speed.
There was one exception: the ethnic broadcaster SBS left room for the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, the failing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cease-fire in Lebanon. (Such wars are otherwise ‘non-events’ in this part of the world.) Otherwise, news presenters donned khaki, children were interviewed about the role Irwin played in their lives, politicians were asked about his significance as ‘an Australian’. (Australia’s Foreign Minister reminding us of his existence praised his impact in the United States.) Australia Zoo, and Beerwah, became an instant funeral site.
The skewed perspective extends to the man, his role, his politics as a wildlife impresario. 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: spaces cordoned off, 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. A zoo has the impress of a caste system: smarter animals (seals, dolphins) are given onerous tasks of entertaining. They are rewarded accordingly. Lesser ones are banished: a life of drudgery awaits the nocturnal, the small.
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 twelfth Century B.C. or the 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.
The monarchs went, but the caging system they had introduced to the animal kingdom remained. By the late nineteenth century it was 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’. As Elisabeth Hanson writes in Animal Attractions, the zoo came on the heels of a growing interest in public gardens. From London to Melbourne, people could imagine they were in the ‘wild’, a tranquil escape from industrialization.
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, war-torn landscapes. In many ways, both sequences are tasteless: they denigrate their subject in the name of publicity.
The proximity of the camera, the acrobatics associated with catching a crocodile, the tensions produced by dangling a piece of meat or one’s child before the beast, do anything but demystify the wild. Mark Townsend of the Queensland branch for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals must be mistaken to assume that Steve was ‘a modern-day Noah’ (September 6, 2006). The same can be said for an internet blog that described Irwin as ‘over the top’ but effective. ‘He got kids interested in the world of animals, made them care about conservation’.
What have these children been taught? Perhaps the lesson is this: The animal world is there for the picking, an entertainment bonanza. Preserve it, yes, but only do so at the cost of its solitude and tranquillity. Reduce its beings to anthropomorphic caricatures: crocodiles and snakes can be handled, cuddled, kissed. Irwin had taken the zoo-keeping model of taming and subjugating animals to the world. His animals were no longer just in Beerwah, but subjects of films, sought out by his camera crews. Before long, he was not merely featuring on Animal Planet, but in a Hollywood film. His camera had incarcerated the animal kingdom.
Germaine Greer was perhaps callous to mock his death as nature’s ‘revenge’, but the point was well made. It was the retaliation of a caged subject towards its captor. He may well have succumbed to his own fantasies, seeing the wild as eminently tameable. An otherwise placid stingray took issue with this approach.
BINOY KAMPMARK is a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org