Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Timothy Treadwell vs. Steve Irwin

I clearly remember where I was when I first heard the news. In the terminal of the Atlanta airport about to catch a flight to Paris. "Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin killed by stingray" scrolled across the news screen. Stingrays are oddly my favorite animal and I have pet countless rays and swam alongside thousands. I was in absolute shock to hear of his passing. I had a trip to go on and was rather preoccupied for the next few weeks when I returned home to hear about the tragic loss of a good friend of mine at a young age. Eventually, I did have time to think about Steve Irwin's strange journey and was saddened by the news and mostly for his young children who would grow up without a father.

Steve was one of those guys you felt you knew, he was a father-figure sort to kids around the world with his daring exploits to exotic locales peppered with all sorts of dangerous predators he loved to show you. It was wonderful that Steve cared so much about the conservation of wild life and educating young people. However, there were clearly better ways to have gone about it. Steve didn't just take you into an animal's world and show it to you, he would go up to the creature, pick it up, and many times taunt it, poking it and trying to provoke it to attack. Partly to show off it's defense mechanisms, and partly out of machismo. That aspect didn't seem too congruent with respecting wildlife but Steve was an entertainer. He well knew the risks of such behavior. He was almost a godly figure to his wife who followed him all over and to his friends and team, who all seemed completely baffled when something awful finally happened. Steve supposedly thought he would die young, but not at the hands of an animal. Despite his obvious knowledge on animals, he seemed to perceive himself as invincible when handling animals, exposing himself and his loved ones to constant risks, medic on hand or not. I remember the controversy surrounding Steve when he held his brand new baby Bob Irwin in one hand and fed a giant crock meat with the other. The audience was horrified and his actions met with international outrage. Steve responded by scoffing at his critics and boasting that he knew what he was doing and that he would never expose his child to any real danger. (Because feeding a giant killing machine a few feet away from a newborn is a totally sane harmless choice). Steve clearly thought himself a Crocodile Dundee, some larger-than-life character unbound to the same rules as the rest of us mere mortals in the face of wilderness. Contrary to his own flawed beliefs, NO ONE, no matter how smart, can predict an animal's every move.

Brushes with death were a recurring theme in Steve's life. I recall watching footage Steve and his then-brand wife Terri rock climbing. For some unknown reason, they didn't have much protective gear at all and Terri nearly lost her life that day, slipping to what would have easily been her death if Steve hadn't managed to find strong footing and pull her up with one arm. She seemed visibly pissed afterward, though I have to wonder which genius decided this was a good idea. How many times were Terri and those children constantly exposed to situations that could have easily turned upside down? As strong as Steve was, he couldn't possibly have controlled it all. The footage of the sting ray incident was billed as a freak accident; as a stingray lover, one of the things I love the most about this alien creature is how gentle and majestic they can be. Human deaths caused by sting rays are astoundingly low in recorded history. A stingray rarely attacks unless it is provoked, such as stepped on or caught on a hook. According to Steve's camp, the camera was somewhere in front of the stingray, shooting Steve swimming alongside rays. Steve was swimming above the ray when it was supposedly startled by the camera and thurst its tail upwards, penetrating Steve's heart with its barb. The stingray's thrust didn't kill him (and it's possible he could have survived if the appropriate action was taken; a man who was stung in the heart by a stingray barb was successfully treated). Steve's death was the result of his impulsive decision to pull the barb out which caused instant death. He probably didn't know just how deep in the barb actually was and I'm guessing it was panic as the worse thing you can do in a puncture situation is to rip out the object. (Remember that, folks). It seems a bit suspicious to me that a camera startled the ray. If Steve Irwin handled the stingray as he did every other poisonous animal he encountered on TV, my guess is that it was poked or provoked in some fashion and Steve's team didn't want to release that information. Either way, we'll never know as the tapes were destroyed against Steve's wishes. He once proclaimed on TV that if he ever died while being eaten by a croc or some such scenario, he wanted the camera to keep rolling.

The tragedy was obviously very sad, but I can't say it was altogether unpredictable. Much of Steve's work was educational in nature, but constant provocation was unnecessary and a show of ego. Steve wasn't the king of the jungle or the sea, he was another man trying co-exist with nature. Such an event could have happened at any point in his career and if it didn't happen in the sea that day, there is a big possibility it would have happened in another fashion. You can only luck out so many times. The thing that really gets me is how shocked everyone who knew him the most was. They clearly bought into the myths Steve was bent on perpetuating. Clearly, the family hasn't learned it's lesson. The other day, I saw a picture of Bindi Irwin with a huge snake wrapped around her neck. Not in some loose necklace fashion but literally with it's body completely twisted a few times around her neck in a tight fit. I can't imagine what prompts them to continue to play with fire and have pretty negative feelings about Terri Irwin having Bindi work so much after Steve's death and trying to get little Bob a show of his own. Those two children are beautiful and I'm sure they will continue to preserve wildlife and educate the public. I just hope they find more constructive means of doing so and learn their father's lessons.

Which brings us to yet another example of overly cocky man vs. beast. Timothy Treadwell, otherwise known as the man who lived amongst grizzly bears for 13 summers. I recall his appearance on The David Letterman Show where Dave asked him if he was "one of those guys that's going to end up on TV eaten by bears". Of course it was a joke and he passed it off as such and denied such an event, yet sadly it was a foreshadowing of events to come. Treadwell was certain no harm could come to him at the claws of a Grizzly, he claimed he knew how to assert his dominance in their environment and could peacefully live amongst them. Sadly, while at his campsite with his girlfriend, the two were killed and partially ingested. Recording actually existed (audio, not video, as the cap was still on the camera). Only one copy of the recording exists and it has never been available to the public, though partial transcripts exist. Apparently, Treadwell and the bear struggled. He shouted to his girlfriend that the bear was killing him and to help him. Apparently, they had no appropriate protection with them despite living in the woods and dealing with dangerous animals. He was heard yelling to his girlfriend to "get a frying pan". I was horrified to think that he was getting survival tips from Yogi the Bear cartoons. Thing about the logistics of this. An 800 lb bear is already about four times the weight of a human and is covered with fur and insulation. What on earth is a frying pan going to do, even if you get a good spot?! I am horrified that these two had zero weapons at their disposal despite their lifestyle and location. (PLANNING IS EVERYTHING. No one wants to think the worse is going to happen, but sometimes, it inevitably does. Be prepared.) These two should have known better, and anyone willingly subjecting themselves to these living conditions should absolutely know all of this. It's that same "Nothing will happen...I'm invincible...I know what I'm doing" mentality and naivete that kills. These men were not superheroes. Sometimes I wonder who is more delusional about their reality, the men who do this or the women who blindly follow them. Surely, there must have been SOMETHING of better use lying around. A pole from the tent? At least that could provide some leverage and distance, though I doubt even that would have done much. I'm sure there is little time to make decisions during emergency situations, but that's why it's so important to make a good one prior to acting. I'm sure the emotion involved must have been incredible. No one wants to see their loved one in peril and naturally people will do what they can to change the outcome but they should do so realistically. As romantic as it is that this woman tried to save her boyfriend, the woman was biologically far less equipped to successfully fight that bear off than he must have been unless she had a weapon on hand. There is a documentary available about Treadwell directed by Werner Herzog, "Grizzly Man". RIP.

Naturally, my heart goes out to the people in these tragedies and their families. I hope that the general public learns from these accidents and doesn't watch reruns of the Croc Hunter with ideas that any of this is something they should try while out and about. Just as in the recent story of the woman who had an adult primate at home with her who ripped off her face, people need to be aware that animals are unpredictable, no matter how trained they are. Especially wild animals that humans are thoroughly warned about interacting with in such an intimate manner.
(To that person housing a tiger in their basement - I know you're out there - DON'T DO IT! And if you do, make sure you are prepared for anything.)

Lesson: Ego scores 1000 points. Man scores zero. Komodo dragon takes all. Including Sharon Stone's husband's toe. (By the way, what was up with THAT?! Who told him to get into a cage with a Komodo dragon? My point exactly. Think people. Think!)

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