Steve Irwin’s ark: Australia Zoo legacy

By Elizabeth Ginis August 12, 2014
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Eight years after the death of The Crocodile Hunter, his legacy is nurtured by his family and a crew of 400 at Australia Zoo – a conservation hub for all manner of wildlife.

IT ISN’T YET 5am, but vet Amber Gillett is already in theatre, desperately trying to save the life of an 18-month-old koala, who has two broken arms, a broken leg, punctures to her abdomen and a shredded right ear. It’s touch-and-go, heart-in-your-mouth stuff.

Nurses hurry in and out of the theatre while the tiny creature’s chest rises and falls in rhythm with the beep of the heart-rate monitor. A clear plastic mask covers her nose and mouth, feeding vital oxygen into the limp body. After hours on the table, she’s moved to the ICU, and propped on her less damaged side on a cushion, with a hot water bladder for comfort. Now, it’s a matter of wait and see, says Amber. “She’s gotten this far, so she’s a tough little girl.”

In 2012 Amber and the team at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital treated about 900 koalas, such as this one, which had been attacked by domestic dogs. It’s an alarming figure, and one that’s on the increase.

“When the hospital opened in 2004, we treated 64 native animals. Today, with the stampede of urbanisation in this area, that number has increased to more than 7500,” says Amber. “There are echidnas, turtles, birds, snakes, lizards…we deal exclusively in native wildlife. And our reach is wide; we’ve taken animals from… NSW, north Queensland and SA.”

Designed to treat a maximum of 10,000 animals a year, the 24/7 wildlife hospital is our nation’s busiest. It’s the silent partner in the big business of bustling Australia Zoo and is funded by it (and also public donations) to the tune of $2 million annually.

Australia Zoo – set on more than 40ha of rolling Sunshine Coast hinterland and surrounded by the stately domes of Queensland’s Glass House Mountains – was established in the 1970s. Then called the Beerwah Reptile and Fauna Park, it was a small, family affair run by Steve Irwin’s father, Bob, and his mum Lyn, and was primarily made up of animals rescued by the Irwins. In 1992 they handed the reins to Steve and his new bride Terri. The duo shared a passion for wildlife and filmed the first of the The Crocodile Hunter documentaries while on their honeymoon. It screened in Australia the same year.

While his croc-hunting antics were eye-popping to many, for Steve, they were a natural extension of his childhood. As a 9 year old, alongside his Dad, he caught his first croc and three years later was launching out of boats to capture and relocate them from highly populated areas where they would otherwise be killed.

In 1996 The Crocodile Hunter documentaries were launched on US television, and became a worldwide phenomenon watched by millions. Steve’s boots-and-all enthusiasm for animals great and small, not to mention his croc-wrestling skills, attracted the attention of US celebrities such as Barbara Walters and Justin Timberlake. They were so enamoured by his commitment to conserving wildlife that they took up the call of “Khaki isn’t just a colour, it’s an attitude!” Justin was so impressed after a visit to Australia Zoo that, in 2007,  he donated $100,000 towards its conservation work.

Terri tells me that Steve’s “passion was contagious” and very genuine, which was perhaps why people liked him so much. In between filming, she and Steve transformed the zoo into a world-renowned attraction, featuring daily croc shows that Steve called the “greatest wildlife event in history”.

“People flocked to the park to see Steve working with the loves of his life,” says Kelsey Engle, a long-time zoo curator. “It was plain to see that he admired these amazing apex predators – highlighting their strength, power and survival skills to the world. He made wildlife conservation matter to people who previously would never have given it a second thought. That was his gift; he grabbed your attention and ran away with it.”

At the height of Crocodile Hunter fervour, the series was televised in 142 countries and watched by more than 500 million people, earning the zoo a spot on the itinerary of many overseas visitors, and now attracting more than 300,000 of them
annually, establishing it as one of Queensland’s top commercial visitor attractions.

Celebrating ‘Steve Irwin Day’

EXPLODING INTO THE Crocoseum in a puff of smoke, Terri, daughter Bindi, 14, and son Robert, 9, are clad all in khaki. They’re “pumped” and ready to talk crocs with the swelling crowd that has been spinning the zoo’s turnstiles since it opened
at 8am. It’s 15 November, 2012, and spectators are now filing into the custom-built stadium to celebrate the zoo’s ‘Steve Irwin Day’, which commemorates his work and vision for the future of wildlife worldwide.

The star of the show is a croc named Monty, all 400kg of him. Steve’s pride and joy, Monty was relocated from a Townsville boat ramp in 1975 when he was about 1m long.

“At that time Steve was around the same height so they grew up together and built a pretty special relationship,” Terri tells the crowd as keepers coax him out of his enclosure. As if on cue, Monty charges through the open gate and into the stadium, chasing Wes Mannion, Steve’s best mate, fellow croc hunter and zoo director.

It’s a drama-charged sight: a 4m-long salty stalking a 1.8m-tall man. If we’d been seeing this in the wild, we’d hold little hope for Wes: crocs attack for two reasons, food and territory, and at that moment Wes was food and he was invading Monty’s territory.

Wes is no stranger to the speed with which a croc can move or the ferocity of an attack. He bears the scars – 187 stitches on his upper thigh and bottom – after 350kg resident-salty Graham grabbed him in 2001. Steve prevented a catastrophe by jumping on Graham, explains Terri to the audience. Wes was able to extricate himself while Steve offered the croc a pick handle as a distraction.

Both Terri and Bindi hand feed Monty during the show – Bindi has been feeding crocs since she was 10 – but the climax is undoubtedly Monty’s death roll. Armed with a substantial chunk of pig meat attached to a long rope, Wes engages in a game of tug-of-war with the croc before Monty slides backwards into the water and throws all his energy into three lightning-fast rotations. Monty’s mighty power is unleashed for all to see. It’s impressive, and stupefying, in equal measures.

Later that afternoon, I catch up with Terri, Bindi and Robert in the boardroom. It’s an ambling conversation that ranges from saving the planet’s wildlife for future generations to their favourite hang-out spots around the zoo.

The Irwin children are a chip off the old block. Bindi might be young, but she is single-minded in her devotion to her father’s work. “Conservation through education is vital,” she says. “And I think one of the best ways to do that is through accidental learning. Kids can come to the zoo, have a great time and when they leave they’ve learned all sorts of things about the wildlife here, which then makes them think about how they can protect animals.”

Like her father, Bindi is keen to own the problems having an impact on today’s wildlife. “We can’t look at the long-term welfare of native animals without also looking at the greater problems facing our planet, like population growth,” she says. “We have to start asking ourselves: Can the planet accommodate all of us?”
They’re big issues for such a young woman, but Bindi is adamant. “I see part of my role at the zoo is to empower kids, to give them information so they have a voice and can speak up and make a difference. That’s the way I can continue Dad’s legacy.”

Captive-breeding programs to conserve native species

THE SPECTACLE OF the croc show is undeniably impressive, but a key role of any 21st-century zoo is conservation. Australia Zoo runs an extensive captive-breeding program for a number of species, including: Tasmanian devils, Sumatran tigers, cassowaries, echidnas, reticulated pythons, saltwater crocs and white rhinos.

“We collaborate with other zoos [across Australasia] to maximise the breeding potential,” Terri says. “We also work with studbook keepers who manage a record of the family trees of captive animals, and recommend which females and males should breed to ensure genetic diversity.”

The Tassie devil program has had great success in the last few years. “In 2011 we had five joeys and the year before that two,” says Beth Gibson, who looks after native mammals. She also says she’d love to breed southern hairy-nosed wombats, but it can be difficult to coax them into mating in captivity.

According to Giles Clark, the zoo’s international conservation manager, one of the most exciting projects involves Sumatran tigers. In 2008 three cubs – the first to leave Indonesia in 30 years – arrived at Beerwah to form part of a critical breeding program. It’s anticipated the zoo’s 18-year-old male Sumatran tiger, Ramalon (born at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo), will successfully breed with one of the females, now 5 years old, injecting much-needed fresh blood into Australia’s captive population of Sumatran tigers.

“With less than 400 remaining in the wild, it’s imperative we get this right,” Giles says. “Before this we were heading towards a genetic bottleneck [in Australia]… But these young ladies will go a long way to ensuring the survival of their species by
increasing genetic diversity.”

In collaboration with conservation NGO Fauna & Flora International, Australia Zoo also supports Asian elephant programs in Cambodia and Sumatra, where some of their largest remaining blocks of continuous habitat are found. The programs engage local communities, and field units work with villagers, showing how to minimise conflict with elephants.

“The zoo’s philosophy is to adopt a holistic approach,” says Giles. “So it’s not just funding…but on-the-ground support. Unless we can get local communities…to see the benefits of saving an elephant or a tiger in their forests, it won’t be sustainable.” One method they teach involves planting crops that elephants don’t like to eat, such as chilli, to repel them.

Each year, the zoo puts up to $500,000 – funds raised from the visitor wildlife encounters – towards its conservation projects. But conservation is only as effective as the education that accompanies it.

“Our donor programs at the zoo let people know exactly where and what their money will be used for,” Giles says. “Our Tiger 511 program, for instance, teaches people that it costs $5 a day to save one tiger in the wild for one day. It gives people a connectedness, a sense of ownership.”

Ownership is something Steve was big on. In the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, elephants were used in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, to help with the clean-up. “Steve saw this on TV,” Terri says. “He was worried their feet were being ripped to shreds by walking on the piles of debris so he set about making shoes for them out of old tyres, tried them out on our elephants and…flew them over himself to help fit them.”

Conservation dollars are also spent on the International Croc Rescue program, which works in places including Sumatra, East Timor and Cambodia, where Siamese crocodiles are critically endangered.

“It’s believed there are only 250 left,” says Toby Millyard, head of the zoo’s Wildlife Rescue Unit. “In Cambodia we moved a mature female from a river that was being dammed to a river far enough away from people so she’ll never be at risk. We hope by saving her, she’ll be able to go on and have young and help the future of her species.”

Experiencing the Australia Zoo

MY FINAL DAY at Australia Zoo dawns bright and clear. Gilded by the morning sun, the dramatic Glass House domes flash by as I zip along Steve Irwin Way, and into the zoo. A throng of guests is already there, greeted by keepers carrying blue-tongue lizards, draped in pythons, cuddling koalas and walking wombats.

“That’s the beauty of this place,” Australia Zoo photographer Ben Beaden tells me as we wander the grounds. “It’s really hands-on. People get to interact with the animals.” He’s right: you can rest alongside a reclining roo; feed an elephant; and walk with a tiger. The animals aren’t hidden away – they’re out in the open.
“I’m familiar with zoo experiences, but I’ve not seen anything like the range of experiences you get here,” says visitor Kerri Krusinsi from Los Angeles, USA. Of the million or so people who visit the zoo annually, roughly 30 per cent travel from overseas, primarily North America, Europe and New Zealand. Many come “because it’s famous,” says Arizona resident Erin Thigpen.

Queenslander locals, such as Sherilyn Haber, 13, from Mackay, visit time and time again. “I came to the zoo when I was younger and fell in love with all the animals,” she says. “But I especially love the giant tortoise – it’s so quirky and weird.” She’s so enamoured she’s booked a one-on-one encounter with the tortoises, Igloo, 35, and Goliath, 36.

Keeper Jess Nugent says each will weigh 300kg when fully grown and may even reach the ripe old age of 200. While Igloo and Goliath munch their way through a pile of mulberry leaves, Jess grabs the hose and hands it to Sherilyn. “I’ll let you in on a little secret,” she says. “Igloo loves the water. He’ll stay there all day if you keep the spray on him.” As soon as the fountain of water hits Igloo’s back he stops feeding, stands up, stretches his neck and appears to revel in the experience.

Passionate zookeepers that keeps Australia Zoo alive

All of the zookeepers I’ve met during my visit here are wedded not only to their jobs, but also to their animals. They arrive early to muck out pens and feed the creatures in their care, and know every little quirk about them.

When I encounter tiger keeper Dave Styles, he’s just finished the daily demonstration in the Tiger Temple and is heading out to take one of his charges for a walk in the 120ha of undeveloped bush at the back of the zoo. To do that, he needs to load all 130kg of orange-and-black fur into a minivan and drive there.
“It’s incredible being with these big cats.”

But you can never take your relationship with them for granted. You’ve got to work at it, day in, day out. It takes a year or two of interaction and training before you can trust a tiger to respect you,” he says. “During that time you learn their behaviours by reading their body language. I’ve been here for eight years now and I’m always learning.”

Dave, like the majority of the 400 or so staff at the zoo, from keepers to leaf cutters (the zoo and hospital koalas munch through an astounding one tonne of gum leaves every day), views it as a privilege to come to work. “It’s definitely surreal,” Dave says. “And it never loses the wow factor.”

A short time later, while Ben, another zoo staff member, and I are marvelling at the giraffes, zebras and rhinos grazing under boabs in the Africa exhibit, and the sight of 18-month-old cheetah Josh enjoying a sardine icy pole, I hear an announcement on Ben’s two-way radio. It’s Dave’s voice: “Tiger out of van. Tiger walking.” Wow indeed.

The full story can be found in Australian Geographic AG#114.