Scientists sometimes call them "charismatic megafauna," but most people would just say they're cute and fuzzy. Certain animals like bears, tigers and the great apes have become poster children for the environment because, for many people, they symbolize the beauty and majesty of all nature.
Steve Irwin was not one of those people. Mr. Irwin, the famous Crocodile Hunter, was killed by a stingray earlier this month while diving off the coast of Australia. He became famous, not for showing the world the cutest and cuddliest of creatures, but for highlighting those that terrify us the most — crocodiles, snakes, spiders and other creepy crawlies.
I'm currently in Australia on a book tour and was scheduled to meet up with Mr. Irwin in October. Sadly, that meeting will now never take place and I will miss out on spending time with someone for whom I feel a great deal of kinship and respect.
Growing up in Canada, my passion and my playground was a swamp near my home. There, I waded through cattails to catch frogs, fish, spiders, snakes and anything else I could get my hands on. I was utterly fascinated by these creatures and had a burning curiosity to find out what they did, how they lived, what they ate and what ate them.
I would not be surprised if Mr. Irwin had similar experiences as a child. Both of us seem to like things that others might call ugly or dirty. To us, they are all beautiful.
Certainly, I understand why people gravitate towards the most charismatic, loveable creatures. It can even be beneficial and educational. Piquing people's interest in the environment with the world's most charismatic creatures may start them on the road to understanding and respect for all of nature. After all, March of the Penguins would never have become the international sensation that it did had it been called Flight of the Turkey Vulture.
But that's precisely what made Steve Irwin's role so important. True, he often went after the spectacular creatures himself — just not the pretty ones. At least, not pretty to most people. He went after the ones that were either unknown, or vilified, hunted down and despised by most of humanity. He's been criticized for doing this simply for the rush or to feed his ego, but in so doing he put the spotlight on creatures that would otherwise been seen by the general populace only in our nightmares.
Every creature has a role to play in an ecosystem. Ugly, "dirty" or microscopic ones are often the most important. It has been said that humans could disappear off the planet and the rest of nature would flourish and thrive, but if ants disappeared, the natural world would be thrown into chaos.
Humanity will not protect that which we fear or do not understand. Steve Irwin helped us understand those things that many people thought were a nuisance at best, a horror at worst. That made him a great educator and conservationist. At a time when interest in the basics of science, like taxonomy — the discovery and classification of living things — is waning in favour of high-tech fields, it's a role that will be sorely missed.
Famed Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson coined the term "biophilia," meaning an innate love and kinship for other biological creatures. Mr. Irwin had it in spades and he wanted to share it with the world. It was his enthusiasm for life on this planet — any life — that made him so remarkable. Steve Irwin may not have focused on the charismatic megafauna of the world, but the world clearly saw many of those same characteristics in him.