Why you should care
Because critters can’t speak up for themselves.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Carl Sagan and a few others aside, the names of science communicators don’t exactly roll off the tongue. Now try it for those speaking on behalf of wildlife. Brits point to David Attenborough, but when I asked 100 people in the U.S. to name a wildlife presenter, the most reliable way to get a response was to offer a hint: “Crikey!”
And that’s a problem. Wildlife science communication since the Crocodile Hunter’s 2006 death has sat increasingly on the sidelines. “I thought Steve was an idiot,” says Jamie Seymour, a toxinologist and science communicator at James Cook University, admitting his gut response to efforts by Irwin’s producers to reach out about a documentary series that would turn out to be the adventurer’s last. Seymour’s thinking reflected the world’s initial reaction to Steve’s growing popularity: incredulity.
That raw, unadulterated, palpable enthusiasm … made conservation seem necessary, exciting, personal and eminently achievable.
Seymour finally met Irwin out of curiosity, and the two of them were soon going at it, with Seymour finally telling him: “You know people think you’re an idiot, right?” He informed the famed Aussie about a drinking game in which players watched The Crocodile Hunter and every time Irwin did something stupid, they had to skull a beer. “You can’t get through an episode without getting smashed!” he remembers telling Irwin.
“Why do you watch my shows?” Irwin asked.
Seymour’s response? “To see what you’re gonna do wrong.”
“Gotcha!” Irwin said to him with a smile.
That raw, unadulterated, palpable enthusiasm crossed vast cultural boundaries, made the mundane seem captivating — and made conservation seem necessary, exciting, personal and eminently achievable. Irwin knew he couldn’t be a typical documentarian, and in fact had already given that a try, earlier in his career. He once admitted to talk show host Rove McManus that he “used to watch David Attenborough,” and, in a bid to be a proper, more objective observer while filming The Crocodile Hunter, he attempted to emulate the older host by stiffening up. The result? The director told him, “You’re trying to be someone you’re not and … we’re not gonna go one step further if you do that.”
So Irwin instead went at audiences like a temperamental cobra, distracting them with one histrionic hand until he could secure them with the other. “The moment I get you in to see whether I’m gonna do anything wrong, I can tell you anything,” Irwin told Seymour.
And it worked … to a point. Irwin’s ever-present plug for conservation circled the globe, changing the anathematic images of dangerous animals like snakes, sharks and crocodiles. While some of his daredevil moves may have been pure entertainment, Irwin’s enthusiasm was real. “Steve had two speeds. He was either asleep or going a hundred miles an hour,” Seymour says. People who tuned in to see if the weird guy in the khaki shorts would get eaten inadvertently enlisted themselves in his larger initiative.
For others, Irwin was simply vindication. “When I was a kid, everyone was outside in the dirt playing with bugs, catching butterflies. But then, you know, you get older, and there were fewer and fewer kids outside with me,” says Phil Torres, an entomologist and science communicator. “By the time I was in high school, I was the only one still interested in going out there and catching butterflies.” Steve made it OK for those who preferred to stay in the dirt. His image gave children someone they could look up to and say, “I wanna be like him. I want to help save the world.”
The fact that a decade later most people struggle to name another wildlife communicator is a testament both to Irwin’s uniqueness and to the gap in science communication that he left behind. Since Irwin’s death, the age of massive, eye-catching documentaries like Planet Earth, Life, March of the Penguins and Frozen Planet has petered out. Shows like Through the Wormhole With Morgan Freeman, Cosmos and The Universe, as well as YouTube channels like Minute Physics, Veritasium and Vsauce, have since stolen the show.
Torres attributes this largely to cost. Intensive nature documentaries require large crews, expensive equipment and years of filming. The space shows just need expert consultants and CG. But even Irwin’s comparatively cheap filming style has become marginalized. Wade through YouTube and you’ll find plenty of wildlife educators taking pages straight out of Irwin’s playbook. The problem is, his personable, inspiring and eminently cheaper techniques have been relegated to the backwaters of YouTube, where too many educators, amateurs and veterans alike, compete for too little attention, making it tough for any central, memorable figures to arise.
Steve was “kinda like Bill Nye,” says Torres, explaining how both men made “people feel like they know them.” But where the supply of personalities exceeds demand, the dwindling numbers of those hungry for Irwin-esque entertainment can simply surf online for snippets without making any real connection with personalities. Without that connection, wildlife educators can’t stand out, can’t inspire children and can’t be heard.
Wildlife science communication has declined. While space, engineering and physics are crucial fields, if we continue to sideline wildlife presentation and fail to foster a new crop of communicators, who will we have to effectively personalize conservation and tell us what’s at stake?