Saturday, November 3, 2007

Crocodile Hunter's widow write book

BEERWAH, Australia - For grieving widow Terri Irwin, writing a book about her life with "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin was a painfully raw ordeal. But she says the outpouring of public grief that followed the iconic nature lover's death last year planted in her a sense of obligation to his millions of fans around the world.

I felt kind of compelled to do something so that people could sit down and understand Steve better and where he came from and what we stood for and what we tried to achieve," the 43-year-old Oregon-born mother-of-two told The Associated Press at the family zoo in northeast Australia.

"I'd been so kind of self-absorbed with my own sadness that I hadn't really thought about everybody else ... so I thought maybe a book would help people to come to know the human side of Steve."

Her husband, Steve Irwin, renowned through his nature TV series as a fearless wrangler of crocodiles and snakes, died at age 44 Sept. 4, 2006, from a freak flick of a stingray's barbed tail during an underwater documentary shoot on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Terri Irwin, married for 14 years, began writing Steve and Me: Life With the Crocodile Hunter," entitled "My Steve" in Australia, four months later as she traveled to continue the family's multifaceted business and wildlife projects.

"I spent months on end crying and crying and crying; remembering the hard times was hard and remembering the good times was hard," she said. His toothbrush remains in Irwin's bathroom and his trademark khaki shirts hang ironed in her closet.

How painful an experience was the writing? "Extremely," she said. Cathartic? "No, not even remotely," she replied.

"They ebb and flow, just like I do," she said. Daughter Bindi is 9, and Robert turns 4 in December.

"For me personally, it's that one day at a time feeling and I've chosen to continue as if Steve was still here," Irwin said. "I really believe if anyone thought of Steve as a hero, everything he lived for and believed in must continue." His toothbrush remains in Irwin's bathroom and his trademark khaki shirts hang ironed in her closet.

Just how fragile she remains and how raw the hurt is became apparent about 30 minutes into the interview in the zoo's kangaroo enclosure when she burst into tears. She refused to take a break.

"Don't even pause, I do this all the time," she said through her tears.

"We'll pretend this is water," she joked as she took a swig from a water bottle handed to her by a visibly concerned staffer.

What triggered her tears was a discussion about how her children are coping with their father's death.

Robert talks about it, she said. "Bindi gets emotional regularly but not frequently and I'm really proud that they're coping. I think that's a point of pride that Steve was so good about — exposing them to the cycle of life in the zoo."

Steve Irwin is very much present at the zoo near the tiny township of Beerwah, 50 miles north of Brisbane, where Terri Irwin first came as a tourist in 1991 and saw her future husband with the crocs. Signs remind visitors that they are in "Australia Zoo: Home of the Crocodile Hunter." It is also his final resting place but the location of his grave is a secret. The zoo was built on the site of a modest reptile park opened by Steve Irwin's parents, Bob and Lyn, in 1970.

Irwin has declared Nov. 15 Steve Irwin Day — a date to remember his life and mission to conserve wildlife. It is the birthday of his favorite giant Galapagos tortoise, Harriet, who died in June at the age of 176. It is also the launch day for the new book.

Before his death, a visit to the zoo carried the possibility of seeing the larger-than-life Wildlife Warrior in person. He would delight the crowds as he manhandled crocodiles and snakes in the specially built "Crocosium." The audience was guaranteed a "crikey" or two.

The zoo, which employs 570 people and attracts 800,000-900,000 visitors a year, was always the most important of Steve Irwin's projects and has continued to prosper. The government recently approved an expansion at the zoo from 70 acres to 1,000 acres, increasing staff to 2,000 by 2015.

The family has also started whale watching tours at the nearby Sunshine Coast. Also in the past year, Wildlife Warriors, the environmental group the Irwins founded in Australia, has branched into the United States. Merchandising and a travel agency are also part of the business mix. Most of the profits are plowed back into wildlife preservation.

Bindi Irwin has taken over as the family star. Since her father's death, she worked on TV and finished a documentary series, "Bindi the Jungle Girl." Home schooled because of her schedule, she has her own clothing label, "Bindi Wear," a fitness DVD called "Bindi Kidfitness" and travels for the Australian tourism industry.

Irwin is aware that Bindi's stardom has raised questions of exploitation.


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