MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The Australian conservationist turned elevision personality Steve Irwin has died. The 44-year-old Crocodile Hunter was filming off the Great Barrier Reef today when he swam to close to a stingray. Witnesses say the animal's barbed tail struck Irwin through his chest and into his heart. Experts say it was a freak accident. Friends say Steve Irwin died doing what he loved. Irwin was known for his boundless enthusiasm as well as his tendency to get up close and personal with some of his co-stars.
(Soundbite of Crocodile Hunter)
Mr. STEVE IRWIN (Environmentalist): Check this out. This is the legendary red spitting cobra. He's spitting.
BLOCK: Irwin's Crocodile Hunter television program was first broadcast in Australia in 1992, but he gained worldwide fame when it was picked up by the Discovery network. Viewers tuned in to see just how far Irwin would go in each episode, whether it was wrestling in the mud with crocodiles or trying to get a hold of a spitting cobra.
Mr. IRWIN: How's the venom. Look at this! I've got it all over me and my eye is starting to get a shoot of pain in it. It doesn't matter how much I wipe it off, it's not going to get it all off. It's quite residual.
BLOCK: David Bellamy is a British natural historian and the founder of the U.K.'s Conservation Foundation and a big fan of Steve Irwin. He joins me now from his home in northern England. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. DAVID BELLAMY (Conservation Foundation): Oh it's a very, very sad day, but he needs every tribute we can give him.
BLOCK: Well, what was it about Steve Irwin's style that appealed to you most?
Mr. BELLAMY: The thing that really interested me was he was a natural historian of real repute. He knew his animals and therefore he could take this, which most other people couldn't.
BLOCK: He was surrounded by wildlife since he was a child. He took over the preserve that his parents started.
Mr. BELLAMY: Oh yes. He was brought up on his father's small zoo. And at six years of age, I think he had his first snake, and at nine years of age he was actually working and handling crocodiles. He then took a very, very responsible position because crocodiles in populated areas have to be caught and got rid of and that was one of his jobs. He desperately believed that all the animals of this world should have space available to them so they can go on doing the jobs they do and giving them wonderment to people that could never see them otherwise.
BLOCK: I wonder if that part of his legacy is over shadowed by the showmanship. He was so amazing to watch and to listen to on television. Maybe people forget about the part that was the conservationist.
Mr. BELLAMY: He exasperated some people, but he infused, he educated and enthralled others. I think the best things I ever saw him do were working with quite small marsupials. And he'd go and he'd say right, now that is reacting in this way. I am disturbing it if I do this. It won't be as disturbed and I'll be able to get closer. Now that is the mark of a good naturalist who knows the animal he's working with.
BLOCK: He certainly did have his critics who said he took too many chances. A lot of people were very upset when he was shown holding his infant son while he was feeding a crocodile with his other hand.
Mr. BELLAMY: Well, I thought his answer was extremely good, that he knew and that he was at a safe distance. If people didn't take risks then we wouldn't see all that wonder and we wouldn't understand that if we do understand the animals and give them the space, they can live in harmony with us.
BLOCK: Well, David Bellamy, thanks very much for talking with us today.
Mr. BELLAMY: My pleasure.
BLOCK: That's British natural historian David Bellamy talking about the legacy of Steve Irwin, also known as the Crocodile Hunter. Irwin died today after he was struck in the chest by a string ray off the coast of Australia.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.