Crocodile hunter's stunt comes back to bite him

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The Independent Online

The daredevil exploits of Steve Irwin, Australia's "Crocodile Hunter", have made him a millionaire and an international celebrity. But his latest stunt, in which he hand-fed a giant crocodile while cradling his month-old baby under one arm, has come back to bite him.

Irwin's actions in taking his infant son, Robert, into the crocodile enclosure at his Queensland zoo have provoked a national outcry and an inquiry by child protection officers. "One slip, one fall, and the child would have been lunch for the croc," said Bill Muehlenberg of the Australian Family Association.

In bizarre scenes reminiscent of the incident in which Michael Jackson dangled his new-born baby from a hotel balcony in Berlin in November 2002, Irwin proffered a dead chicken to a 13ft-long crocodile named Murray while holding Robert under his other arm. After the crocodile snapped up the meat, he told the baby "Good boy, Bob," and held him up in the air like a trophy.

To gasps from onlookers, Irwin - whose danger-fuelled television wildlife show, Crocodile Hunter, has been a hit around the world - then "walked" his son to the reptile's pond, while the crocodile looked on.

Earlier, Irwin, who starred in a feature film called The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course in 2002, told the crowd at his Australia Zoo reptile park north of Brisbane: "He's one month old, so it's about time Bob got out there and did his first croc demo."

That was the cue for Irwin's American wife Terri to walk into the enclosure and hand him the baby. Television footage showed her laughing as Irwin held the infant - not yet old enough to support his own head - a few feet from Murray's enormous jaws.

Afterwards she said: "It was a wonderful sensory experience for him. He dug it."

The footage prompted a flood of complaints from viewers and child welfare groups. Queensland police visited the zoo, although they did not lay charges, and the government said it would examine unedited tapes to see whether workplace safety laws had been violated.

Irwin, a perennially exuberant, khaki-clad figure, denied putting the child's life at risk. "It's all about perceived danger," he said. "In front of that croc, I was in complete control." Asked what would have happened if he had fallen, he said: "For that to take place, a meteorite would have had to come out of the sky and hit Australia, 6.6 on the Richter scale, like Iran."

While Irwin apologised, he did not seem particularly contrite. "I would be considered a bad parent if I didn't teach my children to be crocodile savvy, because they live here, they live in crocodile territory," he said.

Robert's five-year-old sister, Bindi, received a similar baptism at a tender age, and has also been filmed swimming with a giant python. Yesterday she was back in the water, wearing goggles and inflatable armbands, presented to the crowd as "croc bait".

Until Friday's incident, it seemed Irwin could do no wrong. The Queenslander was among celebrities at a barbecue hosted by the Prime Minister, John Howard, when President Bush visited Australia in October.

Irwin, who subsequently described Mr Howard as the "greatest leader in the entire world", has been nominated as Australian of the Year.