When Australia's self-styled "Crocodile Hunter", Steve Irwin, was killed by a stingray's barb, his family pledged to continue his conservation work. Less than five years on, though, the wildlife park he turned into a global tourist attraction is rumoured to be drowning in debt and on the verge of closure.
The claims by former employees of Australia Zoo, on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, were denied by Irwin's widow, Terri, yesterday.
She said the dismissal last month of 22 staff was because visitor numbers were down as a result of the global financial crisis and the recent floods and wet weather.
However, one of the zoo's former curators, Bruce Murdock, told New Idea magazine that the problems were a product of mismanagement and a failure to fill the gap left by Irwin, whose daredevil antics with crocodiles were the star attraction. "They [zoo managers] have blown millions on poor planning and poor execution," he said.
The zoo was founded 41 years ago by Irwin's father, Bob, who handed over the reins to the ebullient khaki-clad television naturalist and his American-born wife after retiring in 1991. The couple transformed it into a successful wildlife theme park, with 550 staff, more than 1,000 animals on 60 acres of bushland and more than a million visitors a year.
As well as animal enclosures, Australia Zoo had the "Crocoseum", a 5,000-seat amphitheatre where performers such as the all-singing, all-dancing "Crocmen" regaled audiences. But since Irwin died while filming on the Great Barrier Reef in 2006, the zoo has struggled, despite Mrs Irwin's attempts to propel her children, 12-year-old Bindi and Bob, 7, into the limelight.
Australia Zoo has also suffered from bad publicity, most notably over the departure in 2008 of Bob Irwin, who reportedly believed his daughter-in-law was over-commercialising the place, to the detriment of animal research and conservation. According to New Idea, Bob has not seen his two grandchildren since.
Mr Murdock, who was made redundant in 2009, said that without Irwin, the zoo lacked pulling power. "Steve had a lot of dreams, but they were massive dreams that only he could fund," he said. "They are trying to do it on the back of Bindi and Terri, but I don't think they can support it."
He and others said the zoo had not been the same since Steve Irwin died and his father quit.
Mrs Irwin has courted publicity since her husband died, conducting international promotional tours – often with Bindi and young Bob in tow – and appearing on programmes such as The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Much attention has focused on Bindi, who, before even turning 10, had hosted her own wildlife series on the Discovery Kids channel.
The zoo is now being managed by Wes Mannion, a childhood friend of Steve's, and Frank Muscillo, Steve's brother-in-law. But former staff told New Idea they missed Irwin's "positive energy and personal approach".
In a statement yesterday, the zoo acknowledged that it had been forced to cut costs, but said the job losses would have no impact on Irwin's legacy. "If you want to see Steve's dream in action today, come to Australia Zoo and you will see... his passion for conservation, love of wildlife and enthusiasm living on," a spokesperson said. For her part, Mrs Irwin declared: "I have absolutely no intention of closing Australia Zoo."
"We continue with our core business – the animals are OK, that we maintain as many of our team as we can and that we move forward in the future," she was quoted as saying by Australia's ABC News.
However, a former receptionist, Amy-Lee Hines, claimed the seriousness of the financial situation was being underplayed. "A lot of people are scared, to tell the truth, but the truth needs to be told," she said. "If things don't turn around, [Australia Zoo] will go down."