How the crocodile hunter's family was ripped apart

When Steve Irwin died, his relatives vowed to continue his work. But his father's decision to quit Australia Zoo has laid bare a bitter feud with the Crocodile Hunter's widow
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The Independent Online

In the wake of Steve Irwin's sudden and grisly death on the Great Barrier Reef, his family stood united. But 18 months after the "Crocodile Hunter" was killed by a stingray's barb, a bitter feud between his widow and his father has been exposed.

Steve's father, Bob, founded the family zoo on the Queensland Sunshine Coast 36 years ago, and imbued his son with his love of wildlife. Steve and his American-born wife, Terri, named their second child Robert after Bob. After the khaki-clad television naturalist died, his family pledged to continue his work and honour his legacy.

Now the image of family harmony has been shattered, with Bob Irwin, now 68, resigning from Australia Zoo and putting out a statement pledging to "continue Steve's dream" by other means. That statement was supposed to be issued by the zoo, but was replaced with an anodyne press release noting that Mr Irwin "is a gentleman of retirement age". A furious Mr Irwin then issued it himself.

Rumours of a rift had swirled around the zoo for weeks, with employees and volunteers claiming Mr Irwin was unhappy with his daughter-in-law's treatment of staff, her management of Steve's Wildlife Warriors charity, and unspecified animal welfare issues.

He reportedly also believed she was over-commercialising the internationally renowned and hugely profitable Australia Zoo, to the detriment of conservation. Mr Irwin, a former plumber with a passion for reptiles, was even said to have been banned from the premises after a row with Terri, and to be facing a battle to remain in the home he occupied on a wildlife reserve.

There were claims of an exodus of staff disgruntled with the way Mr Irwin was being treated. One employee said: "There are people at the zoo who think that Steve's commitment to animal research and conservation isn't being maintained."

The rumours met with official dismissals, and it seems the family and zoo management were hoping Mr Irwin would go quietly. But in his statement, Steve's father made clear the bitterness that lay behind his "difficult decision" to quit the place to which he had devoted most of his adult life.

Mr Irwin said he planned to complete a koala research project begun by Steve, after which he and his wife, Judy, would move to a newly purchased Queensland property. He added: "Steve's ultimate passion, even from a young boy, was always for the conservation of Australian wildlife and its habitat. When Judy and I move to our new property we intend to carry on with wildlife rehabilitation and conservation projects and therefore continue Steve's and my dream."

He thanked the staff of Australia Zoo, Wildlife Warriors and an animal hospital in the grounds of the zoo. But he made no reference to Terri, or her contribution to the family business, or her role in raising his two grandchildren, Bob and his elder sister, Bindi. Terri, who has been a fixture at the zoo since she met Steve there during a holiday in Queensland in 1991, kept a low profile while her irrepressively ebullient husband was alive. Since he died, though, she has rarely been out of the limelight, and neither have her two children, especially Bindi, who is nine.

Australians have been torn between admiration for the family's survival skills and discomfort at the way they appear to have bypassed the grieving stage. Criticism has focused particularly on Bindi who, despite her tender age, has embarked on an international showbusiness career that appears designed to propel her into her father's shoes.

Terri Irwin insists that her daughter's impressive curriculum vitae – her own wildlife series on the Discovery Channel, called Bindi The Jungle Girl, her kiddy fitness tape, her clothing range, her Bindi action doll – are all her own doing. Bindi is just a natural performer, she says. And Bindi, a pint-sized blonde replica of her mother, smilingly agrees.

What Bindi's grandfather makes of all this he does not say. When Steve was six, his parents gave him a 12ft scrub python for his birthday. When he was eight, Bob Irwin moved his family from Melbourne to the Sunshine Coast and with his first wife, Lyn, opened a small zoo, the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park. Within a year, Steve was catching crocodiles, and in 1991, when his parents retired, he took over the venture.

Steve and Terri developed it into the Australia Zoo, a wildlife theme park and major tourist attraction, 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, it had the "Crocoseum", an amphitheatre where performers such as the all-singing, all-dancing "Crocmen" regaled audiences of up to 5,000.

Despite the success of the zoo and Steve's stature as a television celebrity, particularly in the US, the Irwin family did not attract a great deal of attention at home. Apart from, that is, incidents such as the one where Steve dangled Bob, then a one-month-old baby, above a large, snapping crocodile while feeding it in its pen.

All that changed after Steve's death. Terri Irwin, sometimes known as the Crocodile Huntress, took over the zoo, with the help of Steve's close friend and colleague, John Stainton. Mr Stainton was on Steve's boat, Croc One, when his friend, who was filming a television series, Ocean's Deadliest, swam too close to a stingray. Mr Stainton saw the ray shoot its poisonous barb into Steve's heart.

Australians mourned Steve and felt compassion for his photogenic widow and their two photogenic children. Within days, Bindi, then eight, was delivering a eulogy to her father in front of thousands of mourners at the Crocoseum, and startling them with her composure and articulacy.

Less than three weeks later, Terri gave her first interview to Barbara Walters in the US, quickly followed by an interview on Australian national television. The latter, conducted by Ray Martin, a veteran television personality, attracted nearly three million viewers. Terri broke down frequently as she told Mr Martin that she still expected Steve to walk in through the door, and recalled breaking the news of his death to Bob and Bindi.

In the 18 months since, it seems the Irwin family have rarely been out of the headlines. There was Terri's book, My Steve, detailing her life with the Crocodile Hunter and revealing that he was "hot in the cot". Terri says Harry Potter-style crowds awaited her at American bookshops when she arrived for signings.

There was Steve Irwin Day, a celebration of the man's life, inaugurated last November and expected to become an annual fixture. For last year's event, a beach was trucked into the zoo, and performers included Olivia Newton-John. Then there was the University of Queensland's awarding of a posthumous professorship to Steve, which Terri gratefully accepted late last year.

Notably, whenever a product was launched, there was always a story to attract media attention. Last month, as Terri, accompanied by young Bob, unveiled her new line of toys at FAO Schwartz, the New York store, she said Bob, now four, had just had his first snake bite, from a boa constrictor. "He picked one of them up and it bit him on the finger, and he was so proud to have copped his first hit," she said.

Last year, while announcing that Bindi's television series would be screening in Australia, Terri told the media she was on a mission to save Australian slang, including Steve's catch-phrase, "Crikey!" But the press surrounding the family was not always good. As well as criticism of the perceived exploitation of Bindi, there were persistent rumours of an affair between Terri and Mr Stainton, which he has vehemently denied.

There were also murmurs about an apparent escalation in activities at the zoo that appeared to have little to do with conservation. In January, for instance, an American psychic, John Edward, put in an appearance – and, during a private session with Terri, reportedly put her in touch with her late husband.

A source told the Sunshine Coast Daily: "Bob [Irwin] is angry that the zoo is being turned into a circus and the focus on animal conservation and education is being lost. Staff were horrified about the way Bob was being treated after he had put his heart and soul into the place."

Terri has a £47m plan for the expansion of Australia Zoo, to include an African-style wildlife safari park, complete with eco-lodges, and a hotel with restaurants and conference facilities.

After Steve's death, Australia Zoo remained a family business. Terri was the director, and the manager was Frank Muscillo, who is married to one of Steve's sisters, Joy. Steve's father managed a wildlife sanctuary, Ironbark Station, west of Brisbane, and was also employed at the zoo.

Last weekend, the zoo management issued a "damage control" statement. "We fully support [Bob] and love him dearly. He has been through so much grief with the loss of his first wife Lyn and only son. These rumours [of a rift] need to end in respect of the Irwin family."

Now Bob has gone, but the rumours surrounding the zoo, and Terri's management style – of the zoo, and of her children – seem certain to escalate.