Thousands bid goodbye to Irwin

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Friends and fans, including Hollywood stars and Australia's prime minister, bid farewell to "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin today at a public service that veered from poignant tributes to belly laughs.

In a service meant to celebrate his life as much as mourn his death, Irwin's eight-year-old daughter Bindi hailed him as her hero; his father, Bob, asked people to end their grieving; and fans were invited to laugh at his television antics one more time.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard was among the 5,000 people who attended the ceremony at the "Crocoseum," the small stadium built inside Irwin's wildlife park where he regularly performed crocodile feeding shows.

"Steve Irwin touched the hearts of Australians and touched the hearts of millions around the world in a very special way," Howard said. "He did that because he had that quality of being genuine, of being authentic, of being unconditional and having a great zest for life."

In a recorded video message from New York, Oscar-winner Russell Crowe, dressed in a somber black suit, said: "It was way too soon for all of us. We have lost a friend, a champion. It will take some time to adjust to that."

Irwin, 44, died on 4 September when the barb from a stingray pierced his chest while he was filming for a TV show on the Great Barrier Reef. His family held a private funeral service for him on 9 September at the family-owned park, Australia Zoo.

His prompted an outpouring of grief in Australia, and among the estimated 200 million viewers of his television programmes.

As expected, there was one empty seat at the stadium - the one set aside for the late conservationist himself. On the stage sat Irwin's widow, American-born Terri, and their two children, Bindi, and Bob, 2.

All dressed in Irwin's favorite khaki wear, it was their first public appearance since Irwin's death.

"Please do not grieve for Steve, he's at peace now," Bob Irwin said. "Grieve for the animals. They have lost the best friend they ever had, and so have I."

Reading steadfastly from notes, Bindi Irwin told the crowd she had the "best daddy in the world."

"My Daddy was my hero," she said. "He was always there for me when I needed him. He listened to me and taught me so many things. But most of all he was fun.

"I know that Daddy had an important job. He was working to change the world so everyone would love wildlife like he did," she said, adding that "I don't want Daddy's passion to ever end."

There were much lighter moments, including several video clips of Irwin's in-your-face antics that drew laughs and applause from the crowd.

Most popular were out-takes and bloopers from his TV programme showing Irwin falling out of boats, getting bitten by lizards and forgetting his lines. In one scene, he fluffed his line four or five times, before simplifying it to say: "Crikey, that's it."

The ceremony was carried live on three national television networks and at least one radio station. Flags on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and throughout Irwin's home state of Queensland flew today at half-staff, and giant television screens were set up for people to watch the service.

One of Irwin's favorite Australian country singers, John Williamson, sang one of Irwin's favorite songs, "True Blue," from a makeshift stage on the back of Irwin's utility vehicle - more commonly known as a "ute" in Australia.

At the end of the ceremony, Irwin's ute, packed with camping gear, netting and his favorite surfboard, was driven from the stadium - through an honour guard of Australia Zoo employees - to an encore of "True Blue."

After the truck left the stadium, a group of employees spelled out Irwin's catchword "Crikey" in yellow flowers on the ground.

In the days since Irwin's death, tens of thousands travelled to Australia Zoo to drop off flowers and other mementoes, many of them signing khaki shirts instead of a condolence book.

His conservation charity Wildlife Warriors has seen a surge in donations and its website has received millions of hits.

Cameron Diaz and Kevin Costner were among the celebrities who delivered messages by video to the service, officially titled "He Changed Our World."

"America just flipped for him," said Diaz. "Every kid was in love with the idea of being him."

Costner said Irwin put himself "out there" for everyone to see.

"He was fearless," Costner said. "He let us see who he was. That is being brave in today's society."

Separately from the service, marine explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau said that while he mourned Irwin's death, he disagreed with the Australian's hands-on approach to nature television.

He said he respected Irwin's environmental message, but noted that Irwin would "interfere with nature, jump on animals, grab them, hold them, and have this very, very spectacular, dramatic way of presenting things."

"It sells, it appeals to a lot people, but I think it's very misleading," Cousteau said in Los Angeles. "You don't touch nature, you just look at it."