I offer the following to all the critics of the Croc Hunter:
Marty Steuffer. Marlin Perkins. Jacques Cousteau. Jeff Corwin. Jack Hanna. The list goes on and on. All of these guys, even the most light footed of them, manipulate their encounter with the wild. They have no choice. Baiting, and even lighting, is a form of manipulation. As the physicist Heisenberg postulated: The act of observation in and of itself changes that which is being observed.
I don't consider chasing a snake or croc and trying to grab it by the tail to be cruel, provided there's a reason for it. For example, whenever I see an animal (cat, dog, deer, moose, bear, etc.) lolly gaging on the side of the road, I always stop and chase it back into the woods. I may even throw sticks and rocks at it to get it farther away from the road. Sounds cruel but I'm doing it a favor. I'd much rather see it running away from me in fear than lying in a pool of blood on the pavement.
When the government was trying to establish rules for whale watching in US waters, they sought out the advice of scientists and environmental groups. Originally they were thinking of a 500 meter limit. But the whale watch boats and environmental groups and even the scientists protested, saying they needed to get closer. Their argument was that the need for public awareness as brought about by professional whale watch operators superceded the potential risk to the whales, which was really minimal compared to the risks posed by other commercial traffic.
So, right or wrong, there's a precedent. Interference and observation versus leaving them the hell alone. Most conservationists will agree, it's too late for the latter.
Meanwhile, in terms of animal reactions, I think the instantaneous animal response (what happened in Irwin's case) is not what happens when animals are threatened. It's what happens when the animal is surprised. It sounds like semantics but I think there is a difference. Threatened animals respond by posturing or testing the threat. A snake coils and flicks its tongue. A bear charges and rears up. A dog snarls. Animals run from threats they know they can't handle. They attack those they know they can handle. Until they sense which is which, they're pretty tentative. Of course, the more you screw with them, the more unpredictable they get. If you step on a rattlesnake, you're going to get bit. And, when it comes to wild animals, nothing is certain.
Once while filming blue sharks here in the Gulf of Maine I started handing feeding the sharks whole herring from the side of the boat. There were approximately sixty sharks around the boat at any given time, swimming around in a big circle. I would hold a herring over the side of the boat, and a shark would swim close, tilt his head, roll his eye lids up, open his mouth, and I'd drop the herring in. I did this for about a half hour and didn't stop until the two cameramen came back in the boat for lunch. We were sitting in the boat's cockpit enjoying lunch, with me sitting on the washboard, same place I was when I was feeding the sharks, when this one shark lifted himself three feet out of the water and snapped at the sandwich in my hand. I have personally caught a couple of hundred blue sharks and I have never seen a blue do that. After that experience we all ate our lunch more in the center of the boat.
I didn't know Irwin or know anyone who worked with him, but it seems to me that what you saw on TV and film is what there was to see. Nothing hidden. Unlike so many others in this business -- even Jacque Cousteau, who was notorious for stacking the deck. Oh yeah, and we should point out that unlike Irwin's place in Australia, most croc and alligator farms around the world make their money harvesting skins, not tourism and public education. (Actually, I'm not positive about the last statement, but I'll bet dollars to donuts it's true. Anyone who knows for sure can state one way or the other in an email to me.)
Finally, it seems there's an abundance of real sadness and hurt among those who worked closest to him. That says a lot.
Steve did indeed put himself in danger. He took risks. He chased and caught a lot of wild snakes by the tail. In fact, he had life by the tail too.
Some will say this was nature's way of getting back at him. To them I say bull. This was Steve Irwin's last lesson to people about the wilderness. And I'm sure he would be the first to say: When it comes to the natural world, anything can happen.