Saturday, September 23, 2006

Irwin’s ‘final lesson’ was his most valuable

Pub Date: 16/09/2006 Pub: ST Page: S14
Day: Saturday
Edition: FIRST
Headline: Irwin’s ‘final lesson’ was his most valuable
Page Heading: REVIEW
Source: SPH

Senior Writer
LAST week, a stingray stuck a fatal barb into conservationist Steve Irwin’s
heart. Immediately after, his fellow Australian, feminist writer Germaine Greer, got a whole sling of verbal arrows when she wrote an article in The Guardian newspaper suggesting that Irwin had got what he deserved. Enraged fans attacked her for being a “bitter feminist” — as if that had anything to do with the price of fish — and even Queensland’s Premier Peter Beattie got into the act, calling her argument “extreme radical rubbish” and stating he wished he could triple the tax on her Queensland rainforest property. He said: “We should double the taxation. If I could do it, I would double it or triple the taxation on it.”

Okay, maybe Ms Greer was a little insensitive to Irwin’s grieving picture-perfect family, but what she said — about Irwin disrespecting the space that animals need — is painfully valid, whether or not we want to listen. And more often than not, we don’t. Thankfully, on Monday, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) came out in support of her sentiments. Its spokesman, Mr Dan Mathews, said on of Irwin: “He made a career out of antagonising frightened wild animals, which is a very dangerous message to send to kids.”

Irwin’s tale reminds me a little of the tragic story of Mr Timothy Treadwell, an American conservationist who saw himself as a protector of bears. Mr Treadwell spent a lot of time in the Alaskan wilderness filming bears and “befriending” them. He would talk to them, give them names and even got up close to touch them. In October 2003, he and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were mauled to death by two bears. Parts of their remains were found in one of the animals, both of which were eventually killed by park rangers.

Last year, German filmmaker Werner Herzog released a highly acclaimed
documentary on Mr Treadwell called Grizzly Man, using the reams of footage Mr
Treadwell had shot of himself and his beloved creatures.It never made it to Singapore, presumably because the distributors thought it had limited appeal. Documentaries don’t normally do well here.

I caught the film — one of the most compelling documentaries I have ever seen —
in New York where it did not draw much attention too, probably because it
opened at around the same time as another documentary, March Of The Penguins.
Everybody and their grandmother went to see the penguins. In the United States,
the movie went on to make US$77 million (S$121 million), becoming the second
highest-grossing documentary there, after Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Elsewhere around the world, it was a big hit too. In its opening week in China, the film earned two million yuan (S$400,000), taking up a quarter of the total movie takings and making box office history, reported Xinhua. Worldwide, the movie earned US$45 million and even enjoyed a short run in Singapore. Its success was understandable. The penguins in the movie were cute and resembled nuclear families — in short, they seemed human.This was reinforced by the movie’s tagline, “In the harshest place on earth, love finds a way”, which implied that penguins were capable of a human emotion.

The American version had actor Morgan Freeman narrating, but the original French version unfolded like a bedtime story, with actors supplying the actual voices of Daddy, Mummy and Baby Penguins. Many parents dragged their children to see March Of The Penguins, thinking it a delightful and educational movie. But the lesson learnt — that animals think and behave like human beings — is a harmful and erroneous one. It was precisely that kind of mistaken arrogant thinking that killed Mr Treadwell and, to a lesser extent, Irwin. While Irwin never pretended that all the animals he encountered were cute and cuddly, he did, as Ms Greer pointed out, “barge into” their space to “manhandle” them.

Her ultimate fear, she concluded was that “a whole generation of kids in shorts seven sizes too small has learnt to shout in the ears of animals with hearing 10 times more acute than theirs, determined to become millionaire animal-loving zoo owners in their turn”.

Children have always been fed a highly anthropomorphised diet in popular culture, thanks to cartoon characters like Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Big Bird,Speedy Gonzales, Nemo and all the creatures in Madagascar.But one can easily distinguish between reality and fiction in cartoons. Clown fish do not talk in real life: That much is ascertained pretty quickly. But when films like March Of The Penguins claim to be documentaries and conservationists like Irwin make it a point to poke and prod crocodiles, that line quickly becomes blurred.

It’s one thing to dress your poodle up in baby clothes, it’s totally another thing to assume that your poodle likes it. Irwin’s downfall was assuming he knew better than the animals and that he had the upper hand. A few years ago, he was lambasted by the public for dangling his infant son in one arm while feeding a dead chicken to a crocodile with the other. He then baby-walked his son in the compound.

In his defence at the time, he said he always had the situation under control.
But he could not have been absolutely sure that the crocodile would not lunge unexpectedly — just like that stingray. The irony now is that Irwin’s death may teach the world a lot more about animals than his life ever did.
Human beings can sometimes be animals, but animals will never be human.

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