Of all the kisses that followed, none has ever quite matched up to my first. I was ten years old. My family lived in Indonesia at the time, and my classmates and I were on a school field trip to the Jakarta zoo where every day, at lunchtime, they would let the baby orangutans out to play.
As the teacher led us into the enclosure I saw a little rotund fellow in a corner giving me the eye. We stared at each other for a moment and then he made his move; he walked across the enclosure on his knuckles with a sort of weary three-martini look, jostled through the crowd of other apes and kids, walked right up my body, put his arms and legs around me and then, shyly closing his eyes, planted a long and tender kiss on my neck.
I was in love with all animals anyway, back then, but I went through a whole range of emotion with that little ape, starting from the zoo-goer’s usual, slightly patronising appreciation when I first saw him, to an amused horror (tinged with some real fear) when I realised he was heading for me, to a frozen thrill when he jumped into my arms, to flat-out infatuation when we kissed—because of course I hugged and kissed him back, on the top of his head, and stroked his wiry orange fur, and felt like a million dollars.
There’s nothing quite like physical proximity to an animal to bring every cell in your being alive with primal chemistry of all kinds. Anyone who has been on a jungle safari knows the heady, addictive fear you feel when a tiger strides out of the brush and growls at you; or when the wild tusker you’ve been trailing in the jeep suddenly whirls and looks you right in the beady eye. You have been warned: Mind the species gap. And yet, you can’t stop trying to get closer.
Those extreme feelings are perhaps what drove Steve Irwin, the so-called Crocodile Hunter from Australia who made a career of getting in the face of every dangerous creature he could lay his camera team on, and who lost his life this week to the toxic barb of a stingray while on a diving expedition.
Nobody who watched him negotiate poisonous snakes and snapping crocs could fail to appreciate the man’s enthusiasm for his subject: wildlife, the environment, and conservation. I have spent hours watching Sir David Attenborough huff and puff and whisper his way around the natural world, and I’ve spent hours watching Steve Irwin stomp and leap and shriek and manhandle his way through it, and there’s no question that Irwin was by far the more passionate and entertaining television presenter of the two. On the other hand, Sir David is alive and well and pushing 81.
I’m not sure that I’m shocked, as so many were, by the fact that Irwin once fed a crocodile while holding his one-year-old infant under one arm; and I’m not sure I believe, as Germaine Greer does, that he traumatised all the creatures he filmed. But the thought did cross my mind, more than once, that a lot of Irwin’s focus might have been on hitting his own emotional highs rather than on the laws of the natural world. It seemed to me that nobody could be so cavalier with wild creatures and not, one day, get his comeuppance.
And yet, I like to think that if he’d known he would die suddenly, Irwin would have picked going the way that he did—dramatically, and at the business end of one of the creatures he loved—over dying of old age in his bed.