Comedian Anh Do’s Anh’s Brush With Fame is back for another season, and on Wednesday night his first subject was Wildlife Warrior, conservationist and mother-of-two Terri Irwin.
In a wide-ranging interview, the 53-year-old opened up about her childhood, her fateful first meeting with Steve Irwin, starting a family together, Steve’s meteroric rise to fame and untimely death in 2006.
Here are Terri’s most candid revelations…
Terri Irwin’s childhood
Terri revealed her love of wildlife was apparent from a young age after her dad would find injured animals and she would nurse them back to health.
After she rescued a cougar, the young vet nurse was inspired to start her own organisationg called Cougar Country.
“She was sweet and loving and curl up on my lap. Her favourite game was to sneak up behind me and pounce on me. As she got bigger, this pouncing had to stop. So I had to start working with her and teaching her to play with her toys and not me,” she explained to Anh.
“That began really began my journey. I started an organisation called Cougar Country, where I worked with predatory mammals.”
How Terri Irwin met Steve Irwin
When she was 27, the Oregon native headed to the Great Barrier Reef with friends for a holiday.
“We drove past this tiny park. My friend said to me ‘do you want to go in?'” Terri recalled.
“I said, ‘it looks kind of crummy. There’ll probably be just a couple of snakes in jars and I’ll be depressed.’ And then I went, ‘No! I’ll go in. Let’s just go in.’
It was a split second decision that would change the course of her life.
“It was small but everything was immaculately clean. And everything was free-ranging, like the kangaroos are just hopping around and it was beautiful! They were doing a crocodile show and this guy was in with these crocodiles and he was talking about them in ways that I never really thought of crocodiles,” she remembered.
That guy was Steve Irwin, who would later become the global superstar billed as The Crocodile Hunter.
“The fact that he was so humble and loving towards these animals was so attractive to me and he looked like a rock in those shorts, too… so I may have noticed that,” she laughed.
After the croc show, Terri approached Steve and they hit it off.
“All afternoon we just talked! I was trying to figure out how to say ‘do you have a girlfriends?’ And then all of a sudden like he’d read my mind, he said ‘would you like to meet my girlfriend?'”
“I felt myself sinking into the earth and so he called out and he said ‘Hey Sue! Come here!’ And here comes this little dog and he goes, ‘This is me girlfriend, Suey.'”
“I thought, ‘OK! You’re perfect!'”
Eight months later, they married.
How Steve Irwin proposed to Terri Irwin
After a day getting dirty at the zoo trying to clean up trees, Steve decided to pop the question.
“I was sweaty and dirty and covered with leaves and bark… I was sitting there having a cool drink and Steve turned to me and said ‘What do you reckon? Do you want to get married?” Terri explained.
“And I thought of one million reasons why I couldn’t get married and then a little voice said, ‘Yes! I’d love to.’ It was just absolutely and utterly comfortable. It just felt like we’d always been together. It was amazing!”
Steve Irwin’s rise to fame as the Crocodile Hunter
After the down-to-earth husband-wife duo started to film their animal rescues, things took off unexpectedly and before they knew it, they were in America brokering a television deal for The Crocodile Hunter.
The wildlife series became a global sensation but Terri says the fame never changed her husband.
“I don’t think that famous was ever really a word that occurred to Steve. He never changed.”
“He always drove an old ute, he always loved going bush, I loved that about him. He was never pretentious, never big-noted himself and we did put everything we made for wildlife back into conservation, and still do,” she said.
Starting a family
And his desire to start a family came about in a typically Steve way – full of enthusiasm and excitement.
“One day he ran in and he went: ‘We have to have children! Who are we doing to leave this all to?’ And I go: ‘You do know that just because you have children doesn’t mean they’ll like or do what you do?'”
“[And Steve replies] ‘Nope! We have to have children and they will love wildlife and so this.'”
Bindi was born in 1998 and Terri says the father-daughter duo were “absolutely inseparable.”
“He was so enthusiastic and amazed. He was just the best dad, a hands-on dad.”
Now their teenage son Bob is all grown up and Steve’s mini-me.
“He really does [look like Steve]. As Robert has grown up, it’s been uncanny. They look SO much alike at this point in time,” Terri admitted.
“He never thought he would have a long life. He had this sense that his life would be cut short. I remember him saying to me ‘I’m not going to film anymore, I’m just going to spend time with my kids.'”
The last goodbye
Tragically, Steve’s instincts were right and in 2006 at just 44, the father-of-two was killed by a stingray’s barb off the coast of Port Douglas.
Recalling the last time she ever saw her husband, Terri explained: “We were flying out and Steve stayed because he was going to film a documentary called Ocean’s Deadliest.“
“I remember him at the airstrip waving goodbye, I felt so bad for Robert because he was too little in his seat belt and fun police didn’t take his seat belt off so he could see his dad and wave goodbye. That was the last time we saw him.”
“Those were the days when the communication wasn’t as good, there wasn’t much range in Tasmania and I got to our destination for the night and they said you need to call your zoo manager,” the mother-of-two said.
“I thought, that’s weird… they took me into a back room and I got the news that Steve had been in this accident and had died.”
“I just remember this incredible sense of responsibility, this feeling of overwhelming grief but it was like what do I do next? I collected my thoughts, then I went to the car to tell Bindi and Robert which was really hard.”
“Somebody had arranged a plane so we didn’t have to fly commercially and I remember thinking, I have to drive myself,” Terri said through tears.
Over a decade has passed since Steve’s untimely death, which caused shock-waves around the world.
And for Terri, the grief and pain is still very much part of her life.
“The thing I didn’t expect or understand was just how it affected everyone.”
“Grief hits you at the most bizarre times. I might be talking to biology students and it will remind me of Steve and I’ll burst into tears. You don’t ever get over grief, it changes but you never wake up one morning and go, I’m done with that!”
“All of a sudden I was alone, everything was frightening.”
Finding a new partner has never been on the cards for the passionate conservationist.
“I always felt with Steve, if I didn’t marry Steve I wouldn’t have gotten married. I wasn’t dating, I wasn’t even looking. I was 27 years old and thought my life would be work. Then I met Steve and fell in love.”
“I just feel that we had that soulmate thing. In the 10 years since, I haven’t dated and thought about it because I’m not afraid to be on my own, it’s just really hard not having Steve… I’m lonely for Steve if that makes sense?”
“The meaning of life is unconditional love… if you can achieve that, I think you’re set!”