Irwin remembered in Central Virginia

It was late April 1998 when someone telephoned what was then known as the Luray Reptile Center, now the Luray Zoo, asking if their group could see some rattlesnakes.

"I said, 'Yeah, if you've got six dollars," recalls Zoo co-owner Mark Kilby.

It was only when a film crew arrived that Kilby realized he had a Discovery Channel celebrity in his midst: Steve Irwin, aka the "Crocodile Hunter," who died September 4 when a stingray punctured his chest. Like millions worldwide, Kilby today finds himself mourning an Australian friend.

"We hit it off," says Kilby, "because we were pretty similar. We grew up in families that appreciated animals, we each ran a zoo, and we had a love for venomous snakes, reptiles, and other animals."

Kilby says the rattlesnake meeting came about after Irwin's crew had grown frustrated when a snake-seeking foray into Shenandoah National Park was coming up short. Still chilly at the higher elevations, the mountains over Luray had not produced temperatures warm enouth to induce timber rattlesnakes to come out of their dens for the cameras.

Kilby says he was impressed that Irwin paid attention to Kilby's snake-handling methods– methods that in 40 years of handling snakes have never resulted in a single bite. "He said, 'I know why you haven't been bitten; you have a relationship with your snakes built on trust and respect.'"

Irwin would go on to build a worldwide fan base based on similar principles– plus action and humor. The affable Aussie, although always stressing a don't-try-this-at-home approach, would nonchalantly tussle with crocs, cobras, and sea snakes.

While he gained some detractors in early 2004 for bringing his infant son, Bob, into a crocodile pen at his popular Australia Zoo, any criticism was muted Monday, as websites clogged and worldwide media poured out tribute stories on the khaki shorts-clad animal lover whose life was cut short by what appears to be a fluke strike from a stringray.

"He was killed by a very docile animal," says G. Carlton Ray, a former curator of the New York Aquarium. "They hand-feed these things down in the Caymans."

"If you go diving in the Caribbean," continues Ray, now a research professor in UVA's department environmental sciences, "you see their eyes in the sand, and you get within six feet, and they spook and take off. I've swum with lots and lots and lots of them."

The latest wave of reports from Australia suggest that the stingray may have felt trapped between Irwin and a cameraman. "Maybe it thought it was being threatened," says Ray. "That's one thing you never want to do with any animal."

Mark Kilby, who runs the Luray Zoo with his wife Jennifer, notes that when Irwin visited eight years ago, Terri Irwin was six months pregnant with her first child. That child, Bindi, was the host of the program Irwin was filming when he died.

"It's really sad," says Kilby. "A real tragedy. He died doing what he was destined to do: educate people on animals they aren't used to liking."

September 7 Update: An expanded version of this story appeared in today's print edition of the Hook.