NEWS- Steve Irwin: Crocodile Hunter had local impact

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 is now 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 came up short. The higher elevations of the mountains over Luray had not produced temperatures warm enouth to lure timber rattlers out of their dens.

Kilby says he was impressed that Irwin paid attention to Kilby's snake-handling methods– methods that in 40 years of handling snakes have kept him from even 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,'" Kilby says.

With that philosophy and a lot of action and humor, the affable Aussie went on to attract fans worldwide as he nonchalantly tussled with crocs, cobras, and sea snakes– all the while stressing a don't-try-this-at-home approach.

While he was berated in early 2004 for bringing his infant son, Bob, into a crocodile pen at his popular Australia Zoo, criticism was muted Monday as websites were clogged and worldwide media teemed with tribute stories about the khaki shorts-clad animal lover whose life was cut short by a 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 of environmental sciences, "you see their eyes in the sand. You get within six feet, and they spook and take off. I've swum with lots and lots and lots of them."

The latest 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."

Animal behavior took center stage Tuesday morning in Michael Donegan's fifth grade class at the North Branch School. "We were talking about earth history, and we were talking about sea animals," says Donegan. "I think it was a one in million chance it happened. You'd have thought it would be a crocodile to do him in." Donegan says his students were particularly sympathetic to Irwin's children. 

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."

Steve Irwin and Luray Zoo co-owner Mark Kilby (and Rio, the great dane)