Croc hunter left memories at Luke

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Australia is a long way from Luke, but memories are not affected by distance. When Steve "The Croc Hunter" Irwin came here in October 1999, with his wife Terri, and daughter, Bindi, to film a segment for The Crocodile Hunter Series, he left plenty of memories and laughs as well. His passing causes us to reflect on those memories. 

The sidewinder rattler is the name for both an aggressive, venomous snake and an important missile for the U.S. Air Force - and the Croc Hunter knew he could find both right here. Irwin Croc hunter left memories at Luke and his wife Terri went to the Barry M. Goldwater Range to locate the desertdwelling sidewinders, as well as many other reptiles and wildlife for the segment in the series. Irwin was also treated to a flight in an F-16, armed with its own version of a sidewinder. 

Irwin, who was known for his animated behavior, and Terri were both excited to learn that the training performed on the Goldwater Range has minimal impact on the environment. The range is a protected habitat for 44 reptile species, 200 species of birds, 62 mammal species and five amphibian species.
"The mission doesn't affect the habitat - they (the wildlife) are in no danger," he said several times during the taping. 

Mary Jo May, 56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs community relations chief, coordinated the visit for the Irwins and their film crew, and was inspired by their closeness as a family. 

"It was evident during the week I spent with the Irwins filming at Luke and the range that they were a very close family. They were genuine people. Irwin's energy level was exactly what you saw on camera. I was never so exhausted and exhilarated in my life while working with him and his crew." 

The video showcased the awesome and vast Goldwater Range; it also demonstrated how dangerous the rugged environment can be as well. And it seemed Irwin knew exactly where to look for reptiles. He rappelled down into an abandoned mine (where no one else is allowed or would even want to go) to rescue snakes that had fallen into the mine. At other locations, he found a desert tortoise, several lizards and many other wildlife species. 

"The Crocodile Hunter's visit to Luke and the Barry M. Goldwater Range is a testament to the Air Force's great stewardship of the land and Mr. Irwin did a great job explaining the range's very healthy ecosystem and that it is in good hands," May said. 

Although the F-16 flight was perhaps the highlight of Irwin's visit here, he was most obviously at home on the range. 

After his flight, the Croc Hunter could be heard saying, "Geez, I never thought I'd see the day I'd be flying in an F-16 - it was the most exhilarating feeling in my life." Given the crazy antics the Croc Hunter had with wildlife, that's quite a compliment. 

Michael Clawson, reporter for the West Valley View, conducted an interview here with the Irwins in 2002 during a promotional tour for their new movie, Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, and the subject of his visit to Luke was brought up. The following is an excerpt from that interview. 

Steve: "By crikey, those guys at Luke took care of us. They know how to treat visitors. Say g'day to those Luke pilots and crew for me. They're nice guys and they're doing their absolute best to preserve the wildlife. On the show, when we were out at Luke, I only touched on the surface of the amazing set of snakes you got in this beautiful Arizona desert. We sneak back in Arizona all the time, one because it looks and feels a lot like our Australian home and, two, because your snakes are mighty beautiful." 

Terri: "It was eyeopening for me on the military base, because I've always been one of those naive people who thinks (only of) war, conflict and weaponry when someone mentions the military. You don't realize that a great deal of their time is just dealing with conservation and looking after the land. Ironically most of the animals are in areas like the bombing ranges. It's so weird, we were standing there in spent shells and it's thick with wildlife." 

Steve: "Crikey, absolutely. It's amazing." 

Terri: "I told Steve, 'Isn't this scary? Where there are no people, there are more animals in spite of the fact that they're living on a bombing range.' People are more destructive than bombs, that's what that said to me." 

"Sidewinders of Arizona" was part of The Crocodile Hunter Series and first aired November 19, 2000. It is one of two episodes on Volume 4 'Deadly snakes,' and can still be purchased from the Croc Hunter Web site http://www.crocodilehunter.com.au/

The memorial service for Steve Irwin, Australian environmentalist, television personality, and friend to Luke, was held at the Australia Zoo in Beerwah, Australia, Sept. 20. 

Excerpts from Michael Clawson's interview, reprinted with permission.