Scott Brown
September 05, 2006 AT 08:02 PM EDT

Five years ago, news of Steve Irwin’s death wouldn’t have surprised anyone. Everyone who watched The Crocodile Hunter — the Animal Planet program where Irwin, wide-eyed, cherubic and apparently impervious, attempted to bear-hug nature’s deadliest creatures — had two comments: a) “That man will be killed by a wild animal” and b) “It will happen on film.”

Sadly, yesterday both of these things came to pass on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where Irwin was stabbed in the heart by a stingray. Even writing that sentence feels vaguely ridiculous and disrespectful, a Saturday Night Live sketch waiting to happen. We’re reminded, uncomfortably now, of a thousand Irwin parodies: How could anyone resist a poke at this khaki-wearing, “crikey!” spouting, simple-seeming manchild who rushed towards danger with arms spread wide?

But that’s only because Irwin was such an outsized character. We soft-pawed housecats can’t even begin to contextualize his death because we barely understood his life. For us, it was a show. For him, it was an existence. And, after a while, we simply took for granted that Irwin was immortal, that he’d always be around, getting in too close, smiling wide as he shared the frame with a black mamba. But Irwin was just a human being, joyously out of his element. He died as he lived, risking death to achieve an intimacy with the natural world he loved. In the end, he got too close. For someone so full of life, death is a special tragedy; still, I can’t imagine Irwin, if he’d had foreknowledge of his end, would have been too disappointed.

Of course, there’s an epilogue here, likely an ugly one. Hopefully, the video of Irwin’s end will be destroyed. I imagine Irwin made provisions for the handling of a tape of his demise; perhaps the exhibitionist in him even wanted it aired. But I can’t think he’d really sanction such a thing, with a wife and children left behind. Let’s try our best to avoid a snuff-film circus, shall we? Give the man his dignity and let him be remembered vital, fearless, and covered in river mud.

addCredit(“Steve Irwin: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images”)

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