August 04, 2014 12:00 PM

PEOPLE Exclusive

Bindi Irwin has many ways of remembering the dad she adored, late Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin, who died in 2006 when she was 8. There are the “Daddy DVDs” of his adventures as the host of the popular Animal Planet series The Crocodile Hunter, which her brother Robert, 10, “studies with such intensity,” she says. There are the handprints Steve left in concrete outside the family’s home within the gates of Australia Zoo, the Queensland wildlife center that he and wife Terri transformed into a major tourist destination. “We’ll put our hands in them, just to see how they’ve grown and how they match up to Dad’s,” says Bindi. And then there are the dozens of letters he sent from his travels around the world. “Reading those letters back is special,” she says. “I’m grateful he wrote them. Those little things remind you of him and give you strength to keep going.”

It’s a strength she has needed in the years since her father’s death on Sept. 4, 2006, following a freak attack by a stingray off the coast of northern Australia, where the 44-year-old TV personality had been working on the documentary series Ocean’s Deadliest. Irwin’s death sparked an outpouring of grief around the world, and the suddenly widowed Terri, now 50, sought comfort in the place she and her children felt most connected to Steve: their home at the zoo.

Looking back, Bindi – who has grown from the pigtailed child star of her own show, Bindi: the Jungle Girl, to a poised and contemplative young woman who is turning sweet 16 on July 24 – says much of the advice she received was well-meaning but misguided. “I remember after we lost Dad, so many adults came up to me and said, ‘Honey, time heals all wounds,’ ” she tells PEOPLE, speaking in-depth for the first time since her father’s death. “That is the biggest lie you will ever hear. It doesn’t. That part of you is gone forever. Time softens things, so now when I think back about Dad and the amazing memories we had together, I’m happy. But that kind of sadness never goes away. It’s like losing a piece of your heart that you never get back.”

And there continue to be painful reminders of the past. This past winter Justin Lyons, a cameraman who had been filming Irwin when the stingray attacked, detailed the explorer’s last moments in a headline-making appearance on Australian morning show Studio 10. Bindi slams the interview. “It’s really hurtful, and as long as I live I’ll never listen to it,” she says. “It’s wrong as a family for us to hear about it.”

For the young woman who shares her father’s wide smile and infectious enthusiasm for animals, the way forward has been to build upon his legacy rather than dwell on the past. “When you lose a loved one, you come to these crossroads,” she says, speaking at SeaWorld in San Diego after assisting in the release of four California sea lions a day earlier. “You can take the path that leads you down the aisle of sadness, or you can say, ‘I’m never going to let this person’s memory die. I’m going to make sure everything they worked for continues.’ ”

That determination is strikingly familiar. “I see a lot of Steve in her, in that she has a sense of urgency, a sense of wanting to do it now,” says Terri, an Oregon-reared former veterinary technician who wed Irwin in 1992. And yet as Bindi steps further into the spotlight on her own, she faces greater scrutiny: Earlier this year animal activists criticized her decision to sign on as a youth ambassador for SeaWorld, which has come under fire in the wake of the 2013 killer-whale documentary Blackfish. Steve’s father, Bob Irwin, who in 2008 dissociated himself from the family zoo he founded with wife Lyn, also condemned the partnership, saying in a statement, “Steve and I were 100 percent dedicated to ensuring that any animals kept in the Australia Zoo collection were kept in the most natural environment possible.” But Bindi points out that the theme park’s conservation work is something her father would support. “I’m hoping to be able to inspire this generation,” she says firmly, “and show kids how they can make a difference.”

Precocious and serious-minded, yes. “I feel like I have lived many lives in one lifetime,” Bindi says. But the home-schooled teen also knows how to have fun. An avid moviegoer and paddleboarder, she loves to “Skype bake” with her long-distance friends and rock out to Aussie metal band AC/DC “because of my dad,” she says. “He would pump their music so loud, and we’d stand in the back of the truck and dance.” Her jam-packed bedroom, which Terri jokes “looks like an episode of Hoarders,” features a photo of an opossum named Bella. “Every morning I wake up and look at it and go, ‘I love you,’ ” she coos. Says Terri: “Bindi is empathetic to those who don’t have a voice. That’s why she’s so in tune with wildlife.”

She is also extraordinarily close with Robert, who was just 2 when their father died. When asked what he loved most about his dad, tears stream down his freckled face and he quietly excuses himself. “It happens for all of us,” Terri explains later of the waves of grief the family still experiences. “Months can go by and you’re fine, and then something triggers it.” Both mother and daughter have filled in many of the blanks for Robert, whom Irwin affectionately called Bob Bob. “When he was really little, he’d get a little plush crocodile and practice jumping on it like Dad did,” recalls Bindi. “He’d yell, ‘I need backup!’ And Mom and I would run in and jump on the croc too.”

These days “Robert is so protective of Bindi,” says Terri. “If she has a friend at the zoo who’s a boy, Robert sneaks up on them and takes photos to make sure they are just friends.”

And with a celebration for her 16th birthday approaching—festivities will include a party at Australia Zoo featuring laser tag and a climbing wall—it’s clear Bindi is focused on a life chasing thrills rather than boys. Right now she’s planning the family’s annual crocodile research trip and taking community college classes in the hopes of continuing her father’s legacy. If she could say anything to him, what would it be? “I’d tell him that I love him more than anything in the world, and that he is my hero,” she says softly. “Thank you for the amazing eight years and the adventures of a lifetime.” She pauses for a moment to collect herself, then adds, “Thank you and I love you and I miss you and I know I’ll see you soon. But I miss you.”

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