October 16, 2000 12:00 PM

For 2-year-old Bindi Irwin, a day at the office with Dad means traipsing through the crocodile-and-snake-infested Outback of Queensland, Australia, with Steve Irwin, star of cable television’s wildlife show Crocodile Hunter. “My daughter is going to grow up doing this,” says Irwin, the preternaturally excitable wildlife wrangler who sometimes takes Bindi along while filming his rescues of imperiled, often highly dangerous wild animals. “There’s this shot of me with Bindi and a big croc, and he’s all teeth and we’re both staring straight down the barrel,” says Irwin in a thick-as-Vegemite Australian accent. “She’s like, ‘Oooh!’ It’s sure to make some mothers cringe.”

Mostly, though, Irwin’s adventures entertain the millions of viewers in more than 60 countries who tune in to his two shows—the weekly Crocodile Hunter and its five-days-per-week spin-off for kids, Croc Files. The 38-year-old, self-taught naturalist, often joined on-camera by his American wife and cohost, Terri, 36, has won over that global audience—the shows air in the U.S. on the Animal Planet channel—with his boyish enthusiasm. “Have a look at this little ripper!” he’ll gush, facing a fang-baring poisonous snake. Says producer John Stainton: “Steve leaps out of the screen at you. You feel he’s going to crack the lens at times.”

Yet his shows are more than just entertainment. “You see me running around wrestling crocs and grabbing venomous snakes,” says Irwin, who saves animals from encroaching civilization and moves them to the wild or to his family’s 22-acre wildlife refuge, Australia Zoo, in Queensland. “We’re into conservation. That’s our passion. That’s my whole aim in life.”

Irwin inherited his love for reptiles and other creatures from his father, Bob, now 60, who sold his Melbourne plumbing company and in 1973 opened the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park (now Australia Zoo), where he and wife Lyn raised two daughters and Steve. In the early ’80s, when the older Irwin was hired by a wildlife agency to rescue crocs from populated areas, his son became his assistant, then his successor. “Dad was sick of people seeing crocodiles as evil monsters,” says Irwin.

His mother, a former nurse who cared for baby kangaroos and injured birds at the family’s preserve, had a similar passion. Last February she was killed in a car accident, and Irwin is still too distraught to talk about it. His grief-stricken father, meanwhile, remains in seclusion.

Helping Steve cope these days is Terri, herself a wildlife conservationist from Eugene, Ore., who met Irwin at one of his crocodile-feeding demonstrations while vacationing in Australia in 1991. “He was so passionate,” says Terri. “He was like Tarzan meets Indiana Jones.” Married nine months later, the two honeymooned in the Outback, where they still go to relax. “We do a lot of taking it easy,” says Irwin, who is also a surfer. “We look at a few water holes and the birds and koalas.” Since the 1998 birth of Bindi—named after one of the zoo’s crocs—Terri hasn’t been able to travel with Irwin as often as she used to, and it troubles her. “I don’t cope well when I’m not there with him,” she says of the hazardous video shoots. “I find it terrifying.”

For his part, Irwin, who hopes to produce a feature film about his exploits next year, takes the risks in stride. Pointing to scars on his body left behind by irate crocs, his face lights up. “It just feels like a huge crushing pressure,” he says. No worries, though: “I’m a fast healer.”

Steve Dougherty

Shelley Gare in Queensland