The Irwin Pride
Trademark khakis, beaming smiles and constant media attention are part of the Irwin family’s fabric. But what is life really like for Terri, Bindi and Robert Irwin? Anna Rawlings reports in a raw, honest insight into Australia’s most famous family and their special bond.
An elephant family is a socially complex group; led by a matriarch and populated with females. Tigers on the other hand, are solitary, only bonding to mate. Male saltwater crocodiles play little role in parenting, while the female will go without food to protect her nest.
Homo sapien, or human, relationships are just as variant.
A family who knows this all too well are conservationists, wildlife warriors and arguably the world’s most renowned zoo family, Terri, Bindi and Robert Irwin, of Australia Zoo – a mother with the heart and courage of a lioness and her young; a remodelled family unit following a devastating loss.
“As I get older I can just see how strong Mum is, she is truly the strongest woman I’ve ever known in my entire life and what’s incredible is she is always there for Robert and myself,” says Bindi, 17.
“She runs Australia Zoo, she keeps all of our conservation work going, and she’s also the greatest mother on earth. I hope one day to be half as strong as she is. Because you are, you’re the strongest person in the world,” she says, turning to Terri.
At 12 years old, blonde Robert adds, in an answer that’s a little more ‘boy-ish’, “sometimes we’ll go out and see a lion making a kill, other times it’s watching a bowerbird nest for three days straight and no matter what it is, mum is sitting by our side.”
From being Robert’s “camera sherpa” on safari in Africa to cheering on Bindi as she competed in the 2015 season of Dancing with the Stars, Terri is all about her children.
As I get older I can just see how strong Mum is, she is truly the strongest woman I’ve ever known in my entire life and what’s incredible is she is always there for Robert and myself.”
“When Steve and I decided to have kids we wanted to make sure one of us was always there for them, so from the time they ‘hatched’ they’ve been coming on wildlife adventures with us,” she smiles fondly.
“We just continued down that track and I think especially after losing Steve it’s really helped to be a close family and know we’re there for each other, through what we’re going through with our grief journey.”
In 2006, tragedy struck when Terri lost her husband, and Bindi and Robert their father, to a fatal stingray barb. Shock at the sudden loss of Steve Irwin ‘The Crocodile Hunter’, founder of Australia Zoo, conservationist pioneer, wildlife expert and television personality, ricocheted around the world.
“I think it’s interesting that I always looked at Steve as being the driving force and then when we lost him it was kind of terrifying you know, there was no one driving now,” she admits.
“But then I started discovering we were more alike than I really thought, that desire to achieve what we were setting out to do was really in both of us, so while it was utterly terrifying there was never a moment when I thought we wouldn’t be continuing his work.”
Since the loss of Steve, Terri has forged ahead, becoming an established business woman and showing incredible strength from raising the kids to such triumphs as protecting the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve from strip mining.
“Steve became incredibly successful and that’s what you see today; 450,000 acres of conservation property throughout Queensland, our wildlife projects around the world, Australia Zoo, everything Steve remained true to … and I think that’s the work ethic of Bindi and Robert.”
As well as the Irwin work ethic, and Robert’s striking resemblance to his dad, what other traits of him does Terri see in her children?
“Bindi’s like Steve in that she’s really tough on the outside and tender on the inside, so like on Dancing with the Stars, she was dancing through damaged ligaments, blisters, sore shoulders and hips, getting dropped now and then … but always very empathetic to the other celebrities,” says Terri.
“I love that about her and Steve was like that as well, he could fall out of a tree or get grabbed by something and soldier on, but he was very soft on the inside.
“And Robert’s so interesting because he’s ‘cookie cutter Steve’. Robert was two when we lost Steve so he wouldn’t have really been aware of how much he’s like him. He’s into photography, he’s into paleontology, all the things that Steve was into.
“And you wonder is it nurture or is it nature … and I think it’s a bit of both.”
Khaki’s not just a colour, it’s an attitude.”
This family, like any other, has its quirks, from Robert’s favoured pets – despite living in an exotic zoo he favours two pet chickens, Piggy and Fudgecake; to the only flavour of ice cream Bindi enjoys (Fish Food) and Terri’s five-weekly trips to splurge on a haircut and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
“What you’ll hear most nights at home is Robert asking if we can play Monopoly, Mum telling me I’ve forgotten to unload the dishwasher and all of us just enjoying dinner together,” Bindi laughs.
“And Mum started this amazing tradition just after we lost Dad, we started saying our favourite part of the day, every single day.”
Despite just stepping off a plane from visiting their grandparents in Oregon, and recent cameo appearing on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here Australia, they are fresh and chatty, but after all, they’re used to the limelight.
Terri reveals, “When Steve and I married, Steve said he wasn’t sure if he wanted to have children because his lifestyle was so active. So it was six years before we decided to have kids, Steve racing in the house one evening after ‘fire staring’ in the back paddock and saying, we’ve gotta have kids, who are we going to leave all this to?
“And I said, you know just having kids doesn’t mean they’re going to be interested in what you do. And he said, ‘No we’re having kids and they’re going to take over Australia Zoo and it’s going to be great’,” Terri remembers.
In true Steve Irwin exuberance, he brought the film crew into the delivery room of Bindi’s birth, “we filmed the whole nine yards,” Terri laughs, while Bindi chimes in with “poor mum!”.
“When Bindi was just six days old she came with us on her first documentary shoot, by 10 days we had her passport and were off to the States. And Robert was the same. They have that ability to look outside, to want to know how you’re doing today, wide-eyed kids with awareness and appreciation and I feel very blessed to have been able to do that.”
Now approaching her 18th birthday, and having just received her P-plates, Bindi’s grown up in the public eye. At just eight years old, she delivered a moving tribute to her father in front of the nation, and went on to star in several conservation shows on US and Australian screens.
With adulthood on the horizon, Bindi says, “I’m looking forward to making my mum, dad and brother as proud as possible. I want to start tackling bigger issues such as the non-consumptive use of wildlife and our expanding human population.”
The teen won Dancing with the Stars US 2015, despite admitting feeling “terrified” at being on the show, captivating audiences with her dancing skills and touching inclusions of her father in her freestyle performances.
“My favourite dance is the one I dedicated to my dad at the very beginning and then at the very end. I was ready to let that journey out,” she says.
Of winning the series, Bindi says, “It truly felt like the most extraordinary dream. Derek (Bindi’s dance partner) decided we’d have to put the mirror ball trophies in with the crocodiles.
“It was so much fun working with Derek, we ended up naming a koala here at Australia Zoo after him, he came here to visit his koala and became a real wildlife warrior.”
Of course, Derek isn’t the only American with a place in Bindi’s life – her boyfriend is professional wakeboarder Chandler Powell, 19, who she met while giving him and his family a tour of the zoo in 2013.
“I was like wow, this American guy is pretty great, so we ended up staying in touch and were great friends and it ended up blooming into something more,” reveals Bindi.
“Chandler is terrific and I’m not sure who loves him more, me or my family,” she laughs.
“Robert was stealing him yesterday saying, let’s go play tennis, let’s play football. It’s nice to have someone who really understands my world, he’s such a determined person who is constantly one of the kindest people I know. I think that I’m really lucky to have him in my life.”
Bindi often shares snaps, including the couple watching sunsets and lemurs together at the Zoo, on her Instagram page, which has amassed more than one million followers. Despite her transparency, headlines speculating about the status of her relationship, swinging wildly from elopements to break-ups, constantly abound.
“It’s easy to get caught up in social media and all these different things swirling around, so it’s important to stay true to yourself and surround yourself with people who genuinely are looking out for you,” says Bindi.
Terri chimes in, “All I do is Twitter because I’m 51 years old and I’m not that groovy, but I can tweet, by golly!”
“I might talk about conservation work we’re doing or what’s going on at Australia Zoo ... maybe more of a commercial feel than what Bindi does but I find people appreciate knowing what’s going on in our lives. It’s also hard to be mean in 140 characters! So people are generally pretty nice on Twitter.
“And you’re just really good at focusing on positivity,” she directs to Bindi, before looking at Robert, “and you’re not old enough!”
Yet while Robert isn’t old enough for his own social media just yet, he’s more than adept behind the shutters of a Canon camera. The budding photographer flicks through stunning shots of wildlife he captured while the family was recently in Africa.
Robert undertakes distance education studies, and is currently two years ahead of his grade; perhaps living in a zoo has something to do with it.
“It’s the most incredible childhood because our alarm clock is tigers roaring and lemurs screeching,” he grins.
Because home truly is where the heart is for these conservationists, with Terri never looking back since promising Steve that if anything happened to him she would continue his work.
On reflection about what she and Steve originally set out to achieve with their family and the zoo, Terri muses, “about two months before we lost Steve, we sat down and did a 10 year business plan and that’s coming to fruition this year. Everything we set out to do and then some, has been accomplished so I’m extremely proud of that and I couldn’t be more proud of how my kids have turned out.
“Robert’s photography work is just going from strength to strength, more of his work is getting published, so I think he’s going to be a fantastic photographer.
“With Bindi turning 18 I’m sure she’ll be having some adventures of her own but until then we’ll keep stoically travelling as a family.”
And just like their dad dreamed, Bindi and Robert will continue the Irwin legacy.
Bindi smiles, “to be an Irwin means to be as passionate as humanly possible, we are wildlife warriors, Dad first created that phrase for those who can’t speak for themselves, and it’s all about khaki as well!”
Robert adds, “Khaki’s not just a colour, it’s an attitude. It’s really important to us, it always has been and always will be, to make Dad proud and carry it on here at Australia Zoo.”