The exuberant, khaki-clad animal expert and conservationist Steve Irwin was Animal Planet's first superstar. The Australian Irwin and his American wife, Terri, starred from 1997 to 2004 in the popular documentary series "The Crocodile Hunter," which also spawned other series, specials and even a feature film.
Audiences couldn't enough of Irwin, who owned and operated Australia Zoo in Queensland, and peppered his conversations with such words as "crikey," "whopper" and "mate" as he got up close and personal with animals including his beloved crocodiles. Their children Bindi — she was named for his favorite crocodile — and Robert eventually became part of the series.
But tragedy struck a dozen years ago when Irwin was killed at the age of 44 after he was struck in the heart by a stingray barb while filming a documentary.
Though Irwin is gone, his spirit is alive in well in the new 14-part Animal Planet series "Crikey! It's the Irwins," which premieres globally on Sunday. Just before the series kicks off, Animal Planet will air a two-hour celebration of the late conservationist, "The Steve Irwin Story."
The series explores the Irwins' work at the Australia Zoo, their conservation efforts and their daily life, which includes Stella the pug and a bossy 12-year-old chicken named Piggy.
It seemed quite apropos that the Irwins would be dressed in their trademark khakis during a recent visit to Los Angeles. They are exceedingly polite, friendly and passionate about animals. Bindi, now 20, won "Dancing With the Stars" three years ago and Robert has been channeling his dad as the animal expert on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."
The family had stayed in touch with Animal Planet over the years. And the series came up at a "good time for them and a great time for us," said Terri. "I think the stars aligned for all of this. With Bindi and Robert being older it just makes everything (like) school easier."
"We did the Brisbane School of Distance Education," explained Bindi. "We went to online classes with other students in our grade and learned everything like in a normal school, so we were able to travel with it. We didn't have to miss out going to Africa with Mum and Dad."
Animal Planet global president Susanna Dinnage talked about the massive goodwill toward the Irwins. "People want them to be well," she noted. "They want them to be happy. There is a real anticipation about their return."
Since Irwin's death, Australia Zoo has become the biggest in the country with over 1,200 animals, 500 employees and a state-of-the-art animal hospital named after Steve Irwin's late mother, Lyn.
"We've taken in over 78,000 sick, injured, orphaned animals to rehabilitate them and release them back in the wild," said Bindi. "We're also affecting entire species. We get 800 koalas a year into the wildlife hospital and that's unbelievable. The koala population is having such a difficult time that if we weren't there, we might not have koalas in our region. For us, the heart and soul of everything that we do is our conservation work."
The Irwins began the Wildlife Warriors conservation initiative in 2002. "And now we have conservation projects helping to protect cheetah and rhinos in Africa, Tigers in Sumatra," noted Bindi. "With this show what's so nice is that we are able to take people on the journey with us.
Steve Irwin's best mate and director of the zoo, Wes Mannion, is featured prominently in the series, as is Bindi's Florida-born boyfriend Chandler Powell. And many of their extended family of animals including crocodiles Agro and Graham are living at the zoo.
Bindi and Robert agree that they knew they had to follow in their parents' footsteps. "With the upbringing that we've had and with a family like this, I don't think there's any doubt that we've ever wanted to do anything else," said Robert. "I mean, this has always been our passion."
"At the end of the day, Mum and Dad have always said just follow your dreams, do what you love," noted Bindi. "I feel as I've gotten older, I have been able to choose my path in life and be Bindi. I think we all have this destiny within our hearts."