The untold truth of Steve Irwin's son

It's been over a decade since Australia mourned the loss of national treasure Steve Irwin, but the 2006 death of the self-styled Crocodile Hunter still remains at the forefront of his only son's mind. Irwin passed away in the arms of his cameraman after getting stabbed in the heart by the barbed tail of a stingray (a notoriously passive sea creature that rarely does fatal damage to humans) while the pair were filming a documentary off the coast of Queensland. Despite the circumstances of his father's demise, Robert Irwin (named after his grandfather Bob Irwin, founder of Australia Zoo) hasn't shied away from wild animals. Far from it, in fact.

The confident teenager began following in his father's footsteps from a very young age and is now a TV personality and famous conservationist in his own right, though he's turned out to be much more than just a clone of his old man. This is the untold truth of Robert Irwin.

He met his first croc when he was just a month old

Steve Irwin was always at home in Australia's oceans, but he found himself in hot water of a different variety in 2004 when he was filmed taking his month-old son into a crocodile enclosure at Australia Zoo. With Robert in one hand and a dead chicken in the other, Irwin fed his 13-foot croc Murray in front of amazed onlookers and TV cameras. The stunt was compared to the time Michael Jackson shocked fans by dangling his baby son from a fourth-floor balcony, and the press went after Irwin hard at home and abroad.

The wildlife enthusiast's antics were labelled "sick" by the New York Post, and other outlets followed suit, lambasting Irwin for what many felt amounted to child abuse. Even those in the same line of work thought he had crossed the line. "I think he's a bloody idiot," Keith Cook, owner of the rival Cairns Crocodile Farm, told the Courier-Mail (via CNN). Robert's mother Terri Irwin was present at the time, though she had no complaints about her husband's behavior.

"It was a wonderful sensory experience for him," she said of Robert's first croc feeding, and Irwin himself was equally nonchalant about the uproar. "I was in complete control of the crocodile," he said (via Independent). "Robert was tucked right in my arm. This kid has to grow up to be croc savvy. I am teaching him to be completely familiar with crocodiles." Australian law was altered as a result of the episode.

He was homeschooled at Australia Zoo

For the majority of kids, the words "school" and "cool" don't go together very often, but for Robert Irwin and his older sister Bindi (an Australian Aboriginal word meaning "little girl" or "little spear"), education has always been one big adventure. The pair have both been homeschooled at Australia Zoo, where they learned all about their country's native animals on top of the regular curriculum. "Every day is different because, obviously, we live at a zoo," a nine-year-old Robert told Perth Now in 2013. "We're the luckiest people in the world. We have two teachers, one for Bindi and one for me. When we're travelling, we have one who teaches both of us."

Bindi (who is five years her brother's elder) echoed Robert's thoughts on their education, telling the Australian outlet that getting educated on the road has plenty of perks. "Mum came up with a plan for when we go on research trips—If we don't catch any crocs, it's school all day; if we catch one, it's half a day of school; if we catch two or more crocodiles, we don't have any school," she said. "We pray every night that we catch five crocs the next day," Robert added. Both Irwin kids were ahead of their state school peers in terms of their level of education at the time of the interview, with Robert a full two years further forward than most kids his age.

He and his sister were in a Free Willy movie

Like Robert, Bindi got used to being in front of a camera from a very young age, making her first appearance on The Crocodile Hunter Diaries in 2000, when she was just two. She went on to appear in a number of reality and documentary shows alongside her adventurous father, who later helped her to create her own series, Bindi, the Jungle Girl. "The best part of filming this series was getting to work with my dad," she told ABC. "He was so much fun and he taught me so much about wildlife and how important it is for people to care about animals." It was her hands-on experience with wildlife that made her the perfect fit for the lead role in 2010's Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove.

Bindi played Kirra in the fourth Free Willy flick, the granddaughter of a marine amusement park owner (Beau Bridges). Upon visiting the park, Kirra discovers an injured baby orca whale trapped in a lagoon and makes it her mission to nurse him back to health so he can rejoin his pod. According to Robert's biography on the Australia Zoo website, he too was part of the cast, making a cameo appearance in the movie after traveling to the South African set with his sister. Unfortunately, the family were forced to cut their time in the U.S. promoting Bindi's first film short after her real-life granddad Bob Irwin suffered a heart attack.

He has his own book series

While his dad used to go by the nickname the Crocodile Hunter, Robert has always had more of a thing for dinosaurs. At the typically tender age of nine, he co-created his own book series, Robert Irwin: Dinosaur Hunter, which sent the youngest member of the Irwin clan back in time 95 millions years to an age when Australia's wildlife was even more terrifying than it is today. As well as coming up with the story ideas, Irwin also provided accompanying illustrations for all four books (The Discovery, Ambush at Cisco Swamp, Armoured Defence and The Dinosaur Feather), which received generally positive reviews from critics.

"It's tempting to dismiss the series as a clever marketing exercise, latching onto the popularity of young Robert Irwin and the tourism that goes with him, but the books will appeal to young readers, especially boys at that difficult age when they start to abandon reading," Lisa Hill of School Stuff said of the series. "They will like the adventure, the humor, the field guide at the back of the book and the easy reading, and unless they have been under a rock and have missed the hype about the junior Irwins, they will enjoy identifying with the famous young hero as well."

He's also an accomplished photographer

Some rather awkward questions were raised about just how much Irwin was involved in the creation of his Dinosaur Hunter books (the copyright page actually listed the author as Jack Wells), though even if he did use a ghostwriter on this occasion, nobody can deny he has some genuine skills with a camera. Irwin's stunning wildlife photography has been featured in galleries and publications all over the world, including Australian Geographic. "When I was about six years old I started taking photos on a little point-and-shoot camera," he told the magazine. "From there, my love of photography developed and now I take my camera gear with me everywhere."

Irwin went on to explain that capturing images of wildlife required huge amounts of patience, no matter the conditions. "In some situations I've had to wait for days to get just one good shot," he added. "I've photographed through all kinds of weather from monsoonal rain to snow storms to photograph animals. Sometimes the most extreme conditions can showcase the struggle that all creatures face to survive in the wild ... One of the most moving experiences I had was when I photographed the last male northern white rhinoceros."

Irwin's work has gained him some critical recognition over the past few years. He's been shortlisted twice in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, and he won the Wondai Regional Art Gallery People's Choice Award as well as the Glass House Mountains Rotary Calendar Photographic Competition in 2017.

He looks just like his dad

According to Irwin, people have been telling him that he looks like his dad since he was as young as nine, but it wasn't until he had a growth spurt a few years later that the extent of their resemblance started to really show. In 2016, a 12-year-old Irwin shocked reporters from Australia's Today show when he turned up for an interview and towered over his 17-year-old sister, wearing the same blond mop and infectious grin that his father made famous. "Look how tall you are," presenter Karl Stefanovic exclaimed (via Mail Online). "You are like a giraffe!"

The following year Robert appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and people were blown away by the similarity to the late Crocodile Hunter—not only in appearance, but in personality and attitude. With a new haircut to make him look more mature (and another few inches on his height), Irwin came across as an enthusiastic and polite young man who knew exactly what he was doing when it came to handling animals.

"It was such an honor to be on The Tonight Show and follow in my dad's footsteps," Irwin wrote in an Instagram post that showed his dad on the show with the exact same species of snake back when Jay Leno was hosting. "So much fun doing the show with Jimmy Fallon. He is an amazingly kind person and a true Wildlife Warrior!"

America loves him

Irwin's late-night television debut proved so popular with viewers of The Tonight Show that he was invited back at several points throughout the year, appearing a total of four times in 2017. He introduced Jimmy Fallon to a variety of creatures, from adorable baby black bears and kangaroos to huge snakes and venomous scorpions, fascinating the show's host and his fellow guests with his in-depth knowledge of different animal species.

Fallon isn't the only American TV show host that Irwin has struck up a rapport with in recent months. The Irwins appeared on an episode of Family Feud in 2017, with Robert, his mother Terri, sister Bindi and two cousins getting the better of This Is Us star Chrissy Metz and her family to take home $25,000 for their Wildlife Warriors charity. When asked to name "something a five-year-old might ask a bank to loan them money to buy," Robert answered "car" in his thick Australian accent, perplexing host Steve Harvey. "My dad had the same problem when ordering water at any restaurant in the U.S.," he told Fairfax Media (via The Sydney Morning Herald) about the confusion. "No one could understand him either!"

He's reportedly dating a fellow wildlife photographer

Irwin was briefly quizzed about his romantic life during his appearance on Family Feud, though he was quick to shoot down the notion of a girlfriend, telling Steve Harvey that he was "more focused on wildlife at the moment." Instagram tells a different story, however. Pictures of Irwin with fellow wildlife photographer and enthusiast Tess Poyner seemed to indicate that the pair were more than just friends, and insiders confirmed to MSN that young love was indeed in the air at Australia Zoo.

The teens are said to have met at the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year awards in early 2017, where they got along so well that they decided to stay in touch. In September of that year, Irwin invited Poyner to come and stay with him at the zoo for a week, just like his sister Bindi did with her long-term boyfriend Chandler Powell when they were both kids. MSN also reported that Bindi was "over the moon" about the idea of Robert and Tess becoming an item, but zoo reps have been quick to deny that their relationship is anything but innocent fun for now.

He started 2018 with a health scare

2018 began on a panicked note for the Irwins, who know all too well how a life can be cruelly cut short at a moment's notice. "I think living with Steve was like standing in a cyclone," Terri Irwin told Oprah when she hosted a special show down under. "It was 'Cyclone Steve' with that passion and enthusiasm, and [we were] just trying to keep up every day. Then when we lost him, it was just like the wind stopped." Given what she's already been through, the Oregon-born mom of two must have been extra anxious when her son was rushed to the hospital with excruciating pain in his abdomen, though thankfully it was an easy fix.

It turned out that Robert's pain was being caused by a problem with his appendix, which was swiftly removed by doctors. "Kicking off the new year with emergency surgery," Irwin said in an Instagram post he made from his hospital bed. "I'm recovering well and feeling so much better without my pesky appendix!" The appendectomy procedure was performed on New Year's Day by surgeons at McKenzie-Willamette Hospital, Springfield, who did a "fantastic job," according to a post on Terri's official Twitter feed.

He doesn't care about fame

With all the attention he's been getting at home and abroad recently, Robert Irwin is well on his way to being as well known as Steve Irwin was in his lifetime, though fame and fortune have never been his reason for following in his father's footsteps. Speaking to The Courier Mail, he explained that he was less interested in filling his dad's boots and more interested in spreading his message. "I don't want be exactly like Dad, I don't want to be Dad, but I do want to continue his legacy," he said (via Mail Online). "I am trying to make him proud. I would like him to be proud."

You don't have to have known Steve Irwin personally to know that he would have been extremely proud of young Robert, not only for being so adept at animal handling (looks like all those croc-dangling sessions paid off after all) and photography, but for putting the Wildlife Warrior cause above all else. "It's in my blood, it's in my DNA, and it's in everything I do," he said. "Dad never cared about being known for himself, he cared about the message, and that's what I'm trying to do, continue that message."