31 March 2013
By KARL QUINN
Nature crusader and child TV star Bindi Irwin can now add movie star to her impressive resume, writes Karl Quinn. My eight-year-old daughter loved Return to Nim’s Island, but one thing troubled her. "Why is Bindi called Nim?" she asked.
It was a fair question. Nim is a teenage girl who lives on a remote island off the coast of Queensland with her environmental scientist dad (Matthew Lillard) and a research assistant. She is played by Bindi Irwin, a teenage girl who lives in a zoo surrounded by Queensland rainforest with her environmentalist mother and a staff of about 500. Nim and Bindi are both environmental warriors, fighting to keep the interests of developers at bay. A little confusion in the mind of an eight-year-old is perhaps understandable.
"Playing someone different to yourself is kind of strange but I feel like Nim is part of me," Bindi says. "Nim is such a passionate and determined being. Nothing can stand in her way, even when the world is against her.
"I could really connect to the character and understand where she was coming from." But if Nim seems like a role written for Bindi to play, it’s not.
The character was created by Canadian-born, Australian-based author Wendy Orr in the 2001 novel Nim’s Island and was first played on film in 2008 by American actor Abigail Breslin. "Because she got too old for the role, they called me in," says Bindi, who is 14, whereas Breslin is positively ancient at almost 17. "And I jumped at the chance because I loved the first film. But it does feel like it was written for me because I’m so like Nim!" The film has "a beautiful message of wildlife, conservation and loving each other and remembering what family is all about", she says. "I want to carry on in my dad’s footsteps and make sure his message lives on forever!" Ah, her dad.
Bindi Irwin was just eight in September 2006 when her father, Steve, died after his chest was pierced by a stingray barb while filming a television segment about deadly creatures of the sea.
To many Australians, she will forever be that brave little sprite who read a moving eulogy to a man revered by many as a protector of wildlife but reviled by some as a taunting exploiter of it.
In her memories of him, there is no ambiguity.
Indeed, there is almost no sense of him even being consigned to memory, as she frequently refers to him in the present tense.
"Dad was my superhero, he still is," she says. "He’s the living, breathing superhero of my life. My mum and dad are my biggest inspiration and everything I do in my life is to make them proud.
"What you saw on camera [with Steve] was what you got. Every day was a whirlwind, no lie.
"One day we were sitting in our little classroom in the middle of Australia Zoo and dad bursts in and says, 'OK, today we’re going to go climb a mountain,’ - the Glass House Mountains are about 20 minutes away - so we packed up all our math work and ran out the door and climbed Mount Tibrogargan.
"Another day we were getting ready for school and dad burst through the door and said, 'You have to come outside, I’ve got a surprise for you.’ And outside there, sitting under our clothesline, was a tiger.
"It’s moments like that you’ll never forget. He was the best dad ever and I want to make sure his legacy never dies and I want to carry on in his footsteps. He’s everything to me." The most obvious part of that legacy is Australia Zoo, the 29-hectare tourist attraction at Beerwah, an hour north of Brisbane.
Though Bindi and her nine-year-old brother Robert are increasingly the faces of the enterprise, there’s little doubt their American-born mother, Terri, is the driving force.
In 2011, reports surfaced that the zoo was in trouble but Terri insists it was no more than a blip in a cyclical business. "A couple of years ago we all had a bit of a wobble, and if it keeps raining we’ll all keep wobbling," she says. "Tourism is like that - you ebb and flow constantly. The GFC and the flooding hit us all at once."
Plans to open a branch of Australia Zoo in Las Vegas remain on the table. "It’s still on the cards," Terri says. "Nothing is locked in but I think it will happen. I’m very confident."
It was Steve’s idea, something they started talking about in 2002, and she’s convinced he was right about it because of the "perfect" climate, the 40 million tourists who pass through Vegas each year and the fact the whole town is like a giant "Disneyland for adults".
"The thing that drove me most crazy about Steve in our married life was that he was always right," Terri says. "But mum would never admit that," Bindi chips in.
"No," Terri concedes. "He’s looking down now, going 'Ah ha!'"
The other significant legacy - apart from a body of TV work that is still in high rotation both here and in the US (as is Bindi’s own juvenile oeuvre) - is the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve in Cape York, a gift from the Howard government in 2007.
"It was very nice of John Howard to say, 'We’d like to name a national park after Steve,'" Terri says. "I said, 'With all due respect, I’d like to run it.’"
The 135,000-hectare reserve is primarily a research facility and off-limits to large-scale tourism but Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s conservative government has given the go-ahead for bauxite mining there, a move that has outraged the Irwin family. "I’m trying to save the place from being strip-mined," Bindi says. "We’ve got over 400,000 petition signatures."
Nor is this the only issue that has her steamed up. "I’d like to tackle bigger issues facing our world today as I get older," she says. "Population, non-consumptive use of wildlife, all these issues people don’t want to talk about I want to start bringing up."
In January, she tried to do just that. Approached by the editors of Hillary Clinton’s e-journal to write a piece on conservation, she penned an essay of "exactly 1000 words" on the threat posed to the planet by the human population explosion. The essay she got back was, she says, "completely different. Not only had all my mention of population been deleted, my words were completely rewritten."
She withdrew the piece in protest but has been more than willing to talk about the incident since. "I always think the true test of free speech is when someone says something you don’t like," she says. "I don’t care if you agree with my opinion on this issue or you disagree, I just want us to start talking about it, because it’s the elephant in the room that everyone keeps avoiding and we need to stop avoiding it."
If Bindi Irwin seems at times a little too rehearsed, she seems utterly genuine in her concerns. It maybe an unfair question to put to a 14-year-old, but I wonder if she might consider entering politics at some point. "President, prime minister; who knows," she responds with a laugh that can’t hide the impression it’s not the first time the idea has occurred to her. "You do only live once and I feel like if I’m able to make a difference on this planet and leave it just a little better than I found it then I’ve done my job.
"I feel like that’s why I’ve been put on this planet - to get my message across."