Saturday, September 03, 2016

Steve Irwin's Fierce Snake Fakery



Sometimes, telling a story is all about knowing what to leave off.

For example, did I ever tell you about the time I was stopped at the Orlando airport for a handgun violation ?

True story, and quite a scene, actually.

The security guy asked me to step away from my bag. Was there something I wanted to tell him? No?

Well then, could I explain what the gun was doing inside my carry-on?

I could not. I had no idea what he was talking about.

The cop was not amused.

He drew the gun from my bag, and my wife stepped forward and told the officer it was hers. "She does the packing in my family," I explained.

So what happened next?

Nothing. Using my best Jedi Mind Trick technique, I convinced the officer we were not the droids he was looking for.

Now, this story is entirely true, and that's the way I tell it in the hillbilly bars in West Virginia where a man is not a man unless he has had at least one gun violation in his youth.

What I leave off is the fact that the family and I were coming back from Walt Disney World, and the gun in question was a cap gun still in its packaging. My wife had bought the toy for my son (then age 7) as a consolation prize while I took my daughter on the Tower of Doom -- the ride he was too young to go on.

I recount this tale because it makes a point: sometimes, for the benefit of story, it's best to leave off a little information.

Steve Irwin, who died 10 years ago tomorrow,  knew that. In fact, he made his fame and fortune by leaving off a little information.

Take, for example, those endless specials on Animal Planet in which Steve could be seen driving around Australia to handle "The Ten Deadliest Snakes in the World."

Steve would leap off his motorcycle and run across the scrub and grab up a "Fierce Snake" while explaining that this snake had "the most toxic venom of any snake in the world -- 750 times as venomous as a common cobra."

And he would say this all pumped up full throttle in that delightful Australian accent of his. What a mad man!

It was terrific showmanship. And complete nonsense.

Steve never actually lied, of course. Instead, he simply left off an important bit of information. And the important piece of information he left off was that he was using the LD50 index of snake toxicity to determine which snakes were the "world's deadliest."

Now there is nothing wrong with the LD50 index. In fact, it's a global standard with guidelines laid down by the World Health Organisation.

But there's something you need to know when it comes to the LD50 test -- it's a test of toxicity in snakes in which individual mice receive equivalent quantities of venom (i.e. each mouse is weighed, and equal amount of venom are administered by weight).

The LD50 score is the amount of venom administered to each mouse to the point that 50% of the sample die. The lower the LD50 score, the higher the venom toxicity to mice.

Of course, the LD50 score is completely meaningless in the real world. For one thing, not every species of snake administers the same amount of venom when biting. In addition, some kinds of venom are particularly lethal to mice, but virtually harmless to humans and most other animals.

That's the kind of information Steve Irwin left off!

And so, when Steve leaped off the motorcycle and grabbed up "the deadly Fierce Snake" we watched transfixed at this man's reckless bravery, his facile familiarity with snakes, his volcanic enthusiasm.

"Krikey mate, that was a close one!" he would exclaim like a carnival barker at a Midwest midway. Somehow we knew we were being had, but we were not sure how. After all this was Animal Planet; surely they would not lie to us in order to increased their ratings? Would they?

In fact, the "deadly poisonous" snakes of Australia are virtually harmless. Far more people die each year in Australia from horse back riding accidents than snakebites (21 people a year v. 1.6 people a year.

That too is a little fact Steve Irwin left off.

And while Steve liked to talk up the dangers of Salt Water Crocodiles, here too we find very few deaths.

You want to know what kills more people in Australia than any other wild animal? It's not the Salt Water Crocodile. It's not the deadly Fierce Snake or the King Brown or the Tiger Snake.

It's the honey bee.

Funny how Steve forgot to tell us about that!

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