Steve Irwin, Indian Larry, David Johnston, and Storm Chasers


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 05 September 2006 Updated: 15 February 2008: fixed some broken links.

As always, this is an expression of my opinion. If you don't like it or you want to make a comment, you can send me an email at: cdoswell(at) If you do so, you are assumed to be giving me permission to post your comments along with whatever response I choose to make. If you aren't willing to have your comments posted, don't bother sending them!

The "Bear's Cage"

Recently, the famous "crocodile hunter" Steve Irwin was killed while filming a TV documentary about dangerous wild animals - his heart pierced by the venomous barb of a stingray. I've watched enough of his programs to know that he has regularly put himself in harm's way from crocodiles, snakes, spiders, and numerous other dangerous wild animals. As part of his agenda, he emphasized the beauty of these creatures, and worked hard to support efforts to preserve them as part of the natural environment. Being close to dangerous wild animals was Steve Irwin's passion - he was doing what he loved when it killed him. His passion notwithstanding, there clearly was an element of danger associated with proximity to dangerous wild animals. As I've pointed out on other occasions, sometimes when you go into the bear's cage, you escape from the bear. On some occasions, the bear kills you. [I will claim credit, in fact, for coining the term "the bear's cage" - which I take to describe being within the mesocyclone of a supercell storm.]

Steve Irwin clearly climbed into the bear's cage (figuratively) one time too often. Risky behavior can be survived, perhaps many times. I've discussed this in terms of lightning safety here - if you climb mountain tops in the Rockies so as to be on the peak when thunderstorms develop, you're climbing into the bear's cage, whether or not you realize it. The fact that you've done it once and survived it does not make it safe behavior. The fact that you've done it twenty times and survived it does not change that in any way - it's always taking a risk. If you repeat a risky behavior, which includes behaving as though the risks are negligible, enough times, it can eventually kill you, no matter how many times you've done it and come out without any injury before. It only takes once to kill you. I can't be certain it will kill you, ever, but I do know that the potential for serious consequences exists every time you engage in that risky behavior.


Indian Larry

In 2004, the famous motorcycle builder and stunt rider, Indian Larry (Larry Desmet) was killed during the performance of what was for him a routine stunt, standing on his moving motorcycle (without a helmet). I watched his TV shows, as well. He clearly was a man who had a love of life - part of that life involved taking risks on a motorcycle. My wife, a nurse, calls motorcycles "murdercycles" because she has to deal on a regular basis with the devastating injuries that motorcycle riders incur. Living life involves taking risks, of course, but riding a motorcycle is inherently riskier than, say, taking a walk in the woods. Indian Larry engaged in risky behavior well beyond the risks of ordinary motorcycle riding. He did stunt riding that carried with it increased risks. He was doing what he loved when he died. But no matter how many times he had done that same stunt in the past without consequence, this time, it killed him.

Indian Larry was doing something that most of us would be foolish to try. Television programs often includes disclaimer statements along the lines of "don't try this at home" but it's evident to anyone that many, especially young people, are influenced by such programs to do precisely that - try it for themselves. Despite the fact that Indian Larry was a "professional," his risky behavior eventually cost him his life. In effect, he was being paid to take risks. And his chosen lifestyle was inherently risky. I believe he probably understood and accepted the risks. I personally have no problem with him choosing to take on those risks - while I'm saddened by the loss of this colorful and interesting person, I see him as yet another victim of statistics, much like Steve Irwin. Dangerous behavior, repeated often enough, carries with it the chance of a violent and sudden death. Or, worse yet, debilitating injuries that last a lifetime. There can be worse outcomes than death, after all.

Love of life does indeed often imply the embracing of inherently risky activities. If we avoid all risks, presumably, we would lie at home in bed - thereby risking ill health and death from inactivity. But some activities are definitely riskier than others. Few of us would willingly put ourselves near stingrays, or do motorcycle stunt riding without a helmet. The trick is to know the risks and deal with them accordingly. If you assume the risks, then you automatically accept the possible consequences. Right? Life is risky, and some relish the risk-taking. Anyone who enjoys taking risks is inherently in danger. That caught up with Indian Larry.


David Johnston

Some may remember the fate of the vulcanologist, David Johnston, who was killed on the morning of 18 May 1980, by the landslide and subsequent eruption of Mt. St. Helens. "Vancouver, Vancouver! This is it!" was his last radio message. He was younger than I at the time, and I understood his death in a way that many probably do not. You see, when I was a boy, I came close to becoming a vulcanologist, rather than a meteorologist. I was passionate about volcanoes, as well as tornadoes. By some quirk of fate, my life choices made me a meteorologist, not a vulcanologist. But if I had become a scientist studying volcanoes, it could very well have been me who died on that morning. More than most people, I understood what put David Johnston in that position that day. If my life had turned out slightly differently, I could have been in that very spot. I understand what put him there, and I understand that bravery was not the point, at all. He was not necessarily a brave man. As a vulcanologist, he was doing what he most wanted to do - precisely what I would have wanted to be doing if I had become a vulcanologist instead of a meteorologist interested in tornadoes. Any scientist who is a storm chaser understands David Johnston, and the risks he takes.

The difference between David Johnston and Indian Larry is simply this: David was a scientist. He knew better than most people what the risks were. He was not taking risks for the sake of risk-taking showmanship. He was willing to take such risks because he had to do so, in order to do what needed to be done. His pay as a vulcanologist didn't enter into the decision. He wasn't going to become rich and/or famous as a risk-taker, but he might succeed in learning new things. He was precisely where he most wanted to be, despite the risks, because that's what he needed to do to gather the data. It wasn't a matter of ego, or chest-thumping, defiance of death, or anything so venal as monetary gain. He was doing what he felt was necessary to achieve his scientific goals - nothing more, nothing less. If I'd become a vulcanologist, it's precisely where I'd have wanted to be. And I might well have died as he did, if it had been my misfortune to be on duty that morning in the location where he was. The news of his death was particularly poignant for me. I understood him as no reporter ever could.


Storm chasing as risky behavior

I've written extensively about the risks of storm chasing. I freely admit that when it comes to tornadoes, I'm a coward. I avoid putting myself in danger, and have never felt afraid for my life on any storm chase in my 30+ years of storm chasing. Nevertheless, there are those who seem to revel in the risk-taking for its own sake. I've seen storm chase tour guides who have exulted on camera in the face of the imminent danger associated with their chase decisions. They say, apparently with pride, to their clients "We almost died there." Frankly, I fail to comprehend the reason for telling this to tour clients. Even if it true rather than hyperbole, should you be telling your customers that you came close to killing them? I've also seen idiots who claim proudly and publicly to be willing to drive 100+ mph in order to see a tornado and who seem compelled to be on the verge of death at every opportunity possible on a storm chase. Their pride in such irresponsible behavior is astonishing and contemptible. It puts all chasers in a bad light in the public eye - confirming the unfair assumption (see below).

But I'm a scientist - I'm not about risk-taking for its own sake when I chase storms. There can be no denial that being in the vicinity of a tornadic storm is inherently risky behavior. But to gather useful insights into tornadic storms necessarily entails taking some risks. I won't dispute that, but I can say without hesitation that I refuse to make consciously any risky choices during a chase. For example, I would rather miss seeing a tornado than risk my life doing something dangerous, such as "core punching." See here for my policies. By the standards of some chasers, I'm a wimp. They apparently relish the adrenaline rush of imminent death, choosing to attempt to be on the edge of disaster whenever they can, whereas I choose to avoid such situations. One day, given enough risk-taking, the risk-takers will be killed or seriously injured. When that happens (not if that happens), it seems to me that Darwin will have had his way with them. The sad part is that all chasers are likely to be tarred with that same brush in the ensuing media feeding frenzy. If some idiot wants to take such risks, I say - fine, let him (or her) get themselves killed or crippled for life. They took the chances, let them pay the consequences. But don't let them take others with them. And want to discourage the unfair assumption - that all storm chasers are willing to take huge risks for no better reason than risk for its own sake, or the chance to sell "shock video" for monetary gain.

Let it be known that I categorically reject the risk-taking yahoos of the chasing world. Indian Larry and Steve Irwin are far more honorable and respectable than them. David Johnston is a veritable saint, by comparison.

Addition: 06 October 2005

On Oct 6, 2006, at 6:55 PM, Brant Dodson wrote:

I often read and enjoy the essays on your opinions webpage. I have a comment to make on your Steve Irwin essay. While I agree completely with your point that storm chasing and other dangerous activities always have a significant element of risk that cannot beeliminated, I think Irwin's story is a little misplaced in the other examples you give. Irwin died from a stingray he unwittingly approached too closely across while diving. He was not purposely "hunting" the fish as he did other animals in his career. He was not acting in a manner that was well-known to illicit an aggressive response from a dangerous animal. Stingray injuries are a danger common to all divers,and they happen; even given a sting, the chances of serious injury or death are extremely low. While this gives diving an inherent risk, I think it is reasonable to believe that the danger posed by stingrays is not a serious issue in the diving community, at least not on the scale of purposely approaching and capturing dangerous animals. Or, for that matter, feeding sharks, as some marine biologists do. A lot of people dive, and a lot of divers swim with rays, and this is generally not considered excessively risky, so I don't see how the specific events of Irwin's death could be considered the results of taking extraordinary risks, or "entering the bear's cage" as you put it. I see it as the VERY highly unlikely result of a diving venture, not along the same lines as Irwin's other activities, or any of the other incidents you reference.

My response: Argument by analogy - which is what I've done - is ALWAYS among the weakest forms of argument, because analogies always break down to a greater or lesser degree. The specific facts of his death are not so important to me as the fact that he clearly was taking serious risks in his everyday activities. I don't disagree with your disagreement, but it's not evident that this obviates the "thrust of my essay" ... as you clearly recognize ...

Of course, this does not invalidate the thrust of your essay. Irwin clearly had a dangerous career, and even as experienced and knowledgeable and (usually) careful as he was, he wasn't immune to the unexpected venomous snakebite or agressive crocodile. If he had survived the sting, he still would have been taking much greater risks doing his normal job, much of which I agree should be considered tempting the bear. If he died in the jaws of a large reptile he purposely approached and disturbed, or simply knew was probably in the immediate neighborhood and would likely violently defend itself, then I would find his demise more closely related to your intent. But if the minimal risk of a stingray attack to a diver is enough to warrant the use of your bearcage analogy, I think you end up weakening its potency.

As noted, you've raised a good point. If I can be permitted another analogy, it's as if I were to be killed by a rattlesnake bite in the grass alongside a road where I had stopped to do video on a storm chase. The rattlesnake bite would be a low probability event incidental to the really important risks I was taking during a storm chase. It would be absurd to say that it was a direct result of risk-taking associated with a storm chase, despite the fact that it happened during a chase.

Nevertheless, the Steve Irwin story was still the "trigger" for writing the essay in the first place. If the analogy in his case is a little strained, so be it. I certainly am not disputing your point. All of the publicity surrounding this event gave me the motivation to write my essay.