Irwin gone, mate? Locals phoned the Houston Zoo to find out.

Cryin' for Crikey

As you must know, the world is mourning

Steve Irwin

, the "Crikey!" Australian crocodile hunter who died this weekend from a

bizarre run-in with a stingray

. The

Australia Zoo website

crashed thanks to a staggering number of worldwide hits, as did a few media sites in Sydney. (One site had to run a text-only version just to get the story up.)

The interest wasn't any fervent here in Houston. Brian Hill, spokesman for the Houston Zoo, says he got plenty of phone calls yesterday morning regarding Irwin's passing. "Most callers wanted to know if it was true and if we had a phone number for the Australia Zoo," he says. "You couldn't connect to the Zoo site, and so people wanted information. People really responded to him, so I wasn't surprised that his untimely death would have that kind of reaction."

Many of the 80,000 visitors to yesterday's free Zoo day wanted to see the kind of stingray that offed Irwin, "but the only place that has them is the aquarium in Atlanta," says Hill.

Of course, there's talk of the "ironic" (or "apropos," say some folks) circumstances regarding Irwin's accident with a "deadly" animal. Thing is, stingrays are hardly considered deadly in the traditional sense. (Not like, say, Rosie O'Donnell at a buffet line, anyway.)

Hill did some, er, poking around, and found only 17 recorded stingray deaths, the first being in 1969, a heart puncture like Irwin's. "Our aquarium curator George Brandy agreed that they only respond out of aggression." Or maybe in response to an over-the-top Aussie accent...

"Sure, there are people who questioned his style," says Hill. "But you can't deny what he did to raise awareness for conservation of species that weren't warm and huggable such as lions, tigers and bears." (Oh, my!) "It's hard to build sympathy for snakes and crocodiles, but he did."

So could there be a new Steve Irwin flitting about in the halls of the Houston Zoo? Maybe a kooky armadillo wrangler, or a copperhead handler with a kuh-rayzee East Texas twang? "We haven't developed a zoo star, so to speak," says Hill.

Hmm... We smell reality show. — Steven Devadanam

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