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Show finds star in harm's way

Steve Irwin, TV's daring and zany "Crocodile Hunter," is an international sensation.

Does this man have a death wish?

There doesn't seem to be any other explanation for why someone would put himself directly in the path of the most dangerous critters on the planet.

But encounters with hissing rattlers and spitting cobras, races with flesh-eating Komodo dragons and up-close and personal moments with sharks and, of course, crocodiles mean just another day at the office for Steve Irwin _ known to millions worldwide as TV's "Crocodile Hunter."

Although he has endured a few non-venomous bites and scratches, Irwin's still alive and kicking _ despite Internet-fueled rumors to the contrary.

"I've supposedly been killed by crocodiles, venomous snakes, spiders," Irwin said. "I've even had a beetle . . . kill me. Nah! I'm here to tell you Steve Irwin lives."

In episodes of The Crocodile Hunter, the khaki-clad Irwin can usually be seen playing with something creepy and dangerous or simply flinging himself on top of one thrashing beast or another.

The series is a huge hit for cable's Animal Planet, a subsidiary of the Discovery Channel. The 4-year-old show is seen by more than 122-million viewers each week in more than 60 countries.

Irwin, 38, also appears in commercials for Pentax cameras and Federal Express and has a toy and clothing line.

"Exuberant" doesn't begin to describe Irwin, who also is director of the Australia Zoo in Queensland. "Crazed" is more like it.

Irwin's love of wildlife was passed on to him by his parents, Bob and Lyn Irwin, who in 1973 opened Queensland Reptile & Fauna Park (now Australia Zoo). It was his herpetologist dad who taught Irwin how to catch crocodiles with his bare hands.

Together, father and son can boast that every one of the nearly 100 crocs at the Australia Zoo were either caught with their own hands or bred and raised there.

Crocs and Cooks

Croc 'n' New Year's Eve, a daylong countdown to the most popular episode of The Crocodile Hunter, starts at 2 p.m. Sunday on cable's Animal Planet. The viewers' choice airs at midnight.

Still awake? The Food Network starts its 24-hour Iron Chef marathon at the stroke of midnight New Year's Eve, counting down to fans' favorite episode.

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