Big ol' Egyptian cobra, maybe six feet long, is lying in the African sun, minding its own darn business. Which is how you want to leave an Egyptian cobra. Steve Irwin can tell you: One bite from these fellas and--crikey!--you're history. Or soon will be.

But here comes Irwin, scurrying after the serpent with the naive excitement of an 8-year-old bagging crawdads. The cobra senses what's afoot and tries to slither away. But Irwin is quicker. He corners the big boy.

"This is the most aggressive animal I've ever come across!" Irwin shouts into the TV camera, sounding quite pleased. "He's a super aggressive snake. Crikey! And big, too!"

Well, you'd be aggressive, too, if someone were grabbing at your nether regions, which is what Irwin does next to the cobra. Slipping and wriggling, the snake decides it's had enough. Rising up, hood flaring, it strikes with frightening speed--once, twice, thrice--missing Irwin each time. Irwin goes goony with excitement. "I've never seen a snake more aggressive in my life! . . . Woo hoo! He has a lot of venom."

And then . . . peace. Reassured by Irwin--"You're all right, mate, you're all right"--the snake settles calmly onto a low-lying branch. Irwin moves in closer, finally bringing himself nostril-to-nostril with the reptile. Eventually, everyone goes home happy.

All in a day's work, mate. On his cable TV show, "Crocodile Hunter," the hyperbolic Australian canoodles with carpet vipers, scorpions, diamondbacks and rattlers. He wanders through bat caves (taking a bat "shower" in the process), swims with monitor lizards and hustles after crocs and Komodo dragons. No matter how ornery, toxic or just plain icky, Irwin annoys them all.

"Crocodile Hunter," which airs on the Animal Planet network, is "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" meets "Mad Max." Dispensing with the hushed voices and telephoto shots of traditional nature programming, Irwin gallops with a no-worries abandon into the Australian outback or African veld to encounter the beasts himself.

Some people tempt fate; Irwin chucks it under the chin, scratches it behind the ears and grabs its tail. Irwin and his American-born wife, Terri, his co-host and occasional damsel in distress, say they're wildlife educators, but they're primarily high-wire entertainers. The prospect of seeing Steve get chewed on by one of his co-stars is the show's unique selling proposition and undoubtedly explains its appeal among young men. The animals have to be potentially lethal, or at least nearly so, to rate Irwin's attention on "Crocodile Hunter." The Irwins don't do what Terri Irwin calls "the cute and cuddlies."

"I'm showing people that these aren't evil, ugly monsters. These aren't things that should have their heads cut off," says Irwin, 37. "If I can give you the sensation of what it's really like to be with these animals, it's that much more exciting and captivating. Let's face it, a 20-year-old college kid isn't going to get jazzed" by a traditional approach to filming wildlife.

Irwin's cult following--Web sites aplenty, "Croc Hunter" merchandise, even an animated tribute/parody on "South Park"--attests to the formula's success. "Crocodile Hunter" averages about 750,000 viewers per week on Animal Planet (which airs the show on Wednesdays and Sundays at 9 p.m.). It's the most popular program on the network, a spinoff of the Discovery Channel of Bethesda. Animal Planet also carries a second show starring the Irwins, called "Croc Files," which is aimed at younger viewers.

Watching Irwin flirt with danger each week is only part of "Crocodile Hunter's" apparent appeal. The other is Irwin himself. For a generation of Americans trained to recognize Australians by "Crocodile Dundee" movies and Foster's beer commercials, Irwin fits a comfortable stereotype. Perpetually clad in khaki shorts and hiking boots, Irwin is a can-do bloke, perpetually clambering up cliffs or wading into the muck of a riverbank. He's got the emphatic delivery of an infomercial pitchman. "Danger! Danger!" is a signature Irwin exclamation, which, in his thick Aussie accent, comes out of his mouth as "dain-jah," "dain-jah." And there seems to be plenty of dain-jah and adventure; Irwin makes sure of it. Here he is encountering a nest of Komodo dragons on Sumatra: "Now, this is really dangerous," he tells viewers as he lies down among the creatures. "They could easily mistake me for a wounded prey and have a go at me." They don't.

And here is Irwin combat-crawling up to a pack of ravenous vultures as they feed off the bloated remains of a hippo: "One of my wildest boyhood dreams was getting close enough so that I was sharing the carcass with vultures," he confesses, without actually explaining why.

These sorts of stunts endear Irwin to his fans (and feed persistent and false rumors that he has been killed or seriously injured). But they make some reptile experts hiss. Professional herpetologists say Irwin sacrifices both safety and scientific accuracy for the sake of ratings. "For someone who knows what they're doing, getting right up into the face of a snake might not be a dangerous thing," says Roger Rosscoe, a herpetologist at the National Zoo. "But kids watch this program. I wouldn't want them to take the same chances he does. I worry about it."

"Let's be diplomatic about this. He's a showman," adds George Zug, curator of amphibians and reptiles at the National Museum of Natural History. Like Rosscoe, Zug objects to Irwin's handling techniques, but he also says it's "misinformation" to constantly underscore the dangers snakes pose to humans, as Irwin does.

"Yes, people have occasionally been bitten by snakes, but it's generally because they were doing something they shouldn't have," Zug says. "If you go up to a snake and start prodding it or beating it with a stick, what do you expect an animal to do but to protect itself? In point of fact, unless an animal feels cornered, it will get out of your way or remain still. [Irwin] just emphasizes how dangerous they are. . . . I get so annoyed I can't watch him."

Irwin and his producer, John Stainton, say Irwin's theatrics are a necessary part of the show. "We're entertainment-based," says Stainton. "We're not scientific. We're going to an audience that has never watched wildlife documentaries before. Every e-mail we get says we've made wildlife entertaining."

He adds, "I think we give enough warning [to viewers]. Steve is constantly saying 'Don't do this. It's incredibly dangerous.' "

For a guy who invites animals to bite back, Irwin has been remarkably fortunate. Irwin says he gets tagged "pretty regularly" by snakes, though most of these are nicks no worse than a cat bite. He's never been bitten by a venomous snake--which is a good thing since the Irwins work without medical supervision, and often in locations so remote that even communicating with a doctor is impossible.

"I don't want to seem arrogant or bigheaded, but I have a real instinct with animals," Irwin says. "I've grown up with them. Imagine my pride and honor when I got 60 or 70 feet up in a tree [on a location shoot in Sumatra] and a female orangutan with a baby swung down and put her arm around me. It's like I have an uncanny supernatural force rattling around in my body. I tell you what, mate, it's magnetism!"

Critics in Australia, where Irwin first gained stardom in 1992, say it could be something else. They have suggested that some of Irwin's encounters are staged, that Irwin will use zoo-raised crocs as stand-ins for the more aggressive and unpredictable wild variety. Irwin has branded these allegations "blatant lies." However, a spokesman for Animal Planet, Matt Katsive, acknowledges that some corners are trimmed to meet "Crocodile Hunter's" tight production deadlines, although he says these are trivial: "They will occasionally put a snake in a tree for educational purposes, but the actual experience of stalking the animals is [authentic]."

Irwin recently injured his hand on a shoot in Africa, but that was the result of a splinter from a poisonous plant, not an animal bite. He recalls only one or two really life-threatening encounters in 30-plus years of handling critters. Some years ago, while working on a government-sponsored crocodile-relocation program, he sought to capture an especially ill-tempered 10-foot male. With a lasso in one hand and a dead chicken for bait in the other, Irwin was caught off guard by the croc's sudden strike from the water, he says. The animal grabbed the chicken--and Irwin's right arm. With a lash of its massive head, the reptile swung Irwin off his feet and tried to drag him into the water. Fortunately for Irwin, the croc lashed again and landed on its head, stunning the creature just long enough for Irwin to free himself.

"It was my worst mistake," he recalls. "And by crikey, it hurt."

Neither Irwin nor his wife has formally studied reptiles or earned a degree in animal science. Irwin says his education came from his father Bob, a plumber turned zookeeper who encouraged his son to catch and examine snakes starting at the age of 4. For his sixth birthday, little Stevie received his first pet snake, a 10-foot scrub python he named Fred. By the time he was 9, Irwin was wrasslin' his first crocodile.

Although the younger Irwin was trained as a diesel mechanic, he often would spend months helping his father relocate wild crocs that were threatened by human settlements. When his parents retired in 1991, Irwin took over the family business, becoming director of the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park (now the Australia Zoo), a facility his father and mother Lyn founded north of Brisbane.

Steve and Terri Irwin met at the zoo that year after Terri, a tourist and animal-rescue specialist from Eugene, Ore., watched Irwin feed the park's crocodiles. Romance blossomed; they were married six months later.

Irwin's TV career began after an encounter with Stainton, an old friend, in 1990. Stainton had come to the zoo to shoot a TV commercial, and Irwin seized the chance to show him home movies of his crocodile encounters. "I loved the rawness of them," says Stainton. "They were so real. I thought, this guy ought to be on TV."

When the Irwins were on their honeymoon in Oregon two years later, Steve was called back by the Queensland government to move a croc. Stainton came along to film that adventure, which became the first "Crocodile Hunter" documentary. It was an instant hit on Australian television. "It was just like being in an Indiana Jones movie," recalls Terri of her first production.

Lately, the Irwins' biggest challenge may be to figure out how to keep their animal adventures fresh, especially after three seasons of "Crocodile Hunter." Some hard-core fans grump that the show is getting slicker, if not better. "The early shows felt more real," says Jeff Major, 32, who maintains a "Crocodile Hunter" fan page on the Internet. "Now, there's more cutting, more editing. It feels much more set up, very assembled. Lately, when there's a big dramatic situation it seems a little forced."

No worries, says Terri Irwin. She figures there are still plenty of new places left for Steve to get into trouble, mentioning Russia, the Middle East, South America, Alaska.

The Irwins' 16-month-old daughter, Bindi Sue, is already showing promising signs of following her parents. Bindi (the name is an aboriginal word meaning young girl; it's also the name of one of the Irwins' favorite crocodiles) enjoys playing with wallabies and koalas. "But her favorite is snakes," including Terri's 10-foot boa, Rosie, says Steve Irwin proudly. On a recent outing, Terri reports, her daughter delighted in the attentions of a big brown tarantula.


CAPTION: "I'm showing people that these aren't evil, ugly monsters," says "Crocodile Hunter" host Steve Irwin.

CAPTION: Steve Irwin, with, uh, some animal friends: Above, a crocodile, and below, a rattlesnake.