SYDNEY, Australia (AP) – The “Crocodile Hunter” has become the hunted.

Following a weekend of bad publicity, Steve Irwin and his family retreated from the media spotlight and the public outrage he provoked by hand-feeding a crocodile Friday while holding his infant son, a spokesman for his production company said Monday.

“Steve’s gathering his thoughts at the moment, he’s not available for comment,” John Harrison from Best Picture Show told The Associated Press.

Harrison said he has been inundated with phone calls from across Australia and around the world inquiring about Irwin, who has gained worldwide fame for his “Crocodile Hunter” show on the Animal Planet network, in which he chats excitedly about exotic and dangerous creatures – sometimes from extremely close proximity to the beasts.

Since giving a news conference Saturday, Irwin has gone underground and refused to speak about Friday’s media stunt gone wrong.

Local media reported that Irwin left his popular reptile park in Beerwah, north of Brisbane, but his spokesman declined to comment on his whereabouts.

The celebrated animal lover, who has survived tussles with giant pythons, poisonous snakes and crocodiles, was blasted for feeding a 13-foot crocodile as he cradled 1-month-old son Robert on Friday at his park in northeastern Australia.

“What was Steve thinking?” Australian paper “The Sun Herald” asked Sunday.

Local and international media said the stunt mirrored Michael Jackson’s dangling of his infant son over a balcony in Berlin for the media in November 2002.

But Irwin angrily rejected any comparisons between himself and Jackson.

“I would never, ever put him in any danger, not in a million years,” Irwin said in Australia’s Sunday Telegraph.

“To hear people say that it was a publicity stunt, that I’m just like Michael Jackson well, it just tears me up. It makes me sick to my stomach to be compared in that way.”

Viewers jammed telephone lines to vent their ire. Child welfare groups likened the incident to abuse, saying Irwin endangered his son. Police delivered a warning, while Queensland state authorities said they would investigate for possible violation of workplace safety laws.

However, police told reporters Sunday they would not bring charges against Irwin.

The Sunday Telegraph also reported that after the crocodile feeding, Irwin and his American wife, Terri, told their 5-year-old daughter, Bindi, to splash around in a pool near a crocodile pen to encourage the reptiles to swim out.

“Now flail around and look helpless, that’s the girl, good girl,” Terri Irwin was quoted as saying. “That’s my girl, Bindi Irwin, the other white meat.”

A zoo official was quoted by the paper as saying a gate connecting the pool to the crocodile pen had been shut.

The Irwins would not comment on the report, Harrison said.

AP-ES-01-04-04 2052EST


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