Beerwah, Australia — With creatures great and small around him, the Dalai Lama called Wednesday for a halt to lab experiments on animals and made the case for eating only fruits and vegetables - all at the zoo of the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin.
The spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists delicately handled a Burmese python and petted a koala as he was feted like a rock star at Australia Zoo, speaking to a sold-out crowd of 5,000 at its open-air "Crocoseum."
"Hunting, beef, sheep farms, piggeries, millions, billions, die," the Dalai Lama said. "We can be so cruel to animals."
Although he sometimes sparked laughter with his remarks, the Dalai Lama's 30-minute address also had a more serious note: He criticized companies and organizations that he said "remain indifferent" to the rights of animals by experimenting on them.
Irwin, host of the TV wildlife show "Crocodile Hunter," died last September when the barb from a stingray pierced his chest while he was diving on the Great Barrier Reef.
The Dalai Lama thanked Irwin's family for their support of wildlife.
"Taking care of animals is essential to developing more happiness in human beings," he said. "I appreciate Steve Irwin and his wife, Terri, all their dedication."
The hourlong zoo tour was a change for the Dalai Lama, whose trip to Australia has prompted lawmakers to express concern about meetings with the man China considers an exiled troublemaker.
After weeks of hedging, Prime Minister John Howard agreed to see the Dalai Lama on Friday. Howard is anxious not to offend Beijing because Australia's economy is closely tied to China's booming demand for natural resources. China, which rules Tibet, has used diplomatic pressure to discourage governments from meeting with the Dalai Lama, and Beijing immediately criticized Howard's decision to see him.
The Dalai Lama, his long red robe flapping in the wind, received a standing ovation as he took the stage at the Crocoseum on a sunny but crisp winter morning.
Some of the crowd waved Buddhist prayer flags, and about a dozen Australian native birds, including black cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets, unexpectedly flew into the stadium just as he began speaking.
The Dalai Lama described the benefits of being a vegetarian, saying he became meat, dairy and egg-free in 1965, although he acknowledges he now eats meat occasionally. He said he used to buy animals to save them from the slaughterhouses when he was a young man in Tibet.
Asked to speak about the importance of family, the Dalai Lama urged parents to show as much compassion as possible to their children, and suggested that children be taught "warmheartedness" as part of the school curriculum.
The 71-year-old admitted he's not sure how he'd cope as a parent.
"I'm a monk, so I have no children ... but I may lose my temper," he said with a laugh.
The Dalai Lama's visit ended when Terri Irwin and her children, Bindi and Bob, came on stage, with Bindi carrying a koala.
"He is rather lazy ... just like myself," the Dalai Lama joked of the koala before presenting the Irwin family with Buddhist white scarves, or katas, which are used to signal the positive start of new relationships.