Grizzly Man: The Bear Facts

By Tyrone Beason
The Seattle Times

If the celebrity grizzly bear conservationist Timothy Treadwell sought to raise public awareness about the uneasy coexistence between man and beast in the Alaskan outback, and the wisdom of separating the former from the latter, then he succeeded in the most ironic way possible.
Two years after a grizzly partially devoured Treadwell and his girlfriend by their campsite in Katmai National Park, the cause he often vowed to die for has resulted in no less than three major book and film projects highlighting his own perplexing relationship with the animals.
Maverick documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man'' (Lions Gate Films), which incorporates stunning and sometimes disturbing wilderness video shot by Treadwell as he discusses his work, is now in theaters. This summer, Alaska-based journalist Nick Jans released The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell’s Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears’’ (Dutton, $24.95). And this spring brought ``Death in the Grizzly Maze: The Timothy Treadwell Story’’ (Falcon, $14.95) by Mike Lapinski.

The gruesome death of Treadwell, 46, and his companion, Amie Huguenard, 37, on Oct. 5, 2003, made news around the world. Park rangers responding to the incident shot and killed two bears suspected of attacking the couple.
Critics of Treadwell’s unorthodox observation of bears grimly concluded he got what he was asking for by getting too close, going so far as to set up camp in the middle of the bears’ alder-shrouded living space, ``the grizzly maze.’’
But other commentators saw Treadwell’s field studies as a reminder of our eternal, at times misguided, fascination with bears.
Jans, speaking by telephone from his home in Juneau, said there’s something universal about Treadwell’s attraction to bears and something telling about the public’s mixed reaction to his story.

People hunt grizzly bears - as did Jans at one time - and make them the burly villains of nature shows and campfire stories.
At the same time, we put our children to bed with stuffed teddy bears. Bears populate folk tales and illustrated books. We give them cute names and pretend they are furrier versions of humans. Treadwell, who was a consultant on the 2003 Disney film Brother Bear,'' developed a wide-eyed kinship with the bears he studied, giving them names like Mr. Chocolate, Mickey and Melissa. We all have this deep-rooted fascination with the wild,’’ Jans said. It's as simple as feeding squirrels and pigeons on a park bench for some people. There’s very few people who are not fascinated by a wild animal that seems to recognize us, and bring us into their world,’’ Jans added. ``All Timothy Treadwell is and was is a more heightened and more intense version of that same impulse in ourselves.’’

Treadwell was not a scientist. No one appointed him protector of the bears. Treadwell wasn’t even his real last name. Born Timothy Dexter, the forever boyish, blond Long Island native was a struggling actor living in Malibu until late 1989. Addled by substance-abuse problems and discouraged by the lack of show-biz success, Treadwell turned his life around when he decided to spend springs and late summers among Alaska’s grizzlies, learning about their behavior and guarding them - or so he claimed - against poachers.

But the bears, in their own way, were guardian angels for Treadwell.
I had no life,'' he tells the camera at one point in Herzog's documentary, nearly choking up. Now I have a life.’’
But Herzog, who also narrates the documentary, questions Treadwell’s desire to achieve a harmonious co-existence with the grizzlies.
``Treadwell reached out seeking a primordial encounter, but in doing so he crossed a line,’’ Herzog tells the viewer.
Treadwell presented himself as the bear’s best advocate among humans. He and close friend Jewel Palovak started the California-based conservation group, Grizzly People.

Over 13 years, Treadwell continued to play the showman. He produced a memoir about his exploits, agreed to magazine profiles, gave bear presentations to schoolchildren, attracted big-name supporters such as Leonardo DiCaprio and made the rounds on TV programs.
During an interview with David Letterman, the ``Late Show’’ host jokingly asks Treadwell if one day viewers would read that he’d been eaten by a bear. In such instances, Treadwell expressed a mix of reverence for bears and confidence in his bond with them.

Treadwell, who once appeared on NBC’s Dateline'' newsmagazine inviting a bear to nuzzle his hand, did understand the grizzlies' potentially violent nature. He tells the camera early in Herzog's documentary that he mustn't show weakness around his bear pals, because it could get him killed. If I am weak, I will go down,’’ he tells his camera.
In order to learn about the bears’ habits and seemingly to protect himself, Treadwell attempted to physically become one of them. He wore all-black clothing to more closely resemble a bear, for example.

Herzog had his own concerns about Treadwell’s methods, which played out in more than 100 hours of video Treadwell shot over a five-year period, sometimes at a distance, but many times right in the midst of his hulking subjects.
There's, over and over and over, moments where he steps right in the middle of the bears at arm's length and sings to them and tells them how much he loves them,'' Herzog told National Public Radio interviewer Scott Simon recently. I think that is wrong. You should not love the bears; you should respect them. Keep your distance and respect them.’’

If Treadwell lived like a bear, he also died like one, the books and film suggest. Nature is a brutal, unsentimental affair, not always an ideal stage set for a person’s spiritual rebirth.
Jans described some of Treadwell’s antics with the bears as appalling theatre,'' along the lines of other wildlife showmen such as Crocodile Hunter’’ Steve Irwin.
Because Treadwell was not a trained animal expert, and not a particularly adept outdoorsman before going to Alaska, he was basically winging it with the bears.
The detailed information he gathered about the individual bears he watched over was valuable, but it was the product of sheer curiosity and force of will, Jans argues, not some transcendent connection to nature.
That doesn't mean that it's wrong, because that impulse is in all of us,'' Jans said. But we need to understand that finally, all that the bear wants to do is be left alone. He doesn’t want to be our friend.’’

Jans considers himself a lover of animals, especially Alaskan grizzly bears, which he says do not pose a significant threat to humans. From his home in the woods near Juneau, he can spot bears, wolves, minks, eagles and coyotes. Still, after extensively researching Treadwell, he finds it hard to pin him down or even blame him for his more questionable instincts.
It's the ambiguity and contradiction that attracts us,'' Jans said. If it were as simple as ‘the doofus dies,’ then there’s no story here. There was a hell of a lot more to Timothy Treadwell. He was shrewd, naive, charismatic, irritating, bright, stupid, wide to the world and living with blinders on, all simultaneously.’’
So did Treadwell’s life - or his death - ultimately benefit bears? It’s an open question.
Whether we're a sport hunter or a bear viewer or we're Timothy Treadwell, it's all the same to the bear,'' Jans said. What they don’t need is anybody taking care of them.’’

Hey Folks! Yogi Bear was a Cartoon!
This dipstick killed himself, which is, after all, his business, but he was responsible for the death of his girlfriend, and, if those two hadn’t died, his film would have encouraged countless others to take life-threatening chances.
This guy seemed to think bears couldn’t get along without him. Apparently the bears though otherwise!

Yes, and even more ironically, the bears that he was trying to protect were killed as well…

“Park rangers responding to the incident shot and killed two bears suspected of attacking the couple.”

Sadly, it’s typical where people don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. When it comes to the Food Chain, comming in second isn’t an option.
Reminds me of the “Born Free” BS a few years ago, releasing a tame lion into the wild, where it would be rejected by other lions and would feel rejected by her own “tribe” (the people who released her) and die of lonelyness or starvation. Same goes for the “Free Willy” crowd.