Timothy Treadwell had his supporters and his critics but nobody doubted his passion for Grizzly Bears…
After Timothy Treadwell was mauled and eaten by bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park in 2003, he was mourned – but also roundly criticized.
No one doubted that Treadwell loved the grizzlies he’d spent summers with for 13 years. But, critics believed, he had put himself and the animals in danger. He was responsible, they said, for the death of his 37-year-old girlfriend who died with him, as if she were incapable of making her own choices. He was called a fanatic, misguided and dangerous.
“There was an incredible amount of mean-spiritedness that came out after his death. Absolutely heartless,” said Nick Jans, author of The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell’s Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears. “I don’t think he deserved it in the end and I don’t think his death was inevitable.”
Ten years later, Treadwell remains a controversial figure in the world of environmental activism. Some people disdain Treadwell because of how he’s portrayed in the Werner Herzog documentary “Grizzly Man”: He often looked silly, with his floppy blond bowl-cut, speaking in a baby voice to a 500-pound brown bear. At worse, he seemed mentally unstable.
“Werner presented him as out of his mind,” Jans said. “I think he had a shtick and an act. A lot of people I respect very highly said he wasn’t crazy. He was like you and me.”
And these critics fail to give Treadwell credit for his devotion to the animals and to sharing their story, said Louisa Willcox, a Treadwell confidant. A gifted speaker, he spoke to thousands of school children, promoting a love of and respect for the wild.
“He was a magician as a teacher,” recalled Willcox, the Northern Rockies representative for the Center of Biological Diversity. “He was a real bear expert, without a science degree, who learned everything the hard way.”
After one presentation, Willcox recalled, children and their parents lined up to get their programs autographed. Almost an hour after Treadwell had finished speaking, the line was still out the door.
“He would describe the fishing tactics of a bear as if he were an Olympic judge, and the kids just cracked up,” Willcox said. “He came across as incredibly sincere, coming from a place of love and gentleness.”
Treadwell was born in Long Island, N.Y. He dreamed of an acting career and was depressed when one didn’t develop. In his book, Among Grizzlies: Living with Wild Bears in Alaska, co-written with one-time girlfriend Jewel Palovak, Treadwell wrote that he found his calling after a near-fatal drug overdose in the 1980s.
Treadwell spent his summers in a tent, his winters working in Malibu, Calif. But even away from Alaska, his talk was all about bears. A 1994 Los Angeles Times profile of Treadwell described his apartment this way: “covered from wall to wall with close-range photographs of the bears – candid pictures that reflect Treadwell’s intimacy with his subjects. Like a proud parent, he points them out one by one.”
In the same article, Treadwell said he didn’t expect any bear would harm him: “They love me too much,” he said.
Out in the woods, he shunned bear repellant spray, did not carry a gun and refused to surround his tent with an electric fence for protection. He was there to help, not harm, he said, and he often found himself enjoying the company of bears more than that of humans.
“I get on their level,” he said in the Times article. “You have to get as wild as them as quickly as possible. I chomp on the grass here and there and hope I’m accepted.”Treadwell named the bears and would talk about Booble or Squiggle. He would touch them and seemed at some points to be playing with them. He took countless photos and hours and hours of videos, often narrating the bears’ actions. If he didn’t bother the bears, he reasoned, they wouldn’t bother him.
When Treadwell spoke to large groups in the Lower 48, he was often asked what he would do if a bear became aggressive. His answer was always the same.
“He said he would sing to them,” Willcox said. “It takes a really special person, to do what (Treadwell could) do, which is being in close proximity to big brown bears and not being afraid. Because bears can smell your fear.”
In a September 2003 letter to a financial supporter, Treadwell wrote: “My transformation is complete – a fully accepted wild animal – brother to these bears. I run free among them – with absolute love and respect for all the animals. I am kind and viciously tough.”
All of the above actions upset Treadwell critics, including rangers with the National Park Service. Getting so close to bears without protection? Giving them names and singing to them? As a Chicago Tribune article began in 2003: “Bears are not humans. Bears are not cuddly. Bears do not speak English. Bears are not pets. Bears are not play-date friends.”
“At best he’s misguided,” Deb Liggett, superintendent at Katmai and Lake Clark national parks, told the Anchorage Daily News in 2001. “At worst, he’s dangerous. If Timothy models unsafe behavior, that ultimately puts bears and other visitors at risk.”
The rangers said Treadwell was bothering the bears. Between 1994 and 2003, rangers reported Treadwell had violated six park rules, including camping in the same area for more than seven days, improper food storage and wildlife harassment, according to Treadwell’s page on www.wikipedia.com.
A Field & Stream article published in March 2004 after Treadwell’s death also judged him harshly: “Treadwell wasn’t a villain. He was something far more destructive than that, as fools on a mission so often are.”
Not long before his death, Treadwell sat down for an interview with TV host David Letterman. Letterman asked the obvious question: “Is it going to happen that one day we read a news article about you being eaten by one of these bears?” The audience laughed.
On that final trip to Alaska, Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huguenard pitched their tent by a trail to a nearby salmon stream. (As one Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist wrote, “A person could not have designed a more dangerous place to set up a camp.”)
They also stayed slightly later into the winter than usual, as food was growing more scarce and the bears were getting more antsy.
The couple’s video camera, with lens cap in place, was turned on during the fatal attacks. In “Grizzly Man,” Herzog is shown listening to the audio through headphones while Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend watches him.
He seems shaken when he tells her, “You must never listen to this. You should not keep it. You should destroy it because it will be like the white elephant in your room all your life.” (Multiple websites claim to have the real audio tape, but Pavolak has reportedly locked it away in a bank vault.)
Two people were dead. Two bears were killed when the bodies were retrieved. “Meaninglessly destroyed,” as the Field & Stream article put it. National Park officials had long worried that despite Treadwell’s good work, “one swipe of a paw would undo all that and result in a frenzy of stories about fearsome, people-eating grizzlies,” the Chicago Tribune wrote. That did happen, at least temporarily.
But Treadwell supporters say the work he did matters. He raised bear awareness and inspired other wildlife advocates. The photos he took are priceless. Willcox said there’s even a video that shows Treadwell calling a bear by the name he’s given it, and the bear responds.
And she’ll never understand why Treadwell was treated so poorly after his death.
“His life was completely devoted to animals and the response was to trash him. My analogy was this: If you were a race car driver and you smashed a car and died, people would say that’s in the line of work,” she said. “Timothy knew exactly the risk he was taking.”
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”