by Leo Grin
February 13, 2010
Timothy Treadwell loved bears. In the name of loving them, with a stalwart sense of the innate sanctity of his mission, he continuously abused them for thirteen years. Time and again from 1989 until 2003 he invaded their territory — startling them, scaring them, angering them. Interrupting their hunting, their mating, their sleep, their play, he would coo sweet nothings at them in a flamboyant, high-pitched whine. He gave the savage beasts silly names like Lulu, Cupcake, Daisy, Ginger, Booble, and Mr. Chocolate, robbing them of their natural dignity. He firmly believed he was their protector, and unleashed torrents of self-righteous hatred upon anyone who dared question his treating of one-thousand-pound predators as if they were cute cuddly teddy bears. Handsome and charismatic, yet narcissistic and naïve, filled with honest caring, yet a smooth liar thoroughly at home in delusion, he became a constant danger both to himself and to everything he loved, ever on the verge of instigating a sudden volcanic eruption of nightmarish unintended consequences.
In short, Timothy Treadwell was a perfect liberal. He loved bears, with all his heart.
And then one ate him.
The story of Treadwell (1957-2003) is told in Grizzly Man (2005), a film destined to be remembered long after the likes of Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Capote, and the rest of that cinematic annus horribilis are blessedly forgotten. Directed by the fearless and unflinching German filmmaker Werner Herzog, it’s also an intensely conservative film, in its conclusions if not in its subject.
When Grizzly Man was released, film critic Monohla Dargis astutely dubbed Treadwell “a kind of Spicoli of the backwoods.” Born Timothy Dexter, he grew up a slightly wayward and troublesome middle-class boy in Long Island, and migrated to Los Angeles at twenty to search for fame and fortune. His life was soon in a struggling-actor tailspin due to a regular diet of partying, drinking, and drugs, but a motorcycle trip to Alaska to see bears changed him almost overnight into a man with a purpose and a love greater than life itself. Treadwell spent the next decade visiting the bears every summer, fancying them like little children. Eventually he created Grizzly People, a non-profit organization dedicated to bear conservation and education, with an especial focus on schoolchildren, God help them.
With the passing of years came increasing notoriety. Nature channels filmed specials about the exploits of this man who dared to live among bears without weapons, and magazines like People gave him glowing write-ups. He was featured on NBC’s Dateline and The Rosie O’Donnell Show. On Tom Snyder’s program, he told wild stories about poachers he had driven off who were, “like poster men from the NRA” stalking bears with “machine guns,” “shotguns,” and “high-powered rifles.” One time, during an appearance on The David Letterman Show, he was asked (and, in hindsight, incorrectly answered) a question that now takes on an absurdly tragic cast:
Timothy Treadwell on David Letterman:
YouTube -- click here to watch in full-screen
Treadwell was aware of the dangers of bears on a superficial level, but eventually he refused to use defenses of any kind to protect himself, including such non-lethal and widely successful deterrents as pepper spray or electric fences. Always his self-absorbed Christ complex carried him past his fears and assured him that his was a special life, and that if he died by the claws of a bear it would be as a martyr to all that is good in the world.
Treadwell saw himself as a protector, an educator, and a savior. “If there were a god,” he says on one of his video tapes with self-satisfaction, dwelling on the nobleness of his spirit and actions, “he’d be very, very pleased with me.” In the last year of his life, such was his self-created, family-friendly celebrity that Disney asked him to host a live-action introduction to their 2003 cartoon Brother Bear.
The trouble was, all of his vaunted expertise and benevolence was a lie. Treadwell said he was there to protect the bears — but they were already in an official sanctuary, and according to Nick Jans (author of The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell’s Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears) they were now so hearty and safe that there were “damn herds of them, thicker than anywhere else on earth, and their numbers seemed to be increasing.” Treadwell claimed repeatedly that the Alaskan parks were rife with poachers, when in actuality there wasn’t a single recorded instance of an illegally harvested bear in the park’s history. He cleverly sponged donations for his charity from ex-hippie housewives, idealistic students, and gullible movie stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, but Grizzly People wasn’t even registered as an official non-profit, and no real scientific research was being accomplished there. Donors thought they were giving to a reputable organization deeply involved in “saving the bears,” when in actuality they were simply financing a surfer dude’s yearly Alaskan vacations.
In addition, Treadwell frequently found himself on the wrong side of park authorities, bear experts, and even Alaskan locals who had helped him repeatedly gratis, only to have him return their kindness by biting the hands that fed him. He once shamelessly passed off a picture of an innocent man as that of a poacher in his organization’s newsletter, and his incessant loony eco-moralizing quickly made him a pest to rangers, tour guides, and vacationing sightseers. “He was a con artist,” says one of the businessmen Treadwell sold down the river with his false poaching stories. Forest Bowers, a state biologist, adds: “Frankly, he seemed like he’d done too much acid.”
As the clear and present danger of his outrageous behavior became notorious throughout the bear conservation community — approaching bears, touching them, goading them — sensible people began to react.
When Sterling Miller, a state bear biologist and president of the International Bear Association, wrote to Treadwell warning him of his risky actions and the dangers they posed, Treadwell responded that if killed he would, “be honored to end up as grizzly shit.” As Nick Jans writes in his book on Treadwell, Miller read this and thought that, “Given his attitude, I believed it wouldn’t be long before he would be so honored.” At the same time he was violating basic park laws and breaking every rational rule of behavior, putting both himself and anyone foolish enough to stay near him at risk, Treadwell was spending his winters traveling to schools and sanctimoniously preaching bear safety to kids.
Women — a gender known for, among other peculiarities, lavishing marriage proposals on serial killers — fell all over Treadwell, frequently buying his bear-expert shtick hook, line, and sinker. The lucky ones got to travel up to Alaska with him to ooh and ahh at the cute little bears up close. His last girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, met him at a lecture in Colorado, and being a highly educated liberal (master’s degree in molecular biology) made her perfectly suited to fall for lies and nonsense. For the folly of believing in his expertise she would die alongside him, her final screams captured on a video camera which she turned on just as the fatal attack commenced.
The bitter truth is that if Treadwell had done a single sensible thing that didn’t smack of eco-liberalism run amok, he would still be alive today. Most bear attacks happen in enclosed woodland spaces where a human accidentally surprises them — so Treadwell decided to camp in the midst of a well-traveled thicket of ursine trails and tunnels he called the Grizzly Maze, with one oft-used path situated mere feet from his tent. (Alaska Fish and Game biologist Larry Van Daele said later, “A person could not have designed a more dangerous location to set up a camp.”) Bears become far more desperate for food as summer leads into autumn, so Treadwell stayed in the field past September and into October, during a year when the berry crop failed and the bears were far hungrier and more irate than usual. Bear attacks are often sudden and overwhelmingly brutal, prompting the invention and use of protective countermeasures such as pepper spray or electric fences, yet Treadwell went out of his way to render himself completely defenseless, by proxy rendering equally defenseless the poor lady with him.
In the end, bears are akin to sharks on land: sure, you can probably get along for awhile without getting munched, and occasionally you can feel powerful and in control when you bravely stand your ground and hit them on the nose to drive them away. But if one truly sets its sights on you as its next lunch, you’re in deep trouble. Treadwell ignored this, choosing to treat them like treasured pets, and he paid not only with his life, but with the lives of an innocent woman and two of the very animals he professed to love (the bears were shot dead during the recovery of his remains). The unintended consequences of good intentions strikes again, as they always do wherever people subscribe to a view of the world that embraces fickle feelings at the expense of reality.
His friends in the “bear conservation” cottage industry reacted to his death with pretty lies of their own. A new edition of Treadwell’s book has his partner at Grizzly People, Jewel Palovak, saying that Treadwell’s gruesome demise was “the culmination of his life’s work” and that he “died in the field with the bears he loved,” as if perhaps from a falling boulder or a bolt of lightning rather than from nature red in tooth and claw. Among the pro-Treadwell progressives goofy conspiracy theories abound: maybe Treadwell and his girl were slain by poachers, with the bears only shambling in to devour the evidence after the fact. In his book, Nick Jans tells of hearing crazy stories that Treadwell’s enemies may have “air-dropped a rogue bear into the camp area” or “baited bears in with food or alluring scents strewn around the camp, driving the animals into a killing frenzy.” Crazy, 9-11 truther-type stuff (especially given the existence of the final video tape with its horrifying soundtrack).
Bear scientists and biologists were up in arms over Treadwell, and thought he was up to much harm and no good. Jans cites in his book an anonymous bear expert, who said of Treadwell’s camerawork (much of which appears in the film Grizzly Man):
The videos are all of outrageous behavior. . .completely unethical from a scientific point of view. . .a bunch of cheap theatrics, the most absurd, cockamamie crap. . .I don’t want to disrespect dead people, but what he was doing was illegal and absolutely selfish. . .we have no right to impose our own stupid little personal mission on the universe. . . he had nothing at all to offer except his touchy-feely Beanie Baby approach. . . that might work with fifth graders, but you can’t advance a good science agenda on public relations and hyperbole.
That same anonymous biologist concludes that “These deaths were predictable and totally preventable. We can go right down the list of errors he made. It didn’t have to happen. He was warned and warned and warned and warned. Yet he negated, defied, and ignored all common sense.” Hard to argue with that: in the known history of Alaska, Treadwell and his girlfriend became the first recorded fatalities associated with a bear.
Like liberals everywhere, Timothy Treadwell created problems and then hawked himself as the solution. Along the way, he became a major pain in the ass to regular law-abiding citizens. His do-goodism likely altered the behavior of an entire population of bears, causing them to get too used to humans and too fearless about approaching them in the future. His death led directly to the demise of the woman in his charge and two of the bears he loved so dearly. And all for what? Jans spells out the grim facts:
[The Bears’] world, even in Katmai National Park, is brutal. Only one in ten cubs lives to adulthood; starvation, accidents, and cannibal predation by large male bears take the rest. Even females, worked into a rage, have killed both their own and other bears’ cubs. Fights are common enough that many bears, especially larger males that battle for dominance in mating, personal space, and feeding areas, carry horrific scars.
Brutal. . . cannibal. . . rage. . . horrific. These are the lovely, kind creatures which Treadwell fell into a dance of death with, and vowed to protect against the evil humans who had created and maintained a protected nature reserve in which they could live as peacefully as their bestial natures allow.
So when, after his death, it came time for someone, somehow, to sum up Treadwell’s legacy on film, the choice of filmmaker had a certain inevitability, just like his ultimate end in the wild. Timothy Treadwell — obsessed, possessed, mad with his sense of importance and mission — got exactly the interpreter his lunacy demanded. He got Herzog.
Next Saturday in For Conservative Movie Lovers, the life of Werner Herzog, arguably the single most interesting man ever to become a movie director.
FURTHER READING and VIEWING
The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell’s Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears by Nick Jans. Of the several books written about Treadwell, this one is by far the best, which is why it was so heavily referenced for this article: a poetic, well-reasoned and eminently fair analysis of the tragi-comedy of errors that was the life and death of the Grizzly Man. If you find yourself interested to learn more about these events, it’s the one to read.
Among Grizzlies: Living With Wild Bears In Alaska by Timothy Treadwell and Jewel Palovak. A typically self-serving autobiography filled with half-truths, deft evasions, and heaping piles of pure fantasy. When combined with the truth as expressed in both Herzog’s Grizzly Man and Jans’ book, it becomes a horrifying look into the mind of a hopeless liberal forever lost to reason and common sense. I love how the authors give everyone who might be even remotely conservative a profanity-laced good-ole-boy speaking voice. And shake your head in disbelief at Treadwell’s cringe-inducing “conversations” with the bears:
Booble, the world must know of your ways. I will fight for your survival. One day people will understand and stop destroying your homes and killing your kind. I’ll return next year and protect you, Booble.
Grizzly People: Leonardo DiCaprio has apparently given up his desire to play Treadwell in a feature film, but his name is still being used to hawk the Treadwell charity, which as far as I can tell has never done a single thing for bears other than give some feel-good lectures anthropomorphizing them to middle-school students.
Trailor: Grizzly Man:
YouTube -- click here to watch in full-screen
Tags: Alaska, Amie Huguenard, Among Grizzlies: Living With Wild Bears In Alaska (Treadwell book), bears, Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Posted Feb 13th 2010 at 7:08 am