The Grizzly Man
Timothy Treadwell loved bears, especially grizzly bears. He raved about them. He sang to them. He lived with them. Sadly, Tim's affection for the bears was not returned. They ate him. His girlfriend, too. And therein lies the tale of goo-goo animal rights activism gone wrong, horribly wrong, a story of a man consumed by his passion soon to be told in a documentary called "The Grizzly Man", appearing in theaters on August 12 and the Discovery Channel this fall.
Timothy Treadwell, author, filmmaker, self-professed eco-warrior, found his salvation in the grizzly bear. As he explained in his book, "Among Grizzlies: Living With Wild Bears in Alaska," bears had driven him to give up drugs and establish a non-profit bear-appreciation group, called Grizzly People. On one his videos, he promises a bear, "I will stop drinking for you and all bears. I will stop and devote my life to you." Greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his booze for his bears. "I love the bears. I love, love, love these animals," gushed Treadwell.
Treadwell made an annual trek to remote Kaflia Bay in Alaska, about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, in the Katmai National Park and Preserve, where he set up camp in bear territory from May through October. The salmon ran through there, which attracted the bears. Because of the network of bear trails there, he called it the Grizzly Maze. He repeated the trip for thirteen years. He studied the bears there, coming ever closer to them, even touching them, and videotaping his close encounters with the thousand pound omnivores. Often, Treadwell would creep up on the grizzly bears chanting in a high-pitched, sing-song, "I love you." Some of the people who knew Treadwell think he wanted to be a bear.
Breaking camp after four months, he would return to California where he would relate his ursine adventures in California schools. "His passion for the bears and wildlife was just infectious, and the students loved his stories," said Phil Cott, principal of Webster Elementary School in Malibu.
Amie Huguenard met Treadwell at a grizzly bear presentation in Boulder, Colorado. A graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, she also had a degree in molecular biology from the University of Colorado in Boulder. She was a physician's assistant in Boulder.
She followed Treadwell to California, then to his camp in Alaska. She quite sensibly feared the bears, though evidently not enough as events proved. Said her sister, "They had a passion and that overrode everything." An old boyfriend of hers said she was very naive and easily fooled. "Amie had a kind of naivete about her that added a real sweetness to her entire persona. At times it was easy to convince her of things that were not entirely true. We would let her in on these jokes and get a good laugh, especially from her."
Bear researchers in Alaska usually defend their campsites with electric fences and carry guns. Treadwell didn't. He even gave up carrying bear spray for self-protection. He told his friends he didn't need it because he knew the bears so well. He faced a giant bear in one of his videos, cooing to it, "Quincy, do you remember when you stood over me? You were so hungry, and you should have eaten me, but you didn't. Thanks for not eating me, Quincy - but if you had eaten me, good, 'cause you're a nice bear!"
Tim named the bears: Booble, Aunt Melissa, Mr. Chocolate, Freckles, Molly. Cupcake, Taffy, the Big Red Machine bear, the Baby Letterman bear, Demon and so on. Treadwell thought his grizzly bears accepted him, perhaps even loved him. Bear experts seem to think that they just tolerated him. Sometimes in his videos he ignored obvious threatening bear behavior, like chuffing or laying their ears back or rocking sideways on their paws. Treadwell appeared oblivious to this dangerous body language.
Treadwell's antics with the charismatic megafauna made him a media darling. "Dateline NBC" did a report on him. Rosie O'Donnell had him on her show as a guest. The Discovery Channel gave him a show, the "Grizzly Diaries." A blurb for the show: "Follow Timothy Treadwell as he keeps a yearly appointment with North America's most feared predator - the grizzly bear! Armed with only a video camera, he roams the Alaskan wilderness living in close contact with the magnificent animals. Watch, amazed, as he comes face to face with an 1000-pound bear!"
"I want to be unconditional love and kindness to them," he told Dave Letterman on the Late Show. "I want to live with them and go with them and not carry something that will hurt them. I mastered a way of interacting with them with body language that enables me to be in extremely close contact with them. Grizzly bears are really just big party animals. I discovered that singing soothes these bears."
Dave jokingly asked Treadwell if he was going to open the newspaper some morning and find he'd been eaten by bears. Treadwell told Dave he felt safer living among the bears than running through New York's Central Park.
Treadwell's facile glibness persuaded the dim bulbs of Hollywood. Hollywood screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown), "Common sense will tell you that this man knows infinitely more about Grizzly bears than anyone." Towne was active in Treadwell's Grizzly People group. Hollywood celebrities were happy to kick in cash for Treadwell's adventures, stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Pierce Brosnan, and supermodel Gisele Bundchen.
Tom Smith, a biologist at the Alaska Science Center, did not find Treadwell's approach so cute, "Bears are bears, and the sooner we treat them as bears instead of humans in a bear suit it will be less dangerous."
Deb Liggett, superintendent at Katmai and Lake Clark national parks, told the Anchorage Daily News in 2001, "At best he's misguided. At worst, he's dangerous. If Timothy models unsafe behavior, that ultimately puts bears and other visitors at risk."
Chuck Bartlebaugh of "Be Bear Aware," a national bear awareness campaign, called Treadwell a leader of "a trend to promote getting close to bears to show they were not dangerous. He kept insisting that he wanted to show that bears in thick brush aren't dangerous. The last two people killed (by bears) in Glacier National Park went off the trail into the brush. They said their goal was to find a grizzly bear so they could 'do a Timothy.' We have a trail of dead people and dead bears because of this trend that says, 'Let's show it's not dangerous.'"
As it turns out, the bears that Treadwell called grizzlies weren't exactly grizzlies but brown bears. Brown and grizzly bears are the same species but grizzlies live in the interior, brown bears live on the coast where Treadwell camped.
Also, the Grizzly People was not a non-profit organization, as it claimed. The IRS never heard of it.
And Timothy Treadwell's name was not Timothy Treadwell but Timothy William Dexter. He was not from Australia as he claimed, but Long Island. Nor was he a British orphan, as he told his friends, but the son of Valentine Dexter, a phone company foreman, who kicked him out of the house after dropping out of college and crashing the family station wagon while drunk.
Treadwell moved to California where his life went into a death spiral of drink and drugs. The police in Sunset Beach booked him on assault charges. The Beverly Hills cops took him on suspicion of assault. Then he nearly killed himself with a drug overdose. That's when he got his vision of life with the bears.
U.S. Geological Survey bear researcher Tom Smith: "He's the only one I've consistently had concern for. He had kind of a childlike attitude about him. I told him to be much more cautious ... because every time a bear kills somebody, there is a big increase in bearanoia and bears get killed. I thought that would be a way of getting to him, and his response was 'I would be honored to end up in bear scat.'" Damned if his dream didn't come true.
A pilot flew out from Kodiak to pick up the pair at the end of their stay and bring them home only to find a big mean-ass bear squatting on human remains in Treadwell's camp. That looked bad. He called park rangers who were charged by the bear at the camp. Joel Ellis, Katmai park ranger, said he fired eleven rounds from his pistol before bringing the bear down twelve feet away. He thought that was cutting it fine.
It was a large, 28 year old, underweight male, only a thousand pounds, with a ratty hide and rotting teeth. The autopsy found hunks of Treadwell and bits of his clothes in its stomach. The rest of Treadwell and Huguenard had been buried to eat later. Bears cache their food like that. Timothy Treadwell was 46. His girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, was 37.
It's not clear what the name of the bear was which ate Tim and Amie. Maybe it was the lovable Booble or that scamp Molly. My guess is that it was Demon.
The Alaska State Troopers believe that Tim and Amie were attacked at 1:45 PM on October 5, 2003 while they ate lunch in their tent during a rainshower. A bear wandered into their camp and Tim left the tent to chase it away. But it wouldn't be chased. It was a bear with a bad attitude. There had been a poor berry crop that year and the bear needed to fatten up for the winter. Maybe he smelled their lunch.
Before he left the tent to confront the bear, Treadwell told his girlfriend to turn on his videocamera. She did, but left the lens cap on. The tape recorded the sounds of the attack. Most of it is screaming, rustling sounds, scratching and dragging noises.
Treadwell screams, "They're killing me out here!" "Play dead," screams Amie. That must not have stopped the attack. Amie screams again, "Fight back!" Treadwell screams again, "Hit him with something! Hit him with a pan!" Treadwell's last words to his girlfriend were the wisest ones he ever spoke: "Get out here. I'm getting killed." The last human sounds are Amie wailing. It took the bear six and a half minutes to kill them.
Rather than be frightened away by Treadwell's tragedy, a new cohort of wildlife photographers and videographers have been encouraged by his example and have set off to national parks to imitate him. They want desperately to do a Timothy. That is undoubtedly good news for hungry bears everywhere.