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The Tale of the Grizzly Man by Don Meredith © 2006
(first published in the March 2006 Alberta Outdoorsmen)

Alaska grizzly

I first heard about the deaths of Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard not too many days after they occurred in October of 2003. The news article appeared on one of my e-mail newsgathering services, and I read it with interest as I do all bear stories. However, this one was especially disturbing because Treadwell and Huguenard had been killed and partially eaten by one or more grizzly bears in their camp on the Alaska peninsula. This despite that fact that for 13 years Treadwell had been spending his summers in close proximity to these grizzlies and had claimed he understood them and they would not harm him.

I must confess I had not heard of Timothy Treadwell before his death. However, he was apparently well known in the States as an environmentalist who became famous in the 1990s for his passion for grizzly bears. He chose to live unarmed in the wilds of Katmai National Park and Preserve among the largest race of the grizzly, the Alaskan brown bear. In the last five years, he took a video camera with him to record himself with the bears. He used these images in presentations to school children and to promote himself and his bear protection organization, Grizzly People.

It is easy to dismiss Treadwell as a zealot who went too far, and I'm afraid that is what I did back in 2003. Then along came the documentary film about his life and death, Grizzly Man (2005, Lions Gate Films), by acclaimed director Werner Herzog. It received good reviews, and I made a mental note to myself to give it a look. I finally did so this February when the film appeared on Discovery TV.

It is quite a film. Herzog took the approximate 100 hours of footage that Treadwell shot and crafted it into a fascinating piece of cinema. First of all, Treadwell was a good cinematographer in his own right. He caught some amazing scenes of grizzly bear behavior, including a fight between two big boars that totally defines "fur flying". He also recorded himself interacting with the bears and presenting monologues about his life and his relationships with the bears and people. These scenes, mixed with interviews Herzog made with friends, family, pilots and bear biologists, make for compelling viewing.

To say that Treadwell was eccentric is an understatement. As described by a friend in the movie, he may have been a manic depressive who would not take his medication. Treadwell records himself crying over an apparently dead bumble bee, caressing warm bear scat as if it was some kind of sacred object, ranting against nature for allowing a mother bear to eat her young because there was no other food, and ranting against the government for persecuting him and failing to protect the grizzlies.

On the latter point there is much dispute. As described by a bear biologist, the Alaskan brown bear is doing very well indeed. Although there are incidents of poaching, they are not a significant factor in the management of the species. Limited legal hunting is allowed because the population can sustain a small harvest. However, the bears that Treadwell observed were protected by a national park, and you could tell by their behavior around him and Huguenard they did not fear humans. Bears that have been hunted, either by legitimate hunters or poachers, show fear of humans and the bears in the film showed none.

Indeed, the most disturbing scenes of the film to me are those in which Treadwell demonstrates how close he can get to the bears. I am a wildlife biologist by training, and a behavioral biologist by specialty. Although I have not specifically studied bears, I have been a student of those who have. It was obvious to me that Treadwell was not reading correctly the messages the bears were sending him through their body language. It is indeed a miracle that he had not died before he did. I guess you can chalk that up to his amazing audacity. He truly believed he was the bears' friend and that they respected him. But as Herzog pointed out in the film, the bears did not so much respect him as tolerate him. He was something they could endure until such time they could not.

In one scene, Treadwell enters a body of water where a bear is swimming to shore. The bear looks at Treadwell in passing and starts to climb out of the water. From behind, Treadwell touches the fur of the bear. The bear snaps its head around and growls. That was not showing respect, that was showing Treadwell he had just crossed a line.

Crossing a line is one of the many themes of the movie. As one aboriginal Alaskan described it, Treadwell was being disrespectful to the bears because he was continually violating the space that separates bears from humans. In other words, as visitors to the bears' domain, we must know our place and respect the bears for what they are—large dominant predators. Treadwell did not appear to know his place, or if he did, he sought to change it. As a result he may have crossed a boundary once too often.

Of course, the reality of the deaths of these two people overshadows all else in this film. You cannot help but feel like some kind of voyeur as you watch the man record his thoughts and observations just hours before his death. Indeed he may have recorded the very bear that took his and Huguenard's lives, describing it as an old bear with a nasty disposition. Treadwell had his camera running when the mauling occurred, but the lens cap was left on, and only the audio was recorded. Herzog did not use that audio in the movie but did interview people who had heard it. Huguenard may have been the true hero (this was her third summer with Treadwell), refusing to leave Treadwell's side even as he screamed at her to do so. She is recorded banging on the bear's head with a frying pan.

What is also disturbing are the circumstances that caused the two to be in the camp at that time of year—late in the season when some bears are becoming desperate to find enough food before hibernation. Apparently Treadwell and Huguenard had not planned on being in camp that late, but because of a problem he had had with an airline clerk a few weeks earlier, Treadwell had returned to his camp in a huff, taking with him his girlfriend who had expressed her fear of the bears.

In the end, this film portrays for me how far we have fallen from the garden. Treadwell, born in New York, moved to California as a young man to "find himself." Instead, he found booze, drugs and depression. Searching for meaning in his life he found the wilderness and grizzly bears. As a result, he shed his addictions—an accomplishment all by itself, as he made the bears his life's work. However, he ignored the advice of biologists, bear experts and the wisdom of people who have lived with bears for years, not to get too close to them. Instead, and much like Disney has demonstrated for us, he placed the bears on a pedestal, gave them names and human qualities, and truly believed they were his friends. They were not. They were awesome wild animals that should have been respected and observed from a distance.


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Check-out Don's adventure novels:

Grizzly One
The Search
for Grizzly One
Dog Runner
Dog Runner