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Movie memorializes dedicated, foolish bear-lover

October 16, 2006
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

It was three years ago this month that Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled to death by a grizzly bear in the Alaskan wilderness.

I thought about Treadwell and a conversation I had with him years ago as I watched, earlier last week, the 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man” by director Werner Herzog.

Herzog put together an amazing film about Treadwell who devoted his adult life to the study of grizzly bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. Using Treadwell’s own video footage, the documentary focuses on his final days.

On Oct. 6, 2003, a bush pilot discovered that Treadwell and a friend, Amie Huguenard, had been attacked and killed at their campsite by one or more brown bears.

From 1990 to 2003, Treadwell spent his summers camping with the brown bears, photographing and video-taping them and himself. He was supremely and mistakenly confident in his ability to live safely among the bears.

He grew up in New York but settled in Southern California in the early 1980s. He wanted to be an actor and his family said he was crushed when he failed to land a part on the sitcom Cheers.

Instead, he became a minor wildlife celebrity. He was enormously enthusiastic about his beloved bears and gave them names like “Mr. Chocolate” and “Taffy.” He was a good looking man with messy blond hair who spoke in a feminine voice and was prone to repeating himself in his many self-taped interviews saying things like: “I love them! I love them! I love them!”

But in some corner of his mind he must have known that he was playing a game of luck and in time his luck would run out. He makes a few references to “if something happens.”

And inevitably something did happen. Apparently, their horrific deaths were taped. The camcorder at the campsite was turned on. The lens cap was not removed but there is an audio recording of their last several minutes -- Treadwell yelling at Amie to run and Amie screaming…and then screaming even louder.

After his death, some people suggested he profited from his efforts to protect the grizzlies and stashed money away in his non-profit organization Grizzly People headquartered in Malibu.

I don’t think so. When he was on a book tour promoting “Among Grizzlies,” he couldn’t afford a phone call between Davis and San Francisco.

Treadwell, then 36, contacted me from a pay phone outside his hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and asked me to call him back. At that time his publisher Ballantine didn’t consider him a name author worthy of being put up at the St. Francis.

He was on the road to promote the paperback edition of his book – which describes how he became a bear fanatic and what it’s like camping in the Alaskan wilds with only bears and a too-friendly fox for company.

I remember asking Treadwell the obvious question – wasn’t he foolish and foolhardy?

“After all, it would only take one whack of grizzly’s paw and goodbye, Tim,” I wrote in my 1999 column.

"I’m much more likely to be killed by an angry sport hunter than a bear," he said decisively. "I’m in more danger here in San Francisco."

Treadwell let me know right away that he was not a scientist and that his life with bears came from his heart, not his head. Still, I asked him if his hours and hours of on-site observation had added anything to bear science.

"Well," he said, "I’ve observed the social culture of grizzly bears, their hierarchy and their recognition of that hierarchy. I’ve seen one bear, Taffy, use a stick in a crude tool-like fashion to scratch her back. Bears have 21 basic body signals. And, hmmm. What are some bear myths? Well, it’s true that dominant males do sometimes kill cubs but it’s overstated and blown out of proportion. There’s no reason or advantage for it, the female will not then mate with the male.

“Oh, and bears do run downhill, very fast. Never run from a bear. They can be ferocious, dangerous animals but they are also shy, gentle giants."

The question I asked him in 1999 was: Why? Why does he camp by himself with only bears for company in an undisclosed location so remote that he sometimes doesn’t talk to another human being for more than a month?

"I’m their lifeguard," he said. "I’m there to keep the poachers and sport hunters away.

"They’ve taught me how to be confident and calm in their presence and give them their personal space," he said. "This may sound egocentric but (I live with bears) like Ted Williams hits a baseball. I can’t teach others how to do it.

"You know how people accuse animal rights activists of liking animals better than people?" he asked me. "Well, these bears are so much better than people. They are better than us.

“They are basically peaceful and I would have no life without them.”

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org and watch for more local writers to be featured biweekly at this web site.

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