Passionate preservationist acts as a summer lifeguard

March 21, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Timothy Treadwell spends up to four months a year living unarmed among the wild bears of Alaska. To most people, this would seem like a foolish, foolhardy way to spend a summer. After all, it would only take one whack of grizzlyís paw and goodbye, Tim.

But he doesnít quite see it that way.

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

Treadwell, 36, was speaking to me by phone from a cheap hotel in San Franciscoís Tenderloin, so I couldnít argue the point. He was on the road promoting his 1997 book, "Among Grizzlies: Living With Wild Bears in Alaska," which has just been issued in paperback by Ballantine.

His book describes how he became a bear fanatic and what itís like camping in the Alaskan wilds with only bears and a too-friendly fox for company.

Treadwell lets you know right away that heís not a scientist and that his life with bears comes 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, "Iíve observed the social culture of grizzly bears, their hierarchy and their recognition of that hierarchy. Iíve seen one bear, Taffy, use a stick in a crude tool-like fashion to scratch her back. And, hmmm. What are some bear myths? Well, itís true that dominant males do sometimes kill cubs but itís overstated and blown out of proportion. Thereís 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."

I realized I was asking Treadwell the wrong question. Heís not the guy to ask about the science of grizzlies, although he has observed them for longer periods of time and more intimately than most experts. The question to ask Treadwell is: Why? Why does he camp by himself with only bears for company in an undisclosed location so remote that he sometimes doesnít talk to another human being for more than a month?

"Iím their lifeguard," he says simply. "Iím there to keep the poachers and sport hunters away."

Since 1995 Treadwell has been a summer resident in the bear hierarchy and an expert bear observer. Patient, passive, he becomes part of the fabric of their lives.

(Oddly, he shaves and bathes every day while out in the field. Itís a personal quirk. He just doesnít want to look like the stereotypical bear poacher or wild man of the mountains, even if thereís no one there to see him.)

"Bears have 21 basic body signals," he said. He knows them all and knows how to deal with a bear thatís upset, frightened, liable to do him injury. Frequently, he sings to them.

But he certainly doesnít recommend others do what he does.

"Theyíve 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 canít teach others how to do it."

Treadwell says he did bring a girlfriend out to the Alaska wilds and the bear habitat for about a two-month period in 1997.

"She started out in total fear and ended up loving the bears, too," he said.

He wonít say exactly where the bear encampment is.

"Ecotourism will kill the bears," he said. "They donít have much of a future. Theyíll either be loved to death or shot to death."

In Alaska, itís legal to hunt grizzlies. About 1,200 a year are shot, about the same number are poached. Bear hunting is a multimillion dollar business. Thatís why Treadwell is such a threat; he doesnít want any bears killed and he has chased off hunters in the past. In fact, he takes a lot of heat from a variety of quarters Ė from scientists who scorn his methods, from hunters who mock his concern, from pilots and tradespeople in Alaska who object to his fervor.

Treadwell doesnít care. He has committed his life to wildlife preservation.

"You know how people accuse animal rights activists of liking animals better than people?" he asks me. "Well, these bears are so much better than people. They are better than us. They make up a perfect ecological system. They do no damage, they are amazing and beautiful. They are basically peaceful and I would have no life without them. Iím living as long and hard as I can for the good of the bears and preservation of their habitat, which is good for the environment and the planet. If Taffy were in danger, I would shield her with my body."

Treadwell and his co-author, Jewel Palovak, run an organization called Grizzly People devoted to education and preservation of the dwindling bear population. Treadwell spends much of his time, when heís not lifeguarding in Alaska, lecturing and educating kids about his passion. Grizzly People can be reached at P.O. Box 2872, Malibu CA 90265.

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