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Chasing David
Timothy Treadwell
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The Unbearable Lightness Of Being Timothy Treadwell
Avant-garde Environmentalist or
Media-made Martyr?

BY ASHLEY CARTER


courtesy lions gate films

“My plan was to dress in black from head to toe to look as much like the local bears as possible. I would roll in fresh bear beds to alter my human odor, and crawl on all fours in front of the bears. I would try to remain silent, communicating only with the bears’ huffs, woofs, and posturing”
Timothy Treadwell on his “low impact technique” for studying bears (Among Grizzlies, 1999)

Much has been made of environmental rabble-rouser Timothy Treadwell since grizzlies decided to eat him in 2003. It might be the most publicized attack in Guys-Eaten-By-Bears history. Treadwell, a self-described ‘eco-warrior’ and ‘defender of bears,’ has become a rock star in his field, a martyr. Armchair environmentalists perk up when their tragic hero is mentioned. He’s their Jim Morrison, their Kurt Cobain. The fact that his fatal mauling was mysteriously captured on tape, as part of a self-made documentary about his 13 summers living with bears on Alaska’s volatile Katmai Coast, just makes the story all the more glamorous.

No shortage of money is being made off of Treadwell’s legend either. In the past year alone, the events of his bizarre career have spawned two documentaries (David Kaplan’s Deadly Passion: The Tragedy At Katmai and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man), two books (Mike Lapinski’s Death in the Grizzly Maze and Nick Jans’ The Grizzly Maze: Timothy’s Treadwell’s Fatal Obsession With Alaskan Bears), and Leo DiCaprio’s interest in bankrolling the movie rights. And in a way, this is exactly what Treadwell would have wanted; after all, he was an actor long before he had any designs on saving the world.


courtesy lions gate films
But to bear experts, Treadwell only serves as a cartoonish example of the line between conservation and interference. Despite all the reverie and sensationalism in the mainstream surrounding his crackpot methods, Treadwell was a disaster to his profession. To bring attention to him as any sort of legitimate expert, they say, is not only misleading but potentially negligent.

“The media created huge enthusiasm for him without instilling full responsibility,” says Chuck Bartlebaugh, Executive Director of the Center For Wildlife Information, a Montana-based organization that once considered Treadwell as a spokesperson for their Be-Bear-Aware campaign. “Treadwell used to call me in the middle of the night sometimes and he’d be crying because I told him he was being inappropriate with the bears and it would get himself or someone else killed.”

What Bartlebaugh deems inappropriate is exactly what made Treadwell famous. He refused to study bears from afar like other researchers. Instead he swam with them, sang them to sleep, gave them cute pet names like Booble, Tabitha, Czar, Ms. Goodbear, and Cupcake (the meanest one of all), and set up camp next to widely used bear trails, always filming the results.

No doubt the 100-plus hours of footage that Treadwell took of himself and the bears over his final five years is incredible, some of it unlike anything ever seen or attempted before. But while the media took these images at face value and broadcast them to a public corrupted by the reality TV craze and increasingly daring nature programs (Steve Irwin, anyone?), they tended to gloss over the potential damage that Treadwell was causing. 

During his dozens of high-profile television appearances, it was never important to tell the kind people at home that in order to get the footage that he did, Treadwell was continuously breaking one of Katmai’s cardinal rules: the 50/100 rule; that is, humans must stay 50 yards back from adult bears and 100 yards away from mama bears with cubs. The rule exists less to keep humans from being gobbled up by bears than to keep the bears from becoming dangerously habituated to humans, one of Treadwell’s specialties.

At times Treadwell defied this rule to such an extent that in his book, Among Grizzlies, he describes a time when he kissed an approaching young bear – “Peanut” – on his little bear nose.

“Have you heard of or read the book A Million Little Pieces? [Among Grizzlies] is far worse and far more inappropriate. Journalism students should have this in front of the class. Timothy Treadwell is a scandal, his portrayal can kill people,” Bartlebaugh says.

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