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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?


courtesy lions gate films

Bear expert John Rogers, of Katmai Coastal Bear Tours, a man who had numerous encounters with Treadwell over the years, for the most part agrees. “He was drawing a picture of these bears as not as curious or as mean, that they could be lived with, and he was doing this as someone who wasn’t a bear expert,” he explains via satellite-phone from an endangered species project deep in Alaska’s Aleutian Chain. “He wanted the message out there that he had transitioned… that he was accepted by bears.”

Still, Rogers is quick to point out that, “as much as he irritated [Park Service] and other people too, you wanted to like him.”

It’s easy to see why this was true, and it’s a testament to why he’s such an easy sell to the public. Timothy Treadwell had charisma to spare. He not only looked like a surfer from Malibu, he was a surfer from Malibu (he lived there for years trying to jumpstart an acting career that purportedly bottomed out when Woody Harrelson beat him out of a part in the sitcom Cheers). With floppy blonde hair that he tended to obsessively and an excitable way of speaking that made every word sound like it’d just been invented, Treadwell had the contagious enthusiasm of a child receiving his first PowerWheels truck.

courtesy lions gate films
“Of course Timothy Treadwell was likeable and had great intelligence,” Bartlebaugh concedes. “But he was an emotionally disturbed person.” In fact, in Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, Treadwell’s partner Jewel Palovak (who declined to be interviewed for this piece) stated that Treadwell took himself off of medications that were prescribed to balance out his moods.

For some, this just adds to his rock star cache. Treadwell wasn’t an academic, as were those other researchers. He never even graduated from college. In Among Grizzlies, Treadwell admits to coming from a troubled past, a self-described “street punk” with an opiate problem who slept with an M-16 for protection (really). Only after recovering from a heroin overdose, did he realize he needed something positive to fuel him. That ‘something’ would be bears, a lingering childhood interest. To Treadwell, bears were kindred spirits, in need of salvation just like he was. Timothy Treadwell’s life was practically a made-for-TV movie.

“He exchanged an addiction to booze and drugs for an addiction to celebrity,” allows Dr. Steve Stringham, a leading bear biologist and good friend of Treadwell’s.

His new addiction was arguably just as dangerous, only this time he was being encouraged. “By the time he got really settled in, got cameras and got a kind of mission and plan, all of a sudden tourism had boomed and all of a sudden there were more people watching him,” John Rogers says of Treadwell’s later years in the bush.

Treadwell took the fact that he had garnered an audience very seriously, even going so far as to pen a book and hit the late night talk show circuit.  While there’s no question he thought he was protecting and studying these bears, and in turn raising awareness of their supposed plight, the showman in him never died. He began to take more risks and show a reckless disregard for his safety for the sake of his bear friends.  In effect, his refusal to put a low-voltage electrical bear fence around his tent – a staple of anyone camping overnight in beartown – is what likely led to his death.

“I’m sure that it was his point of view that if he used it, to his fans, he was afraid of bears,” says Rogers. “And he defied that.”

Likewise he never made fire, he put his bear spray into storage after the first blast made a bear upset (natch), and he flat out refused to bring a gun of any kind to camp.

“It is always said that he went out there without a gun – in a frickin’ national park without a gun,” Bartlebaugh says. “Well, no one can go there with a gun! Only law enforcement officials carry guns. Both NBC and Dateline said he was ‘so brave’ to go there without a gun. They didn’t say that no one did. Dateline helped create a fake person.”

He adds, “ABC once said Park Service was harassing Timothy Treadwell. They made him out to be a folk hero.”

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