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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

What the United States Park Service were actually doing was enforcing proper camping regulations that had been in place for upwards of 40 years, nationally. When Treadwell became enough of a liability – by putting himself at risk summer after summer and gaining pseudo-celebrity status for it, thus giving copycat thrillseekers who had glimpsed him on the news the wrong idea – they were forced to create a new rule allowing no one to camp for more than seven days in the same spot (author Nick Jans and other locals call this ‘The Treadwell Rule’). Not to be pushed around, Treadwell defied the rule by camouflaging his tent. Now instead of just being a burden, he was a renegade too. He couldn’t possibly be expected to lug his gear around that often. Aside from it being a physical impossibility, it would disrupt his studies.

And therein lies the biggest curiosity about Treadwell: his studies.
Or moreover, the fact that none exist. Through all the years that Treadwell spent plunked down on the Katmai Coast, hand-in-paw with the bears, not one chunk of ursine wisdom emerged. Despite appearing on talk shows as an expert of sorts, Treadwell never once submitted a scientific paper of any kind.

“I’ve always thought of Timothy as a performance artist. Grizzly bears provided him with a stage and a focus for what he often called ‘the work’ of his life,” says Lance Craighead, a conservation biologist who knew Treadwell. “He loved to perform and be the center of attention, but was only comfortable with kids, adults were too often critical and negative.”

Arguably, the only people able to benefit from Treadwell’s work while he was were in fact children.  When he wasn’t darting around the Katmai Coast, he did pro bono tours of classrooms across California, preaching about bears and bear safety. Some say this sent a mixed message, especially after his death (as Nick Jans writes, “the equivalent of a father, Marlboro dangling from the corner of his mouth, exhorting his son not to smoke”) but kids loved him because he was practically one of them. He was even asked to be an advisor on Disney’s 2003 animated feature Brother Bear.
Timothy Treadwell is the sort of endearingly troubled character who should have existed in the media merely as a public curiosity. Instead he was exalted as some sort of possessor of bear secrets and allowed to go about his ways. The logic was that if he could get so close to these beasts for years without so much as a scratch, then surely he was doing something right. Something that these other slightly less photogenic experts were missing.

But what was seen as friendship or expertise over his thirteen summers in the bush could just as easily be classified as dumb luck. You can’t fault Treadwell for that, but you can blame the media for glorifying his awkward anthropomorphizations of these animals. You can even blame his detractors, the real experts, for allowing him to prance around out there for years when they sincerely believed he was in danger. Maybe they too saw him as a fresh face that brought the kind attention to their field that they weren’t used to seeing.

In the end, whether you consider Treadwell an actor, an activist, a sociopath, a naturalist, or even just an addictive personality… you’re probably mistaken. He’s none of those things and yet he’s all of them. That’s what makes him so compelling. “He had a hard time separating the adolescent fantasies of being the saviour of bears from the reality,” says Dr. Stringham. “Tim was an actor at heart, a ham. He was inventing and filming, ‘The Legend of Tim Treadwell,’ striving to become what he fantasized.”

It’s just unfortunate that his lasting cultural impression can be summed up by his 2001 appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman when, in response to Treadwell’s description of his bear buddies as “big party animals,” Letterman quips, “Is it going to happen that one day we read a news article about you being eaten by these bears?”

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