Monday, May 11, 2009
The Bear Whisperer
For more than a decade, a California man spent much of his time living amongst the great bears of Southeast Alaska, in Katmai National Park. He became a celebrity of sorts, appearing on talk shows and as the subject of a Discovery Channel film. The book; Death in the Grizzly Maze, by Mike Lapinski, tells the story of this controversial man, and his untimely end.
Timothy Treadwell, dedicated his life to grizzly bears. Understanding and protecting them became his passion, and he spent twelve summers camped in the middle of their territory, tempting fate, and angering scientists and park rangers. He became a celebrity wildlife expert, despite the fact that he had no training as an outdoorsman, or education in biology. He wanted nothing else, but to be in the company of grizzlies, and he set out to become the “Bear Whisperer.”
Timothy was a blond, affable, surfer type. Hailing from Malibu, where he had worked as a bartender and a waiter, Tim was a self-described alcoholic and former drug abuser. He reportedly suffered from depression and possibly bi-polar disorder. He was also, by many accounts, a sweet, sensitive man, who experienced a life-changing turn-around, as a result of his time alone in the wilderness with the great bears of Alaska.
Each summer he set up camp in the heart of bear country, enduring the cold and the rain, living on sandwiches, while the mosquitoes feasted on him. He sat alone for hours, in the cold drizzle, surrounded by the enormous animals, making films that would both impress and enrage the wildlife community.
Early on in his ill-fated quest, Timothy developed a dangerously naïve attitude toward the bears, deciding that if humans radiated love to the bears, the bears would welcome our presence. He seemed determined to view the animals as friendly, anthropomorphic creatures, and he gave them names like “Mr. Chocolate”, “Downy” and “Cupcake”. Despite several close calls, he continued to push the envelope by regularly getting within arms’ reach of the powerful animals. He refused to carry bear spray, believing that it was an insult and a betrayal of trust to go among the bears armed in any way. Bear spray is an extra potent form of pepper spray, designed to discharge at high velocity and in a wide swath, capable of turning away a charging bear. Meeting with a faceful of this spray would also have the effect of discouraging the animal from approaching humans in the future, but Tim would have none of it. His belief and his message seemed to be that bears weren’t wild and potentially dangerous animals, but fun loving, friendly creatures. Timothy seemed unable to temper his love of bears with the healthy fear and respect required to remain safe in the wilderness.
Biologists and wilderness guides came to think of him as an eccentric, if not crazy, person and were outraged by his reckless behavior near the bears. Park officials repeatedly warned him not to get so close to the bears, and he promised to heed their warnings, but never did. What frustrates and confounds so many to this day, is why the Park rangers failed to take steps to ban Tim from the park, when it was obvious from his films that he was blatantly breaking all the rules set forth for behavior in bear territory. If they had, it may have saved his life.
On October 5th, 2003, Tim and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were attacked and killed by a pair of grizzly bears in Katmai National Park. The following day, park rangers who were investigating had to kill the animals. Ironically, the man who had dedicated his life to protecting grizzlies, was not only killed by them, but also caused the deaths of the bears that had attacked him...a tragedy all around and one that could have easily been prevented.
The debate continues. Tim obviously loved bears and had the best of intentions. His films and his public persona served to educate the public about these magnificent animals. But while his fans see him as a hero and a wildlife protector, whose presence in the Grizzly Maze prevented poaching, some experts believe that his presence in the bears’ midst was simple harassment and a source of stress to the animals.
Mike Lapinski’s book is an excellent and balanced accounting of the tragic story.
photo by Phil Scofield