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 na├»ve 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


  1. "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."

    Call me cynical, but my bet would be because Timothy Treadwell was doing exploratory naturalist work for free that you couldn't pay any sane man to do. In any case, it wasn't right. Am very sorry Tim and Amie lost their lives.

  2. There was a documentary over here about this guy, just a few weeks ago, i did set my recorder so i could watch it, but it didn't work for some reason.

  3. Timothy preferred to live large..perhaps some of the drug and alcohol abuse changed his balance..yet he found a partner who wanted to share, to survive, or to die with him. Living in maddness, even for love, one doesn't always make it...

  4. Hi Deedee
    Have also seen this guy on telly. Did he really know the risks? I do find it upsetting that they lost their lives, but why did the bears have to suffer, after all they were in their own habitat. He just stepped over the line.
    I wonder how he would feel about the bears being put down. Very sad story.
    Hope this finds you well.
    Warm Wishes

  5. Park rangers and biologists did try to have Tim banned from the park. Through his Hollywood contacts he was able to exert considerable political pressure on NPS officials to prevent the very actions that might have saved the lives of him, his companion and several bears. Tim was warned repeatedly that he was courting disaster and that he would get himself, others and bears killed. His ego wouldn't let him hear. People in the bear community predicted the final act for years but were prevented from doing anything to forestall it by Tim's own fan club. Put the onus on those who deserve it! Tim was not doing research, he was ego-tripping. He was not a scientist, did not use scientific methods and collected what would be at best anecdotal information of virtually no benefit to the bears or the scientific community. Real researcher routinely gather much more valuable information with much less risk to themselves, others, or bears.

  6. I happen to agree that Tim wasn't doing much in the way of real research. In the final analysis, Tim was solely responsible for the consequences of his own actions. Still, I think it's unfortunate when safety has to take a back seat to the cult of personality. He sealed his own fate, but unfortunately, he took a woman and two bears with him.

  7. Hi Deedee,
    I found this post very interesting to read and ponder a bit. I was very glad to hear that there is a bear spray out there. I live in bear country and I like to hike a bit. It would be a very good thing to have with me. I have a great respect for wildlife and the fact that we are encroaching on their habitat more and more. We must take responsibility for our actions and use our common sense when we go out to enjoy nature.

  8. bears are wild animals and mr. treadwell found out the hard way. i can't believe the park folks could not stop him. a real tragedy all way around....jack c

  9. Interesting post! I put Lapinsky's book on my summer reading list. I spend summers up north, bears have been "visiting" the last two summers up there, raiding bird feeders, garbage and making a normally idyllic summer a bit tense for my liking. Have to keep the dog on a leash and be mindful/suspicious/on guard when hiking. After 12 years of bliss, this last two have not been. I could do without those critters and am wondering why all of a sudden they are so prolific in our area.

  10. I've not read the book, but enjoyed Herzog's film. My take is that Tim was a seriously disturbed guy who embraced a sort of "magical thinking" that he could understand the mind of other beings. Still, this is America, and if you want to get et by a bear, that should be your choice. I love and do not normally fear bear people (black & grizz) but do have profound respect for them & carry pepper spray when I'm in their 'hood. The bear people are what they are--neither cuddly fuzzy wuzzies nor rapacious bloodthirsty mankillers.

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  12. Hello darling are you my friend?
    I love this story and saw a documentary about it on The Animal Planet.
    I think that Tim had an amazing heart and was truly trying to make a difference and understand the mighty Grizzly. Perhaps he was just trying to make a difference?? I think he did in his own way and what a tragic ending for him.

    Steady On
    Reggie Girl