Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Grizzly Maze: The Legacy of Timothy Treadwell

It's inevitable that this would happen. Now that I'm working with bears, the subject of Timothy Treadwell comes up almost on a daily basis, either when people ask my opinion of him, or - particularly annoying - when people caution me about talking to Chaik and Killisnoo and calling them things like "pretty bear" because "that's what Treadwell did." While I never really had any serious problems with Treadwell, having to address this issue day after day has made me almost unapologetically a Treadwell supporter and I'm glad to say that I've been able to offer some of our guests a little more food for thought than Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man did.

After seeing that 2005 documentary, I had wanted to learn more about Treadwell's life and mission, but was somehow reluctant to go down that path. I had long heard that Nick Jans's The Grizzly Maze was not only the best book on Treadwell's life but was also the most unbiased and fairly-balanced. Initially hesitant, I finally - warily - picked up a copy at a bookstore in Sitka and was greatly intrigued by what I read.

From the get-go, Jans wastes no time lambasting Herzog's Grizzly Man for its fraudulent depiction of Treadwell and his seeming "insanity". Several bear experts who knew Treadwell - among them Charlie Russell and Stephen Stringham - also criticized the movie for trying to turn the audience against its subject, stating that Treadwell was getting stronger and becoming more mellow through his work with the bears, not spiraling into insanity and paranoia. Timothy was an aspiring actor with a big ego and an equally big imagination who often entertained himself with his video camera while spending all those months alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Heck, I have a video camera and I often do the same thing. One can easily be made to look mentally unstable if moments like that are carefully selected and placed at opportune moments. In Jans's introduction, even Timothy's greatest detractors confess their shock with Grizzly Man, stating that the man seen on film there was not Timothy Treadwell.

Reading about Timothy's life brought up mixed emotions for me. Outside of the obvious bear connection, I found myself identifying with him in some ways. Even so, I have my issues with him as well. The first is that he did not take steps to protect himself. A simple electric fence around his camp and a can of pepper spray would have been enough to keep him alive. I completely understand why he did what he did, but he should have been prepared for the possibility of running into that one bear, the one gone horribly wrong. Charlie Russell and Stephen Stringham have spent years living with wild grizzlies, seeking to prove what Treadwell sought to prove, but both have been appropriately prepared for a bad situation, and, despite Russell's incredible discoveries working with wild grizzlies, perhaps working with tame or captive bears would have been a better option for Treadwell. After all, wild bears are more focused and single-minded in their quest to find sufficient amounts of food, whereas a tame or captive bear that is not faced with these concerns would have a different mind-set and might offer more insights into what bears are truly capable of. My biggest issue with Treadwell is that after being killed by a bear, those of us who seek to prove, as he did, that bears are misunderstood and undeserving of their monstrous reputations, will probably never be taken seriously again. If Timothy wasn't concerned for his own safety, he should have at least thought of the safety of his girlfriend, the bears he loved, and the validity of the work that he, and others, have been doing.

And there my problems with Treadwell stop. I sympathize with him in every other way and I frankly find it sad that no one took him or his work seriously. A man who spends four of five months out of the year for 13 years - unarmed and unprotected - with grizzlies in one of the wildest corners of the planet, is surely someone who knows something that the rest of us don't. Whether this speaks to the accuracy of Treadwell's beliefs or to the natural tolerance of the bear, it still speaks to something that is important and that cannot be ignored. People only seem to focus on how things ended instead of how long it took for things to get to that point. Of course, if you own a car and you drive everywhere you want to go, it's only a matter of time before you have a wreck. That won't get you labeled as crazy or suicidal, though. So whenever this subject comes up at work, my response is this: if Timothy Treadwell had been a NASCAR driver and had been killed in a head-on collision with a concrete wall, he would have been lauded as a hero instead of a nut with a death wish. So what's the difference between him doing that and doing what he actually did?

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