The Treadwell Deadwell Story – My opinion by bowhunting biologist Wade Nolan
Alaska Peninsula, Katmai National Park, October 6, 2003. A bush pilot sees a Brown Bear sitting on top of what appeared to be human remains near a demolished campsite. The sad saga of two eco-warriors had ended. You may know these bad actors as Timothy Treadwell and his girl friend Amy Huguenard. The Discovery Channel, with their typical left slant, aired the story and made Treadwell sound like one of the worlds most respected bear researchers….“The Grizzly Man”. In reality, he was just another independent spirit from Malibu, California with a “look at me” complex. By the way, Timothy Treadwell was not his real name. It was Timothy Dexter. In addition, although he claimed to be an orphan from London who grew up in Australia, he was really from Long Island, NY. The phony life he lived eventually cost him and his girlfriend… and two bears their lives. Treadwell was as much of a bear researcher as my dear mother-in-law was.
Although my dad said, “You didn’t seem to learn much in college” I did learn a skill from one professor called “critical thinking”. In short, he taught me to examine issues before I buy into them. Examining anything that you see on TV is a good place to begin. The most bizarre part of the Treadwell story is that he claims to be up in Alaska to protect the bears. Truth is the displaced alcoholic/druggie Treadwell was protecting bears that live in Katmai National Park where there has been no hunting for seven decades. These bears couldn’t be more protected if they were in a zoo.
Alaskans who knew Treadwell tell of a man that the Discovery Channel’s “Grizzly Man” producer, Werner Herzog seemed to have conveniently missed. Bear viewing operators in the area knew him as some sort of a crusader who didn’t want to share the bear viewing with other visitors. He’d often rant and curse at bear viewers who’d hired a guide to view the bears. His bear antics were known to the National Park Service and he was cited for his rebellious behavior. Treadwell mistook the bear’s tolerance with his foolish behavior… as friendship.
Katmai National Park service records reveal that he was issued a citation by park rangers for storing food in his tent. On another occasion, Timmy was ordered by park rangers to remove a prohibited portable generator. One report I found said he was issued, “A total of 6 park violations or complaints from 1994 to 2003, including guiding tourists without a license, camping in the same area longer than the 5 day limit, improper food storage, wildlife harassment, use of a portable generator, and misc. altercations with visitors and licensed guides.” Treadwell thought he owned the bears and would often disrupt bear viewing for tourists and filmmakers.
Treadwell also frustrated park rangers because he refused to carry bear spray, which unlike firearms, is legal in the park. Deb Liggett, superintendent of Katmai National Park became sufficiently concerned about Treadwell that she met him for coffee in Anchorage several years prior to his death. “I told him that if we had any more violations from him we would petition the U.S. magistrate to ban him from the park.” (Liggett 2003)
Tim operated his personal bear viewing camp out of an area known as Hallo Bay and Kaflia Bay across Cook Inlet from Homer Alaska. The bears here have been desensitized to humans through decades of commercial bear viewing operations along area salmon streams. Treadwell never mentioned that he was filming habituated bears. These bears show up each year on tons of magazine covers. This year, “Animal Planet” is filming Bear Week at Hallo Bay with the same bears Tim portrayed as wild and wooly.
His footage depicts himself as accepted by these “wilderness bears” when in reality he was grandstanding and engulfed in self-promotion. His antics included camping on intersecting bear trails, trying to touch bears or crawl as close as he could with out being ripped up. He would even crawl up to bears and sing them a nice little song….while wearing a wireless mic.
So what went wrong? Nothing really. Treadwell, unlike real bear researchers, failed to acknowledge that the thousand pound Brown Bears were just giving him slack and putting up with his stupidity. In actuality, he was “getting off” on spinning the cylinder and hearing the hammer fall on an empty chamber…click. Then one day, to no one’s surprise, it went Bang!
About 15 years ago, I produced a video on hunting Sitka Black tailed Deer on Kodiak Island. I interviewed Alaska bear biologist Larry Van Daele in the production. Larry was also involved in the report concerning the Treadwell death. Larry’s comments ring of legalese and an attempt not to call Treadwell a dope. Van Daele said, “The incident was the result of an unconventional person with unconventional behavior toward bears, camped in the middle of a very dangerous situation”. That statement was crafted with grace as “unconventional” is at best a softball word for the rebellious behavior Treadwell exhibited.
Being an Alaskan author, I know bear attack writers well. Larry Kanuit has been a lifelong friend. I have stories in most of his books including the one Treadwell is reading in the pic. I have interviewed no less than nine persons who have had their heads in the mouth of a brown bear/grizzly and lived. Most had made a proximity mistake. They were too close to bears. Ol” Tim is no different, with one big difference. He was too close on purpose.
I have filmed bears all over Alaska and some giant Brown Bears just south of Hallo Bay. Wildlife photographers must follow a defined set of rules when filming park bears. For 17 years, I worked in Denali National Park with a professional photographers permit. In Denali, the superintendent enforces the rules. I have seen photographers permits pulled for unsafe antics. If the superintendent does not act in time, the bears seem to take charge. Just two summers ago, a photographer/hiker was attacked, mauled and eaten in Denali Park on a river corridor that I’ve often hiked. His camera revealed that he got too close.
There are both published and common sense rules real photogs employ when getting near 1000-pound bears that have the ability to kill you. Bears have a zone that they consider their private space. This zone shrinks with some habituated bears that are filmed every summer. With truly wild grizzlies, this zone can be astonishingly large.
On the Alaska Peninsula, I have seen browns catch our scent at over 600 yards and run for 20 minutes only to disappear, still running, over a snow-mantled ridge a mile away. Other bears have seen me at 100 yards and decided to put up with me as I filmed them with a 1000MM lens. Once on Kodiak I had a spooked brown bear almost run me over at 12 yards. He stopped and looked at me, huffed as if he meant it, and ran off. Fact is, if given an opportunity bears avoid people and only in rare instances do they try to “touch humans”, like Treadwell tried to touch bears.
Some bears need to be in parks, protected from hunting pressure. I was fortunate to work in Denali National Park as a guide for two years and was able to show thousands of tourists their first grizzly. It was a moment that every one of them remembers vividly to this day. We viewed them as a distance. If a bear approaches you, you move away, not because the bear is going to kill and eat you, but because you want the bear to be wild.
I encourage hunters to ramp up their experience and understanding of bears by spending more time with them, at a distance. In North America, bears are one of our most valuable wild assets. They make me come alive when I’m filming them at reasonable distances. If sitting over bait, watch the bears, wait for a mature bear that is approaching the end of his days in the woods. Observe these wonderful animals in their habitat and don’t try to become their friend. As hunters, our job is to manage them as an important wild cog in the ecosystem. If you must get closer to bears…buy a bigger telephoto. If you feel you need to touch one, call your psychologist.
…Wade Nolan spent 17 years working in Alaska’s wilderness. He has worked both in Brown Bear camps and for National Geographic television. If you enjoy bear stories, you’ll love Nolan’s book Death Dance. Get your copy at www.wadenolan.com
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