Letters from Charlie...


Letters from Charlie...

February 21, 2006




Timothy Treadwell ---- Grizzly Man

I am assuming that people reading my thoughts about Timothy Treadwell already have some understanding of the story. It would take another book to explain everything and there is already a good book about the subject called The Grizzly Maze by Nick Jans.

Perhaps many people wonder why I have not commented before now in defense of Timothy Treadwell or maybe try to distance myself from him. I initially did not consider defending Timothy, I just wanted the whole thing to fade into oblivion with him, but in reality this kind of story will inevitably become part of the grizzly mythology that so many people love. I have struggled with his death and voiced my frustration privately with some people, including a Russian friend. She was horrified that I would speak negatively about a dead acquaintance, insisting that Russians do not do that. I didn’t wholly believe her, but her admonishment was another excuse to remain quiet. Now people insist that I comment. This is my response.

There were many people who saw the probability of Timothy Treadwell dying. Many of these people hated Timothy for suggesting that bears were animals that deserved less violent treatment than our hunting culture allows them. Some literally cheered when he was killed by the animal that he loved and so passionately tried to defend. They use his death as proof that bears can never be trusted and that brown bear numbers and range must always be controlled and governed by harsh dominance.

Timothy has made my life difficult, both while he was alive and after he died. Before he was killed, he tried zealously to undermine my credibility. Some years ago I had offended him by writing in my book Grizzly Heart that he did not carry pepper spray nor use electric fencing around his tent to protect himself there. I did not say this was wrong, only that I did things differently. Of course in hindsight I was too easy on him. There seemed little doubt to me that camping on major bear tails in thick bush was putting him at the mercy of a possible transient bear that he would not have built any kind of trusting relationship with. He had told me that he occasionally encountered bears that scared him so I had asked the question – “why would you not take the precautions that we both knew would work?” He angrily told me that he was essentially a trespasser in their territory and therefore he did not want to hurt them in any way. In answer to this I confronted him with the possibility that his death could undo everything that he and others were trying to change in people’s attitude towards bears. Only a few months after our unpleasant exchange I found myself experiencing everything I had dreaded.

I got on a plane to Alaska a few hours after I heard that Timothy and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were dead. I wanted to make sure that I personally understood as much as I could about what had happened. In the past I had found that for political reasons, in situations such as this, the whole story was often not reviled. As it turned out, however, there was not much to guess about. As Timothy was scrambling out of his tent to deal with a bear close to his tent, his camera had accidentally been turned on, leaving an exact and very gruesome audio record of their deaths. Before it happened both of them had talked and wrote about a bear who had given them every indication that he might be dangerous. As it had turned out either an electric fence and/or pepper spray would have saved them.

No Sympathy
Most Alaskans never knew Timothy until his fateful story was splashed onto the front pages all the newspapers. Their response was not sympathetic. For eons the only acceptable way to think about bears has been in terms of them being totally unpredictable and ferocious and that hunting them was absolutely necessary to keep them fearful of people. An animal, running away in fear, has become synonymous with our idea of wild. Science has managed bears for what they can contribute to the economy, as trophies. We do not eat them anymore.

During the last 20 years bear viewing has become increasingly popular until it has become a bigger part of the Alaskan economy than hunting them. Hunters understandably feel threatened about this trend because many photographs show bears and people mingling together peacefully. This has made killing grizzly bears for sport look more like murder than an act of bravery. Hunters desperately needed Timothy’s blunder to put the danger back into bear encounters.

Before our falling out, after getting back from our respective seasonal adventures, I spent a couple of hours on the phone comparing notes with Timothy. In many ways he was so strange that I could not relate to him. He would send me edited copies of some of his tapes, with explicit instructions not to let anyone else see them. These video windows into his work were very interesting and I was often amazed, but he aggravated me when he talked to his camera, telling his future audience over and over that what he did was very dangerous. That was when I would ask him, “If it was so dangerous why did he not increase his odds by putting an electric fence around his tent and carry pepper spray?”

I am sure that Timothy did not intend to die the way he did. In talking this way he was obviously setting it up so that when he eventually put together his own movie about himself, he would look heroic for surviving.

The Difference Between Timothy and Me
My goals were different from Timothy’s. I am an 64 year old ex rancher who while ranching in grizzly country for 18 years was interested in the question of weather grizzlies were really as much of an enemy to that industry as all the ballyhoo about them suggested. (Many years before [in 1961- 62], I was a camera man with my brother and father, doing the first documentary ever done about these animals in their wild habitat in Canada and Alaska). I encouraged grizzlies to be on my ranch. Because my place borders Waterton Lakes National Park I had plenty of them to observe. In 1972 I started my own interceptive feeding program. My idea was that when the bears came out of their den, giving them a few cows that had died during the winter would take the edge off their appetite, keeping them away from my and my neighbors cows that were calving at that time of the year, further out from the mountains. Now, each spring, 34 years later, Alberta Fish and Wildlife and Parks Canada have taken my program over and bears are been fed on both sides of the park boundary for about a month every spring.

During those ranching years it became increasingly apparent that you got back what you put into the relationship. If you made an effort to get along with them, they rewarded you by not causing problems for you. I never lost any cows to bears. My neighbors occasionally would, but it didn’t happen to me.

The most valuabe thing that I learned back then was that everything that decreases the fear and tensions between land managers and brown bears, which let them live on productive land, was a huge help for grizzlies. In other words, I thought that perhaps one of the best ways to create habitat for them was by understanding them better.

Man can kill bears literally, until the cows come home, but there is absolutely zero tolerance for bears killing us. I eventually except that but then wanted to understand what people could do to stay out of trouble.

I got very interested in all the possibilities for the grizzly if we could change our approach and try to get along with these animals. That is why I went to Russia for the last 11 years. There I put myself among as many bears as possible; having encounters with them virtually every time I went out the door of my cabin. Soon I understood that disharmony between bears and humans was not the bears fault. It was a human inadequacy brought about by our fear and distrust of them.

I added to my challenges by rescuing ten brown bear cubs over the years from a zoo in Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, bringing them to my cabin so they could live wild and free. This allowed me to understand other questions; are they unpredictable and are bears that did not fear people inherently dangerous? Neither of these things turned out to be true. They were trustworthy, but man was not.

Of course certain individual bears can become dangerous, most of these are males that are hunted or adverse conditioned and very, very rarely perhaps an individual that has no history with humans can be dangerous too, even if they are not abused. Females who feel their cubs could be hurt are very dangerous, but ones that do not feel threatened, I would go as far as describing some of them as being compassionate.

I found that virtually all dangerous situations can be avoided by a few precautions. I have always understood that for the bears sake it was very important that I did not add to their problems by making a mistake myself that caused me to be hurt or killed. Three things that I found helpful.

1. It has never happened yet, but if I ever I find myself facing an angry bear, I will have pepper spray in hand. (Twice, with the use of it, I have saved one of my cubs from being killed by a male bear. These males were not angry, just hungry).
2. I always used electric fence to keep bears from messing with things that I did not want damaged. 3. I give a wide birth to any bear that show signs of not wanting me around.

After Timothy
To date, several books, documentaries and a feature movie called Grizzly Man have been done about Timothy’s life and its spectacular ending. Werner Herzog has a long, established reputation for making movies about bizarre people. He fell upon a bonanza when he met with Jewel Palovak, Timothy’s ex girlfriend. She is President of Grizzly People, a non-prophet organization dedicated to protecting bears, studying them, and educating people and she was the beneficiary of all of Timothy’s recordings. Supposedly, without researching anything about Herzog she let him have all Timothy’s very private videotapes. They were like his personal diary and should have been respected in that way. If I am upset about the aftermath of Tredwells death, I can’t be too angry with Werner Herzog. He just did what he does, but if Jewel really was a protector of bears, she should have looked for a film maker who would have been sympathetic towards them. There were many to choose from.

Herzog capitalized on these tapes in a big way by making it appear in his movie like Timothy was a nut case with a death-wish. His commentary expounds his own, very simple ideas about nature and how man doesn’t belong out there in wild nature with all these horrible animals.

Herzog is a skillful filmmaker so a large percentage of those who watch the movie Grizzly Man, overlook Timothy’s amazing way with animals even though to me this stands out very strongly. The fact that Timothy spent an incredible 35000 hours, spanning 13 years, living with the bears in Katmai National Park, without any previous mishap, escapes people completely. Even with his city-kid background, I found myself mesmerized by what he could do with animals. Most people now see him only the way Herzog skillfully wanted his audience to see him; as an idiot who continually “crossed nature’s line”, what ever that means. Perhaps, in his mind, nature’s line is something behind which bears and other nasty things reside who will inevitably kill you if you go there without a gun. He takes everything Timothy stood for and turned it 180°, the result which he then weaves into his own unsophisticated agenda. The same material in the hands of someone with more ethical intentions and some sensitivity to both man and bear could have made a very different movie. The ending of the story was bound to be a problem for anyone trying to make him look like a hero. Timothy wrote his own epitaph.

As a final observation, Timothy didn’t fit into any pigeon hole. He was not a biologist, or a writer, or, in most everyone’s mind, a legitimate researcher. In our world, where science rules, what he did seemed inane. Judging from the reaction to Herzog’s movie, the one thing that upsets people the most about Timothy, to the point of loathing him, was that he talked to bears in a kind way. In Alaska this type of behavior is unforgivably stupid. If Timothy had spent those thirteen years killing bears and guiding others to do the same, eventually being killed by one, he would have been remembered in Alaska with great admiration. That story would have meant nothing to Herzog because there would have been no lines crossed what-so-ever.


© Pacific Rim Grizzly Bear Co-Existence Study, 2006