When Grizzly People founder Timothy Treadwell appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2001 the host quipped, “Is it one day going to happen [that] we read a news article about you being eaten by one of these bears?” The studio audience howled but Letterman proved to be prophetic. On October 6, 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were attacked and eaten by a grizzly bear in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. The irony of the world’s most visible bear advocate being mauled and consumed by a grizzly was not lost on the media, and the incident became a national news story. Adding to the intrigue is that Huguenard switched on the couple’s camcorder just as the attack got underway, so most of the six-minute-plus incident was captured on audiotape, yielding clues but no definitive answers as to how and why Treadwell and Huguenard were killed.
Not surprisingly, Treadwell’s story has already spawned two books (“The Grizzly Maze” by Nick Jans/Dutton and “Death in the Grizzly Maze” by Mike Lapinski/Globe-Pequot) and a documentary film (Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog/Lions Gate), all of which present Treadwell in their own unique way. Of the three, Jans does the most balanced and thorough job of chronicling the adventures of a man who was controversial in life and even more famous and controversial after death.
Failure recently spoke with Jans—a native Alaskan and experienced outdoor writer/photographer—to get the inside scoop on Treadwell and how the media’s treatment of the story may impact grizzly bears.
Do you remember what went through your mind when you first heard about Treadwell’s death?
I had just gotten back from a long trip in the Brooks Range [in Northern Alaska] and my editor at Alaska magazine called me and said, “Timothy Treadwell is dead. What should we do?” I said, “Get me out there.” It was instantaneous. I knew it was going to be a very large story.
What was your first impression of the scene of the crime?
It looked so eerily like everyplace else I had ever been [in bear country]. There was nothing ominous about it. It was akin to walking down a sidewalk and coming to a street corner and someone tells you that two people were gunned down there.
Treadwell spent a lot of time—the better part of 13 summers—in close proximity to grizzly bears. How did he manage to get so physically close to the bears on the Katmai coast without them taking offense?
First, the bears there are exceptionally tolerant. There is a high concentration of bears there and yet the good feeding areas are very, very limited. Because of the high concentrations they are tolerant of each other and that tolerance radiates outward to people. In addition, being in a National Park, those bears are protected and highly habituated to being viewed.
Another thing that’s unique about the Katmai coast is that the females will often allow people to get close, and sometimes even approach humans, because they know that people afford an island of safety against the large male bears who kill and eat cubs. Those are the big intolerant bears that won’t approach people. They are much more reticent because they are older and more intelligent. Practically all of Treadwell’s video was shot with a relatively small number of bears—five or six which were especially laid back.
What I’m saying is that you or I—if we had the desire and the time and the guts—could do what Treadwell did. A lot of the so-called magical stuff, he couldn’t have pulled that off anywhere else. If he tried that in the Brooks Range he wouldn’t have seen a bear, much less established kinship. It would have been a procession of vanishing furry butts going over the ridge or him being scared to death by sudden defensive-aggressive charges. There wouldn’t have been this tolerance. I just got back from the Katmai coast last fall and I had bears within six feet of me. I didn’t choose to. If you sit along a creek there you will have bears all around you and mostly they will ignore you completely.
But in October 2003 weren’t the Katmai bears very agitated?
Bears have their limits, no doubt about it. First of all, the berry crop failed on the Katmai coast. So a creek that might have had a dozen bears [in the past] now had like 50 bears. And Treadwell wasn’t very tuned in to the subtleties and nuances of larger natural cycles around him. He was so focused on his beloved bears that he didn’t see that this was different. It was also early October, the end of the season, which was later than he ever stayed. The bears were starting to go to their pre-denning areas and there was little food available. So they were becoming less tolerant. At the same time their desire to get on a few more calories was never stronger. They were not going to eat again until March or April. That doesn’t mean they would look at a person as food, but it does mean they were agitated and competing for food.
Did the people who knew Treadwell think it was only a matter of time before he was mauled by one of “his” bears?
I don’t know if they thought it was a matter of time but they certainly worried about him. Frankly, I think that Treadwell just ran out of luck. But I don’t think it was inevitable. It was a matter of time in the same sense as if you go hang gliding, it’s a one in ‘X’ chance that something will go wrong and you’ll be killed.
Was there anything unusual about Treadwell’s campsite—the place where Treadwell and Huguenard were killed?
One thing for sure is that they were camping at this choke point where bears passed to and from a high density feeding area. One of the main bear trails went right by his tent, a distance of less than ten feet. It was also a short distance to the creek, where he could go and sit among his bears.
Was Treadwell’s behavior self-serving?
He always said, “I love the bears. I would never harm them.” But a biologist would say, “Look, someone is going to get killed. You are going to get killed. And then the bear is going to get killed. Or this same bear that you habituated is going to run up to somebody else who doesn’t know the bear and they are going to get hurt or they are going to kill the bear because they are afraid.” He always deflected those questions. He told little stories to himself to make what he was doing okay. But we all do that: “It’s okay if I take this handful of pens from work; it’s not stealing.” It’s the same thing. It’s a disconnect and we all know it’s wrong. But those blinders were a critical part of his character. That’s what drove him to do things he shouldn’t have done.
Is it true that he didn’t observe Grizzly People’s own rules for bear safety?
Absolutely. But I think Treadwell would have said the following if he could have articulated it. In order for there to be conservation people have to care. In order for them to care they have to get something out of it, including those dramatic images of bears fishing at waterfalls. And they have to be able to go to places like that and see for themselves, at least in some limited way. Otherwise nobody cares. So the bears [on the Katmai coast] are the ambassadors for their species. Many people leave the Katmai coast believing in a much kinder, gentler bear than when they arrived.
What did Treadwell and Grizzly People do for bears? What are some of the positive things he accomplished?
I don’t think you can discount his legacy of outreach. In the winter he traveled and lectured elementary school students. He made kids care and aware of the fact there are bears out there and they aren’t necessarily the bear you see in any number of bad movies. That bear is a myth that just keeps getting perpetuated. Look at The Edge. That’s Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins and Bart the bear. It’s Jaws on land. And The Edge is a 1996 film, in a relatively enlightened age. But that’s not what bears are like at all. Every time that Bart the bear is roaring and standing up on his hind legs he is begging for a jelly donut that his trainer is holding just off camera.
In recent years Peter Benchley has expressed regret about writing “Jaws” because of the effect it had on the Great White shark’s public image. Has Treadwell damaged the public image of bears? What have been some of the negative consequences of his actions?
The most important one is that two bears got killed over him, including a large dominant male, a 28-year-old bear. It is posited in Grizzly Man that this was a bear that Treadwell may not have known. It was clearly a bear that he knew. But the story is more palatable if it was a stranger, instead of a bear that he co-existed with for years.
The other was a cute, younger bear that was one of his “pets.” He called the bear Baby Letterman and he was very identifiable because he had pretty, ivory colored claws and a certain marking on his breast. Baby Letterman wasn’t scared of people at all. He was like a dog. He’d sit next to people. But [during the rescue operation] it was pouring rain, it was getting dark, and the rescuers were carrying down pieces of bodies. Baby Letterman kept approaching and approaching and approaching and wouldn’t go away. Every time they shooed him off he came back and came closer. I don’t blame them for pulling the trigger. Treadwell put them in that position.
Another negative consequence is Bearanoia. Every time someone is killed by a bear the number of bears killed in defense of life and property goes up. There’s also the negative impression that this is the kind of thing that happens when you get close to a bear. There are so many misconceptions.
Speaking of misconceptions, can you talk about the last chapter of your book?
I wanted to fit in as much accurate, up-to-date bear information as possible—not in a dry scientific way and not in a lurid bear-chew way, which would give people the wrong impression. I did it with the idea of getting out information to the public, not with the idea of how dangerous bears are, but how dangerous they aren’t if you do the right things.
What kind of impact do you see Grizzly Man having on bear viewing and the Katmai coast?
The film is going to boost bear viewing. And it’s already quite the industry. There are 70 licensed bear viewing operations on the Katmai coast. In 2000 there were none. It wasn’t even recognized as a thing to do. It is probably going to force more people into the space that the bears occupy.
But while the good of a few bears may get sacrificed the protection is getting better and better all the time because the protection comes from all the bear viewers. No one can poach with all those eyes and with all those guides who see every bear as a valuable commodity.
After writing “The Grizzly Maze” do you feel like you’ve come as close to explaining what happened to Treadwell as anyone is going to get?
Yeah, I do. There might be a few more acorns to turn over, but unless a shooter on the knoll suddenly emerges the answer is no. I don’t think anyone coming in from the outside could do more.
What kind of feedback have you received from Treadwell advocates and Treadwell critics?
People who are vehemently opposed to Treadwell are disappointed in what I wrote. People who are his deepest and most staunch supporters are also disappointed in what I wrote. What I did, as much as I could, was to get as much information together as possible and tried to be a guide through it. But I wanted each individual to make up his or her own mind. By and large, my opinion stays out of it.
I personally think what he was doing was incredibly wrong-headed but very right-hearted. He had his heart in the right place. He wasn’t just a con. He believed in his cause but he conned people into supporting it.
How do you feel about Grizzly Man?
The Herzog film is very accurate in a number of respects, but I do question its basic premise that Treadwell was sliding into madness. Don’t get me wrong; he was a different kind of cat. And he definitely had a high level of sympathy with animals. He believed he could make personal connections [with his bears].
But I think people—both during Timothy’s lifetime and after his death—are attaching artistic spin to him or have a personal agenda. I do believe that most of the footage is taken out of context. It certainly appears that Timothy is mad. But another way of looking at it is that he is an actor playing with a video camera and he is going through these histrionics. He saw himself as an actor and he was a chameleon his whole life.