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Timothy Treadwell: the Grizzly Man

A little while ago I said I needed to say a few things about the Werner Herzog documentary about Timothy Treadwell, who was killed and eaten by a grizzly bear in Alaska. The film is full of Treadwell's footage of bears, so of course I recommend it highly. How can you resist a good bear movie? On the other hand, the film is mostly about Treadwell, and as a documentary about a rather extraordinary human being, I wasn't ready to give it the thumbs-up. After listening carefully to the arguments in Grizzly Man (and to Herzog's credit the film makes these arguments explicit) that Treadwell was a well-meaning but deeply misguided and confused man, I felt like I needed a second opinion. What I wanted was for Jon Krakauer to write the same kind of book about Treadwell as he did about that other controversial fellow who met his death in Alaska, Chris McCandless.

Sadly, there's no Timothy Treadwell book from Krakauer yet, but there is a fair bit of stuff on the internet. It ranges from the angrily contemptuous ("itís simultaneously nauseating and mind-blowing to see a human being with so little regard for his own life and so little respect for the animals he claims to love") to the respectfully deferential ("Timothy proved, like we have, that there's a lot more room for bears in our world").

Reasonable people can differ about Treadwell, but I think some of the charges against him are plainly wrong. First, the claim that Treadwell just didn't know how dangerous bears really were seems absurd. He repeatedly emphasized that what he was doing was very dangerous. He routinely pointed out that any of these bears might decide at any time to kill and eat him. When he was in a particularly self-aggrandizing state of mind, Treadwell did claim to be a "gentle warrior" with an expert knowledge of how to avoid bear attacks. If this is an exaggeration, it's not much of one. He lived among grizzlies for thirteen years without being attacked -- surely he had accumulated some kind of expertise at staying alive. At the very least, it does seem odd to credit the criticism of people who've spent far less time with bears than Treadwell did. Relative to most of us, Treadwell had all the expertise.

I also don't agree with the argument that Treadwell was actively suicidal. If he was, then so is virtually everyone who engages in high-altitude mountaineering, where the chances of dying on each climb are real and significant. Good climbers die on a regular basis trying to climb K2, but somehow we seem to want to glamorize their deaths, and not condemn them as freaks like many of us condemn Treadwell. We forgive climbers their dangerous activities on the grounds that they just love the kind of life that requires taking big risks. No reason we shouldn't do the same for Timothy Treadwell.

In my opinion, a much more successful criticism of Treadwell is that he made it more dangerous for the rest of us by conditioning bears to human beings. By actively seeking close contact with grizzlies, Treadwell helped to break down the bears' natural wariness of people that we all depend upon when we travel in Alaska. But even though this argument makes intuitive sense, I'm not sure how true it is. We're still just assuming (without any real evidence) that Mr. Chocolate or Cupcake or any of Treadwell's bears would be less reluctant to approach humans other than Treadwell. I'm not aware of any evidence for this, and until I see some, this criticism is (at most) tentative and provisional.

But all of these arguments are just beating around the bush. The real question that Grizzly Man poses is why people's reactions to Treadwell, positive or negative, are so strong and passionate. The people that criticize Treadwell seem to really loathe him, and his supporters seem to love him. Why?

At one point in the movie, Werner Herzog says bluntly that he disagrees with Treadwell's view of the universe as essentially harmonious and full of love. Herzog says instead that he believes the universe to be a place of chaos and brutal violence. Whoa! Those seem to me like fundamentally opposed and irreconcilable philosophical positions, dude. Reasonable people can disagree about what behaviors are too risky, but disagreements about the fundamentals of life can start wars. Killing unborn fetuses is wrong -- or not. Human freedom can only thrive in the free market -- or else the unregulated marketplace will eventually enslave us to the few lucky oligarchs that win the game.

Folks who subscribe to Treadwell's view of life would probably see his life as a powerful argument for their own position. For a man to live so close to powerful and dangerous grizzlies for thirteen years demonstrates that when you send out love, you get love back. Even from wild carnivores. (Sure, he was eaten by a bear, but it was an old, starving bear that Treadwell didn't know very well.)

On the other hand, folks who side with Herzog about the fundamental violence of the universe would probably think Treadwell's story proves the exact opposite. The naive nature-boy was destined to die, because bears can't love anyone and are only willing to let you alone when they're well-fed, and then only sometimes. (The fact that it took Treadwell thirteen years to be killed and eaten just means he was extraordinarily lucky.)

Of course, most of us probably believe that the universe is a kind of place somewhere between the two extremes described by Treadwell and Herzog. For us, it's obvious that both men's views are so extreme that we wonder how either of them can possibly say the things they do with a straight face. We sit in the theater, incredulous at some of Treadwell's more utopian pronouncements, and then our jaws drop open when we hear Herzog's equally extreme pronouncements from the opposite side.

Grizzly Man provokes such passionate responses because it addresses fundamental views about the universe, and it provokes passion from everyone for different reasons. Bottom line, it's not about the bears. It's about whether you're a blue-stater or a red-stater, philosophically speaking.

Ok, maybe I misspoke. This movie has bears in it, so it is very much about bears. (By definition, if there's a bear in a movie, it's a bear movie.) We all owe Treadwell thanks for his spectacular footage of grizzly bears, which is just the best I've seen. None of his detractors would ever have the guts (or the lack of sense) to get these kind of shots.

The controversy surrounding Treadwell's sanity could have a profound impact on the way human beings deal with grizzly bears. Bear enthusiast Doug Peacock has pointed out that public policy towards bears is often made on the basis of a single case of predation. If the "only safe bear is a dead or absent bear" view wins out, we might be a bit more careful about staying out of the bears' way, and/or we might be more eager to kill them wherever they still lurk. If Treadwell's story inspires us to think about bears more as fellow-travelers than as wilderness monsters, we might be more willing to protect their habitat in the lower 48 states where they still live, but we might also become more careless in bear country. The publicity surrounding this movie will almost guarantee that Treadwell's story will lead to some policy changes.

Doug Peacock's response to Timothy Treadwell's life and death seems to me to the most sane response I'm aware of. Treadwell's death isn't shocking; he did live right on top of the the bears. His research and his film footage, though, will probably turn out to be enormously helpful for understanding wild grizzlies better. It would be a shame if Treadwell's death increases the influence of those whose idea of good wilderness management means reducing all risk to a minimum by keeping people and wildlife entirely separate. A little risk is good for us. A little loss of control. As Peacock sums it up, "Timothy Treadwell was not in control: [h]e had a great run of luck that lasted more than a decade, and it ran out. In the grizzly business, it happens.