Grizzly makes grisly

Posted: Aug 28, 2005 12:00 AM

The goal of Grizzly People, its website explains, is "to elevate the grizzly to the kindred state of the whale and dolphin through supportive education in the hopes that humans will learn to live in peace with the bear, wilderness and fellow humans."

 But, as Werner Herzog's latest documentary, "Grizzly Man," demonstrates, the best way for man to live at peace with the bear is to not romanticize grizzlies and to give them a wide berth.

 Alas, Grizzly People founder Timothy Treadwell had Disney-fied the object of his affection. So, as Herzog chronicles, the 46-year-old bear activist and his 37-year-old girlfriend were mauled and eaten by an Alaskan grizzly in October 2003.

 But first, Treadwell produced some 100 hours of tape starring -- ta da -- him, talking about bears, or talking to bears, or talking about how much he loved bears and how he knew to be dominant around bears. He gave them names like Tabitha, Melissa and Mickey, and he frequently told them, "I love you." He recorded countless close-ups of himself discussing the dangers of living among the grizzlies.

 While some think Treadwell had a death wish, he claimed that he would not be hurt, because he had a special understanding of grizzlies and he respected them. His fate illustrates the dark side of the modern romanticization of the wild.

 Fact is, Treadwell didn't understand grizzlies and he didn't respect them. As an Alaskan pilot told Herzog, Treadwell seemed to view grizzlies as if they were "people wearing bear costumes."

 If Treadwell had respected bears, he would have kept a safe distance -- try 100 yards -- from them. He also would have treated them like predators, not buddies. Instead, he recorded himself patting bears, wading into water with a fishing grizzly and talking to the bears. "Go back," he commanded, as if they understood him.

 Treadwell liked to style himself as an animal lover, but I think he was more smitten with himself than with the bears. Treadwell also exhibited some of the misanthropy endemic among the more radical animal-rights activists and eco-activists. Just as a prominent PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) leader announced it was inevitable that an activist would blow up research laboratories and fast-food outlets, Treadwell ranted against the "losers" who work for the National Park Service. Why? Because they had rules designed to protect wildlife and people.

 Herzog reveals that Treadwell only taped his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, on camera three times, and her face is clearly visible in only one shot. In part, she was invisible because Treadwell wanted to promote a fiction -- that he lived alone in communion with the grizzlies. But it also seems that Treadwell didn't want any other voices competing with his narcissistic monologue.

 Her lack of voice haunts "Grizzly Man." Treadwell talks endlessly about how sensitive he is, yet she remains voiceless, faceless -- and her lack of presence makes you wonder if this self-styled animal lover had an ounce of humanity in him.

 Then there is Treadwell's wrongheaded conceit that he was there to "protect" the grizzlies. They didn't need his protection. It was this delusion that brought death upon the grizzlies. Rangers shot the bear that ate the couple in the first known bear killings of humans at Alaska's Katmai National Park, as well as another bear that seemed to be stalking them.

 How different those real bears were from the Disney version in Treadwell's mind. It's odd. Treadwell did have a visible bond with many of the park's foxes. But the bears he videotaped seemed particularly uninterested in bonding with a blonde. They were interested, however, in meals to fatten up for hibernation.

 I have seen grizzlies from a safe distance. They are beautiful because they are powerful predators. They are only hurt by visitors who do not respect them and keep their distance.

 As Chuck Bartlebaugh, executive director of the Center for Wildlife Information, told National Geographic News, "Two years ago, we counted 200 people standing within five feet of grizzly bears in Yellowstone. Those bears are now dead."

 Stupidity kills. Treadwell was so filled with his own conceit he didn't care who got hurt. He told friends that if he died with the bears, he would have died as he wanted to.

 He'd probably shrug about the two dead bears and say he would not have wanted them to die. To him, only one thing mattered -- the words that belong on the tombstone of every dangerous zealot: He meant well.