on April 14, 2013
After viewing GRIZZLY MAN, I am left with a haunting sense of perplexity that such a scenario was ever allowed to unfold.
From a superficial and naïve perspective, Timothy Treadwell is perceived as an environmental hero who dedicated the last years of his life to filming Alaskan brown bears up-close in the Katmai nature preserve, and educating the public about these amazing creatures.
Admittedly, Treadwell had a propensity for cinematography, and he managed to capture some incredible moments on film. (His footage of two alpha male grizzlies fighting for mating rights is, perhaps, the best footage of this kind that I have ever seen).
However, as we learn more about Timothy Treadwell and the tragedy that took place in October 2003, legitimate questions are raised concerning the appropriateness of his activities in the nature preserve. Additionally, I would argue that mass media outlets (e.g.,The Late Show with David Letterman, The Rosie O' Donnell Show, Dateline NBC, People magazine, et al), and the National Park Service, were also culpable in this avoidable tragedy - the former via rewarding Treadwell with national exposure for his reckless behavior, the latter through largely turning a blind eye to several years of wanton violation of park regulations by Treadwell.
Truth be told, Treadwell was a "damaged" individual; he was a college drop out and a failed actor, he was socially awkward with women, and he struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. During a nadir in his life, Treadwell made a capricious motorcycle trip up to the Katmai nature preserve in Alaska where, as explained by his ex-girlfriend Jewel Palovak, he had a kind of "religious" experience in the bear sanctuary; he subsequently gave up alcohol and narcotics, and found his calling as an "eco-warrior" for the bears.
While I do not doubt that Treadwell believed that he had good intentions, in reality it seems that his experience in the nature preserve was more about his own self aggrandizement than the bears and foxes for whom he expressed his unfettered love and allegiance.
In GRIZZLY MAN, director Werner Herzog presents highlights from the 100+ hours of footage that was meticulously shot by Treadwell, (the majority of which includes Treadwell giving narration in the foreground). It is here that we see Treadwell reviving his role as an actor, and wearing multiple bandannas, hats, sunglasses, etc., to create a specific "look" for the camera.
It is also through this footage that we see Treadwell's bizarre, childlike behavior toward the animals, attempting to treat them as if they were domesticated pets; on multiple occasions we see him petting foxes as if they were house cats, invading the personal space of the bears and touching them, speaking to the animals in a falsetto voice, telling them that he loves them, personifying them with individual names, etc.
While some of this behavior on the part of Treadwell does result in rather amazing film footage, the fact remains that habituating these wild animals to such direct human contact is detrimental to the natural instincts of these animals. (One of Treadell's exaggerated and paranoid delusions was that he needed to protect the animals from the ever-present danger of poaching; if there actually had been a poaching issue [which in reality was almost non-existent in the Katmai nature preserve], Treadwell's "Doolittle-esce" behavior toward the animals would have only served to facilitate such an issue).
Herzog underscores the aforementioned sentiment in his documentary through his interview with Alutiiq Museum Director Sven Haakanson Jr.
Haakanson, an Aleutian native, states that Treadwell's obtrusive interaction with the bears was in contrast with an indigenous/naturalist perspective of proper comportment. As state by Haakanson, "[Treadwell] tried to be a bear. He tried to act like a bear, and for us on the island, you don't do that. You don't invade on their territory... [W]hen you habituate bears to humans, they think that all humans are safe... If I look at it from my culture, Timothy Treadwell crossed a boundary that we have lived with for 7000 years. It's an unspoken boundary, an unknown boundary. But when we know we've crossed it, we pay the price."
Additionally, through segments of Herzog's interview with Jewel Palovak, we come to understand that Treadwell suffered from extreme emotional swings for which he had been prescribed anti-depression medication. However, Treadwell eventually stopped taking his medication because, as stated by Palovak, "he said 'I had to stop... I can't have the middle grounds. I have to have the highs and the lows. It's part of my life, it's part of my personality.'" These "highs and lows" are overtly recorded in Treadwell's film footage. We witness a spectrum of emotions on the part of Treadwell, ranging from childlike, playful ecstasy with foxes, to vitriolic, profane tirades against the National Park Service; it is clear that Treadwell had unchecked, emotional issues that, at times, may have clouded his sense of rational thinking.
It is also noteworthy to point out how much Treadwell seemed to relish in continually mentioning (rather graphically) the extreme dangerousness of his activities in the bear preserve; for all intents and purposes, he seemed to replace one dangerous, thrill seeking activity (i.e., alcohol and heroin addiction) with another that was exponentially suicidal. While not explicitly stating that Treadwell intended to be killed by bears in the preserve, Herzog highlights a couple of moments that make this a plausible assertion: The first, being a letter written by Treadwell to an ecologist friend, indicating that his work would be taken more seriously if he was killed. The second one being Treadwell's abrupt return in October 2003 to the nature preserve -- occuring after a dispute with an Alaskan airlines employee regarding the validity of his return ticket to California. After 13 seasons in the sanctuary, Treadwell (who normally did not camp in Katmai into October) was fully aware that this was the most dangerous period of time to interact with bears in the preserve. In one of the final film segments made by Treadwell before his death, he introduces us to a heretofore unknown bear that he has named "Ollie". By Treadwell's account, Ollie is an older, underfed, and aggressive bear that he has just met within the last couple of days. Moreover, he further asserts that while the majority of the bears with which he has a rapport have already left the area to go into hibernation, Ollie is still desperately searching for food. Treadwell, in an almost nonchalant tone, explains that this a very dangerous scenario in which a bear may be tempted to attack a human being. In what would be a haunting harbinger of things to come, Treadwell says to the camera, "Could Ollie, the big old bear, possibly kill and eat Timothy Treadwell? ... I think if you are weak around him, you’re going to go down his gullet.”
The most shameful part of this tragedy was the fact that Treadwell allowed his then girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, to be with him on his reckless endeavor; it was inexcusable on the part of Treadwell to allow anyone to join him in his madness and, at this point, there should have been an intervention. Unfortunately, Huguenard placed her trust into the fallacy that Treadwell knew what the was doing, and this mistake let to her demise.
Interestingly, Tredwell's camera recorded 6 minutes of audio-only footage of the fatal bear attack. Although the recording is not played for the viewing audience, we are given details of the recording via an interview with the coroner who performed the autopsies on Treadwell and Huguenard. In a later segment of the film, we also watch as director Herzog listens to the death recording through headphones. By all accounts, this is a nightmarish recording that will never be released to the general public. I respect the decision not to release the recording. However, I fully admit that there is a tiny, macabre corner of my mind that wants to listen to it.
So, in recap... Timothy Treadwell - a man who lacked any formal ecological training, who struggled with alcohol and substance abuse issues, who (in all likelihood) suffered from bipolar disorder, and who violated national park regulations with impunity - was unable to perceive any sense of impropriety vis-a-vis his obtrusive behavior, for 13 seasons, in the bear sanctuary at Katmai national park. Yet, as shown in his film footage, this did not stop Treadwell from irrationally demonizing tourists, and other visitors, who occasionally came to the Katmai preserve. As stated by Herzog, "for Treadwell, they were just intruders. An encroaching threat upon what he considered his Eden."
However, true to form for the mass media, shows such as Dateline NBC, and The Late Show with David Lettterman invited Treadwell onto their shows as a novelity interest piece... never actually exploring the possibility that they were exploiting and exacerbating a potentially horrible situation. It is important to note that, at the behest of Letterman, a segment of his interview with Tredwell, that had been included in the theatrical release of GRIZZLY MAN, was omitted from the DVD version the film. In the omitted segment, Letterman asked Treadwell the (now prophetic) question, "is it going to happen that we read a news item one day that you have been eaten by one of these bears?" According to the IMDb FAQ page for GRIZZLY MAN, Letterman believed that it was inappropriate to utilize the segment of his comedic interview in the context of a film about Treadwell's horrific demise. However, I tend to wonder if Letterman was making a calculated decision to distance himself from what could properly be perceived as serious faux pas for being directly involved with raising Treadwell to celebrity status which, in turn, emboldened Treadwell in his fatally misguided activities.
Moreover, it would seem that Treadwell's rising celebrity status made have played a role in the hesitancy on the part of the National Park Service to fully enforce regulations that he was blatantly disregarding. According to Herzog, several reasonable regulations (e.g., minimum distances to be kept between animals and people, permanent camping restrictions, et al) were, despite warnings, being violated annually by Treadwell. Had they wanted to, the Park Service probably could have banned Treadwell from the park, (long before the tragedy took place), and subsequently have him arrested for trespassing if he did not comply with the ban. Worst case scenario, they could even have tracked and stopped him at the airport - not even letting him get anywhere near the bear sanctuary; had these measures been put into effect, Treadwell, Huguenard, and two bears (involved in the deaths, and subsequently shot by the Park Service) would most likely still be alive today.
GRIZZLY MAN is an intriguing documentary. Beyond the tragedy of Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, the film has opened my mind to ethical questions associated with the "extreme wildlife footage" that has been popularized over the last 25 years, and the role of the mass media that has propagated this form of entertainment.
Regardless of one's view of Timothy Treadwell and his activities, I recommend viewing this film.