Wildlife author killed, eaten by bears he loved (10-08-03)
KATMAI: Many had warned Treadwell that his encounters with browns were too close.
By CRAIG MEDRED
Anchorage Daily News
Published: October 8, 2021
Last Modified: August 28, 2021 at 06:22 AM
A California author and filmmaker who became famous for trekking to Alaska's remote Katmai coast to commune with brown bears has fallen victim to the teeth and claws of the wild animals he loved.
Alaska State Troopers and National Park Service officials said Timothy Treadwell, 46, and girlfriend Amie Huguenard, 37, were killed and partially eaten by a bear or bears near Kaflia Bay, about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, earlier this week.
Scientists who study Alaska brown bears said they had been warning Treadwell for years that he needed to be more careful around the huge and powerful coastal twin of the grizzly.
Treadwell's films of close-up encounters with giant bears brought him a bounty of national media attention. The fearless former drug addict from Malibu, Calif. -- who routinely eased up close to bears to chant "I love you'' in a high-pitched, sing-song voice -- was the subject of a show on the Discovery Channel and a report on "Dateline NBC." Blond, good-looking and charismatic, he appeared for interviews on David Letterman's show and "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" to talk about his bears. He even gave them names: Booble, Aunt Melissa, Mr. Chocolate, Freckles and Molly, among others.
A self-proclaimed eco-warrior, he attracted something of a cult following too. Chuck Bartlebaugh of "Be Bear Aware,'' a national bear awareness campaign, called Treadwell one of the leaders of a group of people engaged in "a trend to promote getting close to bears to show they were not dangerous.
"He kept insisting that he wanted to show that bears in thick brush aren't dangerous. The last two people killed (by bears) in Glacier National Park went off the trail into the brush. They said their goal was to find a grizzly bear so they could 'do a Timothy.' We have a trail of dead people and dead bears because of this trend that says, 'Let's show it's not dangerous.' ''
But even Treadwell knew that getting close with brown bears in thick cover was indeed dangerous. In his 1997 book "Among Grizzlies,'' he wrote of a chilling encounter with a bear in the alder thickets that surround Kaflia Lake along the outer coast of Katmai National Park and Preserve.
"This was Demon, who some experts label the '25th Grizzly,' the one that tolerates no man or bear, the one that kills without bias,'' Treadwell wrote. "I had thought Demon was going to kill me in the Grizzly Maze.''
Treadwell survived and kept coming back to the area. He would spend three to four months a summer along the Katmai coast, filming, watching and talking to the bears.
"I met him during the summer of '98 at Hallo Bay,'' said Stephen Stringham, a professor with the University of Alaska system. "At first, having read his book, I thought he was fairly foolhardy ... (but) he was more careful than the book portrayed.
"He wasn't naive. He knew there was danger."
Despite that, Treadwell refused to carry firearms or ring his campsites with an electric fence as do bear researchers in the area. And he stopped carrying bear spray for self-protection in recent years. Friends said he thought he knew the bears so well he didn't need it.
U.S. Geological Survey bear researcher Tom Smith; Sterling Miller, formerly the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's top bear authority; and others said they tried to warn the amateur naturalist that he was being far too cavalier around North America's largest and most powerful predator.
"He's the only one I've consistently had concern for,'' Smith said. "He had kind of a childlike attitude about him.''
"I told him to be much more cautious ... because every time a bear kills somebody, there is a big increase in bearanoia and bears get killed,'' Miller said. "I thought that would be a way of getting to him, and his response was 'I would be honored to end up in bear scat.' ''
A number of other people said that over the years Treadwell made similar comments to them, implying that he would prefer to die as part of a bear's meal. All said they found the comments troubling, because bears that attack people so often end up dead.
RANGERS RETRIEVE REMAINS
Katmai park rangers who went Monday to retrieve the remains of Treadwell and Huguenard -- both of whom were largely eaten -- ended up killing two bears near the couple's campsite.
Katmai superintendent Deb Liggett said she was deeply troubled by the whole episode.
"The last time I saw Timothy, I told him to be safe out there and that none of my staff would ever forgive him if they had to kill a bear because of him,'' she said. "I kind of had a heart-to-heart with him. I told him he was teaching the wrong message.
"This is unfortunate, (but) I'm not surprised. It really wasn't a matter of if; it was just a matter of when.''
What led up to the latest Alaska bear attack, as well as exactly when it happened, is unknown. The bodies of Treadwell and Huguenard, a physician's assistant from Boulder, Colo., were discovered Monday by the pilot of a Kodiak air taxi who arrived at their wilderness camp to take them back to civilization. A bear had buried the remains of both in what is known as a "food cache.''
The couple's tent was flattened as if a bear sat or stepped on it, but it had not been ripped open, even though food was inside. The condition of the tent led most knowledgeable observers to conclude the attack probably took place during the daylight hours when Treadwell and Huguenard were outside the tent, instead of at night when they would have been inside. Most of their food was found in bear-proof containers near the camp.
Officials said the camp was clean but located close to a number of bear trails. Because of the concentration of bears in the Kaflia Lake area and a shortage of good campsites, however, it is almost impossible to camp anywhere but along a bear trail there.
EXTENDED THEIR STAY
Treadwell and Huguenard, who was in the process of moving from Colorado to Malibu to live with Treadwell, had last been heard from Sunday afternoon when they used a satellite phone to talk to Jewel Palovak. Palovak is a Malibu associate of Treadwell at Grizzly People, which bills itself as "a grass-roots organization devoted to preserving bears and their wilderness habitat.''
Palovak said she talked with Treadwell about his favorite bear, a sow he called Downy. Treadwell had been worried, Palovak said, that the sow might have wandered out of the area and been killed by hunters. So instead of returning to California at the end of September as planned, Treadwell lingered at Kaflia to look for her. Palovak said Treadwell was excited to report finding the animal alive.
PILOT CALLS IN TRAGEDY
What transpired in the hours after the phone call is unknown. The Kodiak pilot who arrived at the Treadwell camp the next day was met by a charging brown bear. The bear forced the pilot for Andrew Airways back to his floatplane.
Authorities said he took off and buzzed the bear several times in an effort to drive it out of the area, but it would not leave the campsite established by Treadwell and Huguenard. When the pilot spotted the bear apparently sitting on the remains of a human, authorities said, he flew back to the lake, landed, beached his plane some distance from the camp and called for help from troopers and the Park Service.
Interviews with sources who were on the scene provided this account:
Park rangers were the first to arrive. They hiked from the beach toward a knob above the camp hoping to be able to survey the scene from a distance. They had no sooner reached the top of the knob, however, than they were charged by a large brown bear.
It was shot and killed at a distance of about 12 feet. The Andrew Air pilot, according to Bruce Bartley of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, was convinced the large boar with the ratty hide was the same animal he'd tried to buzz out of the campsite. The boar was described as an underweight, old male with rotting teeth.
Authorities do not know if it was the bear that killed Treadwell and Huguenard. They were to fly to the site on Tuesday to search the animal's stomach for human remains but were prevented from doing so by bad weather.
After shooting that bear, rangers and troopers who had by then arrived walked down to the campsite and undertook the task of gathering the remains of the two campers. While they were there, another large boar grizzly went through the campsite but largely ignored the humans.
A smaller, subadult that appeared later, however, seemed to be stalking the group. Rangers and troopers shot and killed it.
"It would have killed Timothy to know that they killed the bears,'' Palovak said, "but there was no choice in the matter."
"He was very clear that he didn't want any retaliation against a bear,'' added Roland Dixon, a wealthy bear fan who lives on a ranch outside of Fort Collins, Colo., and has been one of Treadwell's main benefactors for the past six or seven years. "He was really adamant that he didn't want any bear to suffer from any mistake that he made. His attitude was that if something like this were to happen, it would probably be his fault.''
Bartlebaugh of "Be Bear Aware'' has no doubts that Treadwell loved the animals but believes the love was misguided.
"I'm an avid bear enthusiast,'' Bartlebaugh said. "It's the same attitude that I think Timothy had, but I don't want them (the bears) to be my friends. I don't want to have a close, loving relationship. I want to be in awe of them as wild animals.''
Palovak, Treadwell's associate, and Dixon take a different view.
"I think (Timothy) would say it's the culmination of his life's work,'' Palovak said. "He always knew that he was the bear's guest and that they could terminate his stay at any time. He lived with the full knowledge of that. He died doing what he lived for.''
"He was kind of a goofy guy,'' Dixon said. "It took me a while to get in tune with him. His whole life was dedicated to being with the bears, or teaching young people about them. That's all he ever did. It was always about the bears. It was never about Timothy. He had a passion and he lived his passion. There will be no one to replace him. There's just nobody in the bear world who studies bears like Timothy did.''
Dixon acknowledged Treadwell took risks with bears but dismissed as envious those who criticized his behavior .
Daily News reporter Elizabeth Manning contributed to this story. Daily News Outdoors editor Craig Medred can be reached at [email protected]