Saturday, September 6, 2008

Grizzly Man: A Special Kind of Crazy

If you haven't yet seen the disturbing movie "Grizzly Man" you might want to consider Netflixing it. I've been thinking about it lately because there is a new 8 part series on Animal Planet called "The Grizzly Man Diaries." I've been watching it and I think that it is a good idea to watch the movie first so you have more context. It's been interesting, sick, and sad all at once.

If you aren't familiar with the story, Timothy Treadwell was not a scientist. He was a guy who had a drug problem and then overcame it and found something he loved. That something was bears. He fell madly in love with them and came to see himself as their champion and protector. he spent 13 years in Katmai National Park, Alaska, observing and filming them. He kept a diary, sometimes in video and sometimes written. He took photos. The problem was, he saw himself as some sort of Jeff Corwin, absent the education of course, and also some sort of bear survivor and extra special person. He clearly had a variety of mental problems and these come through much more in the movie than the TV series so far. It can be hard to watch and listen to him as he talks about how great he is and how one with the bears.

Eventually Treadwell acquired a girlfriend and she was camping with him in Katmai in 2003 when tragedy struck and they were killed and consumed, by bears. If you want the details of what happened, they are on this website. There is a "fake" audio of the attack floating around but it is a hoax. The actual audio - and there is one - has not and will not be released and it supposedly pretty darn awful because there is a ton of screaming, as one might imagine. It was not the bear's fault. In fact, the true miracle is just how much Treadwell got away with BEFORE he got killed. Thirteen YEARS of walking up to bears, petting them, etc. and NO PROBLEM. Death was inevitable with the kinds of stupid risks he took - the amazing thing is just how often the bears turned away or tolerated him or expressed kindness and acceptance.

I suppose part of why I find Treadwell hard to watch is that I can so well understand the pull he had towards animals. It's just that he didn't have the inner strength or perspective to step back and see the big picture sometimes. For example, he set his tent next to a fox den and he habituated foxes. He named the first fox Timothy after himself. He loved walking through the park, a fox on his heels. And who wouldn't? I would LOVE to cuddle baby kits as he did, to tame wild foxes and to hang out with them and be their friends. It would be FANTASTIC and I get why he was drawn to do that. The problem is, it's awful for the foxes because not all people can be trusted. To be wild and remain safe, the foxes have to fear people - the reality is that there is a very severe risk that if the foxes were not afraid of people, they could be shot, assumed rabid or otherwise "not acting normal" and the best thing for them is NOT to get socialized. But I do get why he did it.

Another thing I completely understand is his interference. He views the animals as his friends and he cannot stand to see them harmed so he will often interfere. He knows it is wrong. He knows that he is not really studying natural behavior if he interferes and alters that behavior. But he can't help himself - he consistently messes with nature, intervenes, and in the process, takes risks that seem insane - any may well be - but which he sees as necessary. For example, he might charge and try to scare off a bear being aggressive to one of his "friend" bears. Crazy? Yeah, but in a way I have to admit I totally understand.

I would take nearly any risk to help a wild creature in need, and I have come close to doing things just about as dumb. In Africa when I see an animal in a snare or trap or with a thorn or infection, it is usually only the guide that keeps me from trying to help. Once in my own backyard, I was really stupid and never even cared. Callie was at the back yard barking like mad her "ALERT!!! INTRUDER!!!!" bark. Two stray male un-neutered pit bulls were in the back yard. I didn't let Callie and Simon out to chase them off as I would afraid they would get bit. But the cats were out and I had to protect them so I went out back. One of the pits lunged for Lizzie and actually knocked her off a fence. She was literally falling into its jaws and somehow I managed to tackle the pit around the neck and Lizzie managed to vault over the fence again, seeming to defy gravity in the process. I threw myself at the pits until I had them leashed and I took them in to the Humane Society where I was met with sheer shock. "Why didn't you call animal control?" the woman asked. "Why would you ever risk doing this yourself?" Honestly, I never thought one second about it - Lizzie was in trouble and I was not about to let her get hurt. If I myself got horribly harmed in the process I would not have cared. Is it really so different to charge at a grizzly bear to protect one you love? I think not, so I can't really fault Treadwell for this even though I know rationally it makes no sense.

He does develop a complex thinking he is the only one who cares or who can help the bears, and he does get a huge ego and talk on tape about how much BBC or whatever media will pay him. He seems to think he knows what he is talking about even though he has only read things about the animals from books. Not that he didn't learn a lot about them - but not like he was a true authority to anything other than his own observations either. That I can't relate to, but I do understand how he could fall so in love and end up feeling alone, like he was the only one who cared. He was paranoid, and he didn't follow the rules of the park or behave rationally.

Treadwell sees hard things - nature. Animals killing other animals. Natural, but awfully hard when you get attached. He takes sides. Again, he is so NOT a scientist, but a guy who is a bit off his rocker, editorializing and interacting and changing outcomes and not doing what is truly best for the animals sometimes. His heart was in the right place but he failed to think things through.

He saw other people and tourists as intruders and he did not like them. I can relate to that too. I can also see how wildlife tourism promotes wildlife conservation, though, and see that there is still enough space to get away from people if you try, thank goodness. But it's eerie to me that I can understand this aspect of him. Is he just someone like me gone way too far?

After all, wouldn't I love nothing more than to pet a wild grizzly, to have it smell my hand, to sit a few feet from cubs? To camp next to a fox den? Any wildlife interaction I LOVE. But, I am too careful, and too worried about the long term effects on the animals. I never feed wild animals as they can't afford to become dependent on humans. I try NOT to habituate them and to maintain a respectful distance at all times. But, my actions always fight against my desires to get close. I think Treadwell was a special kind of crazy - a lot of which I can actually see or feel shadows of if I try. Some aspects of him - his extreme depression, paranoia, addiction, egotism, I can't relate to at all, but his way of soothing himself - getting lost in nature, I completely get.

I don't know that Animal Planet should show the tapes he made, but the footage IS amazing, and the stories are good. You just have to keep in mind - he was nuts. He paid the ultimate price, and what would have been saddest of all to him was they killed the bear that ate him. He would not have wanted that. He truly would have been okay with the bear continuing to live. And I get that too. When you put yourself out there in nature, if it gets you, it's your own fault.


Grace said...

Love the post.

Would you mind contacting me? I'm with


Roe said...

I agree that if you want to study an animal in nature objectively then you shouldn't allow yourself to be known to that animal. The idea of man interfering with nature though is a ludicrous thought spawned by several thousand years of arrogance. Man is a part of nature and nothing we do can "interfere" with nature. If we help the planet grow and promote different species and live in harmony with nature that is natural. If we nuke every visible living animal and turn the earth into a unlivable rock that too is natural. Now obviously one of these tracks is more desirable than the other but I was just trying to illustrate that we are just another species on this planet and all of our actions are natural.

Esmae said...

Under such a broad definition, "natural" becomes a meaningless term. I meant it in the sense that when man deliberately alters what we find in the natural world. Of course, we unintentionally alter things all the time or take actions without understanding the consequences. In the Treadwell context, he moves rocks to make a path upstream for some Salmon. I'm not saying it's bad or not understandable, but absent that action things would turn out differently. All the time he is interfering with the otherwise natural course of events, and his observations are skewed as the bears and other animals know he is there. His observations are still very interesting but it's disturbing he mistakes them for science.

Roe said...

What I was saying is that it is logically impossible for man to interfere in nature because he is part of nature. Keep in mind that this does not justify doing horrible things to plants and animals that we rely on, but it should be a required shift in our thinking. Building dams and freeway's are just as natural as the tunnels that ants build, though as we've seen much more harmful to the overall ecosystem.

Piazza said...

I think this post is a very balanced fair and eloquent commentary on Treadwell. I think he was a fascinating individual who did things that many people could love and hate. Nature can have many meanings so I can see how man can not interfere with nature being a part of it, but by the same token I can see how man could also interfere and completely overwhelm the natural world. The world truly isn't a logical place so shifting your thinking isn't necessary the only requirement should be that people actually think. We would be so much better off if people did