May 22 • 05:50 AM

Obsessed with some guy's 'fatal obsession'

October 03, 2007
Ever hear of Timothy Treadwell?

He's the guy that made super-national headlines four years ago after he and his girlfriend were eaten by one or more brown grizzly bears in Katmai National Park in Alaska. Treadwell, who was somewhat used to media attention (some argue that was his real mission), was considered something of a "bear whisperer" by some animal activists and Hollywood celebrities for what seemed to be an uncanny ability to interact and comingle with bears. Bear experts and wildlife biologists, however, scoffed at any claims that Treadwell possessed some sort of power over the fierce creatures and believed some of his exploits (getting within an arms' length and closer to the massive creatures) endangered both humans and bears.

As it turns out, the biologists were right. Treadwell and his companion became a last supper for two of the bears he loved and professed to protect. A 28-year-old male and a 3-year-old subadult male were killed by Alaska State Troopers and park officials while they were investigating Treadwell's broken up campsite and suspecting that he and his girlfriend were dead. What's worse, investigators later discovered six minutes of audio tape that captured the entire horrific event. No one knows what triggered the camera to record (audio only recorded because the lens cap was still on the camera).

When the story first broke, both supporters and detractors came out at full steam—it was a definite love/hate thing.

Treadwell was not a wildlife biologist. He was not a trained bear expert. He was a guy who'd had some problems with drinking and drugs and who said he got his life back when he went into the Alaskan "wilds" and entered the world of bears.

Treadwell was raised in a middle class family, earned a diving scholarship to college but dropped out after a back injury, was tired of his "regular" life and set out to California to make it big in television or films. Of course that meant he was a waiter and a bartender and a bit of a hothead who was always ready to fight until a Vietnam vet got ahold of him and turned him onto Alaska.

People hate that. They also hate that he made up things about himself like he was born in Australia and he was an orphan who had no family. People really hate that.

Other people love that he had the grit to spend 13 long summers in the middle of nowhere in extremely harsh conditions—primitive, actually—and come away with some breathtaking photos and video of wild bears doing their thing in nature.

Some people love that he committed his entire being to "protecting" the bears from poachers, even though Katmai National Park is a national preserve—hunting is banned. Weapons are banned. This is not to say that poaching doesn't occur, it just hadn't occurred in Katmai in more than 20 years (seven of which were before Treadwell even got there).

The love/hate thing just intrigued me. I'll admit I felt some people were being a little bit hard on the guy. After all, he was in the middle of a Disney deal. He'd written a book, been on the David Letterman show and on Dateline NBC. He obviously wasn't that bad a guy. Until the worst happened.

I read everything I could get my hands on about the story—which was a lot of the same stuff thanks to the AP wires. 'Outdoor Magazine' had an excellent indepth piece, and later outdoor writers Nick Jans and Mike Lapinski each wrote full length books. Later still, German documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog came out with "Grizzly Man" which made a surprising but brief (two day appearance) in Imlay City. Of course I was among the three people in the audience (one other was a friend I'd convinced just had to see it.) There's another, counter film out called 'Fatal Obsession' narrated by wildlife biologist Larry Van Daele, who appears in Herzog's fim as well.

Anyhow, this weekend will mark the fourth anniversary of the tragedy and I've been thinking a lot about Treadwell and his story. It wasn't until Herzog's film where he's actually the center of the story (Herzog pieces Treadwell's footage into interviews, etc. that happened after he was killed) that I realized something very important about the story and perhaps why it is so intriguing. As corny as parts of Herzog's film are, I thought it was a pretty fair observation.

To this day, though, I'll never understand why Steve Irwin (who was killed doing something similar to Treadwell) was and is exalted, praised and credited with creating a legacy while Treadwell has been the butt of jokes, demeaned, reviled and perhaps, as he once said of "his bears" misunderstood.

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