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A Bear's Best Friend : Timothy Treadwell says a grizzly saved his life--so he is trying to return the favor. Armed with photos and lectures, he has dedicated himself to their preservation.

June 06, 1994|LESLIE SCHWARTZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Timothy Treadwell had a hangover. Again. So, as he'd done countless times before, he drove to an isolated spot in the wilderness--this time Wrangell-St. Elias National Preserve in Alaska--and hiked into the woods to dry out.

"Nothing could ever get me to stop drinking," he says now, seven years later, while downing his second Coca-Cola in as many minutes. "Some people find religion, some have a child and find a greater purpose in their lives."

But Treadwell felt doomed to live a short life of drinking, dodging barroom brawls and drying out from time to time in the woods.

Then, while trudging alone through the wild beauty of the preserve, something unexpected happened.

"All of a sudden a big, gorgeous bear, four or five hundred pounds, came crashing through the woods."

It froze at the sight of Treadwell and then, before he had the chance to back away, bounded majestically back into the woods.

"It was a fleeting moment that was just magic," he says, his expression turning dreamy.

Since then, Treadwell, 32, has become an expert on the world's largest terrestrial carnivore, the Alaskan grizzly, which can weigh 1,500 pounds and kill a person with a single swipe of its massive paw.

Each year, just as the bears emerge from their dens, scruffy, hungry and a little grumpy after a long winter of isolation, Treadwell flies to a remote region of Alaska, sets up a tent, pulls out his camera and hunkers down for weeks.

"I get on their level. You have to get as wild as them as quickly as possible. I chomp on the grass here and there and hope I'm accepted."

When he's not out pawing the earth and snapping photographs, Treadwell spends his winters in Malibu where, between waiting tables, he tirelessly promotes the preservation of the grizzlies by showing his slides to schoolchildren and adults. In April, he signed a deal with Audubon Productions and Turner Broadcasting to be featured in a film called "The Man Who Loves Bears," slated to begin production this summer.

"The bears saved my life," he says, adding without irony: "I'd be willing to die for them."

His one-room Malibu apartment is covered from wall to wall with close-range photographs of the bears--candid pictures that reflect Treadwell's intimacy with his subjects. Like a proud parent, he points them out one by one.

"That's Booble. There's Snowy. Over there, that's Aqua Bear." His sentences run into each other like a train wreck as he bounds happily through the room.

*

Environmental brochures and newspaper articles on bear poaching take up the space not used by his photographs. Once in awhile a horse from a nearby barn pops its head into the bathroom window and, without breaking stride, Treadwell feeds it an apple. Except for a few modern amenities--MTV, a small refrigerator, an answering machine--the place has the dank, cavernous feel of a bear's lair.

"There's a spirituality to this. I don't deny a God, but I don't see the standard God, the Christian God and all the Allahs. . . . When you are with a grizzly bear, up close, and you hear them breathe and you feel them move and you hear the gurgles in their stomach, you feel as if you are in the presence of a God and you must turn your life over."

Indeed, when it comes to grizzlies, Treadwell speaks with a fiery evangelism no matter who is listening. This fervor goes over particularly well with the second-graders at John L. Webster Elementary School in Malibu.

While they watch his slides, Treadwell tells his rapt audience that once, a long time ago, Malibu was filled with grizzlies.

Despite some giggles and the animated "oohs" and "ahs" as the kids pass around some bear fur, Treadwell hammers home the notion that bears are our friends, to be respected and revered.

"We never feed wild animals. No tricks or treats. Just try to be friendly. We don't want to take away their natural habits."

When one small girl with big O's for eyes asks Treadwell what he does if a bear gets mad at him, he happily replies: "I sing to it."

*

In fact, singing is the only weapon Treadwell uses to placate a bear that exhibits any of the 21 basic warning signs of anger--signs Treadwell has carefully memorized. In one close call, Treadwell tells the class, a young male approached him with his fur raised up in angry points on his back, snarling. But Treadwell managed to pacify the animal by singing a rhyme he made up on the spot.

Remarkably, during this encounter, Treadwell maintained a steady enough hand to snap his camera. The result is a series of amazing pictures showing how the angry adversary was lullabied into passivity. In the final slide, the bear sleeps peacefully only a few feet away. And Treadwell tells the class that he felt so secure he laid down beside the bear to catch of few Zs of his own.

"Timothy is quite off the wall," says Doug Peacock, a founding member of Earth First! "He's an iconoclast and an outsider. His empirical observations are as good as anyone's."

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