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The Nation

Fearless Grizzly Activist Tempted Fate -- and Lost

Timothy Treadwell's fatal mauling was no surprise to some who say he lived recklessly.

October 13, 2003|Steve Hymon and Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writers

By his own account, Timothy Treadwell barely survived his first summer camping in Alaska's wilderness.

He had no idea how to pitch a tent, stay dry or cook for himself. He brought a sleeping bag several sizes too small.

In those early years, Treadwell looked like what he was: a shaggy blond beach bum from Malibu. But he had a thing for grizzly bears.

Treadwell, 46, persevered and spent the last 13 summers living among the immense creatures. Friends took to comparing him to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

The object of Treadwell's affections turned on him last Sunday, when he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, 37, were mauled to death by an old male bear outside their tent in Katmai National Park in Alaska.

Treadwell's story was a variation on a classic American tale. Battered by an aimless life in Southern California and his body ravaged by drugs, he saw the Alaskan wilderness as his tonic.

There, Treadwell discovered a sense of purpose: He would live with and protect grizzlies from poachers. His fearlessness earned him fame. He wrote a book and appeared on national television programs.

He also had many critics, who say he broke park rules, harassed wildlife and believed wrongly that he had a spiritual kinship with the bears. They had long predicted his demise if he didn't change his ways.

Treadwell was undeterred. When a Times reporter asked him in 1994 if he was afraid of the bears, his answer was: "They wouldn't hurt me."

"He was out there for 13 years, and it was probably a combination of skill and luck, and the luck ran out," said Louisa Willcox, a friend of Treadwell's and director of the Wild Bears Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"But he also had a magic with the bears. There isn't anything else to explain it with.... He was a bear whisperer."

*

Whether or not Timothy Treadwell had a special connection with the bears is doubted by experts, who say the animals merely tolerated his presence, and he contributed little to the body of knowledge about them. His friends say he taught more people around the world about the bears than any serious researcher ever could.

Treadwell wasn't the only person watching grizzlies in Alaska. In Katmai National Park and Preserve -- one of his favorite stomping grounds -- 69 commercial operators offer bear-viewing excursions, according to park records.

The park, like much of Alaska, has a lot of bears. State wildlife officials estimate that there are 30,000 to 40,000 grizzlies, also known as brown bears, living in Alaska, compared to a population of 1,000 to 1,400 mostly in the northern Rockies in the contiguous United States.

What set Treadwell apart was his insistence on camping near the bears and wanting to interact with them.

Officials at Katmai National Park say they have nothing against people hiking or camping in bear country, but they worried that Treadwell had crossed the line.

Treadwell was born in New York in 1957 as Timothy Dexter, the third of five children. As an adult, he changed his name to Treadwell, from his mother's side of the family. He liked the alliteration of it, he told friends.

After high school, Treadwell left for Southern California and landed in Long Beach, eventually working in restaurants. He spent much of his time indulging in booze and drugs.

The inevitable overdose -- on heroin and cocaine -- came in the late 1980s, according to his book "Among Grizzlies." After he left the hospital, at the urging of a friend, he decided to go to Alaska and watch bears. He had never spent time around bears, but later wrote that they had always fascinated him.

His early attempts at camping were, at times, almost comical. He wrote that he often was cold, hungry and tormented by insects. The first time he saw a grizzly, it immediately ran away. Treadwell later said he was sad that any bear would find him a threat.

Mark Emery, a wildlife filmmaker and outdoor guide, first saw Treadwell from the air in the early 1990s. Emery, who splits his time between Ocala, Fla., and Alaska, was on a charter flight over Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park with a film crew from National Geographic. They looked down and saw Treadwell desperately waving his arms.

"He said he wanted to get out of there right away because the bears had been in his camp," Emery said. "I took a picture of him holding a water jug that was crushed by a bear. He said he was learning to be around bears."

Treadwell was camping near the coast and was nearly out of water -- although a freshwater stream was nearby, Emery said. At Treadwell's request, the film crew contacted a charter service to come pick him up.

A staple character in Treadwell's slide shows came from one of his misadventures. This was Timmy the Fox, who Treadwell said brought him fish to eat after he had run out of food while camping one year. Treadwell eventually taught the fox to fetch tennis balls and allowed Timmy to sleep inside his tent.

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