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Love of nature that doesn't love back

Animal Planet's 'Grizzly Man Diaries,' on Timothy Treadwell, killed in a bear attack, raises deep questions.

August 29, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

It isn't often you can say that a show on Animal Planet follows a great literary tradition, but "The Grizzly Man Diaries," which follows the adventures of , echoes voices as disparate as Thoreau, Yeats and even Sam Gribley of "My Side of the Mountain." The desire to forsake the drudgery and pressures of civilization for the noble simplicity of the natural world has always tempted and tormented certain people.

But unlike Yeats, who never did arise and go to Innisfree, Treadwell did actually break the bounds of society and for 13 summers lived virtually alone among the grizzlies in Alaska's Katmai National Park -- that is, until he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed in 2003 by a grizzly attack.

Treadwell's death got a lot of attention, partly because he had been a vocal, self-pronounced protector of the bears (despite the fact that the land he camped on was a federal reserve) and partly because his final minutes were recorded on the audio portion of a videotape. Although, mercifully, the tape was never released publicly -- it cannot be found on YouTube, thank heavens -- the sheer awfulness of its existence provided such a coda to Treadwell's life that many who never heard of him suddenly began praising or condemning his actions.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog was moved to document Treadwell's life; his award-winning documentary "Grizzly Man" portrayed a self-aggrandizing, troubled man who, unable to find a place for himself in society, created an alternative existence for himself among the bears.

While "Grizzly Man" is a conscious attempt by Herzog to unravel Treadwell's psyche, "The Grizzly Man Diaries" simply presents excerpts of the 100 hours of videotape Treadwell shot of the bears and himself during his 13 summers in Alaska. The footage is oftentimes astonishing, the bears ferociously beautiful, but still the show is less a treatise on grizzly habit than it is an exploration of a man trying to find a solid center for himself. With his penchant for baby talk and his Prince Valiant haircut, Treadwell seems an unlikely mountain man. Unlike, say, Steve Irwin, another animal activist who died among the creatures he studied, Treadwell was not a trained scientist or naturalist or formal educator; in "Grizzly Man" it was revealed that he was, among other things, a failed actor who, after spiraling down into drugs and alcohol, found his salvation through the bears.

The film's producers do not shy away from the controversy that surrounded Treadwell. The first episodes tackle the main issue head-on -- namely, was his relationship with the bears real or imagined? An early show also contains an act of grizzly bear brutality that clearly shakes Treadwell and forces even him to question what they must think of him and what place he occupies in their world.

For a viewer raised on the more treacly "Born Free" and "Grizzly Adams," "The Grizzly Man Diaries" is a bracing, if unsettling, reminder that when one leaves civilization one should not expect to find . . . civilization. If the bears seem to accept Treadwell's presence as nonthreatening and, so, not worthy of attack, that is all they do. Any fondness or friendship seems strictly one-sided, brought to the wilderness by a man who could neither live within the confines of human society nor truly outside of it. It is both heartbreaking and revelatory to watch.

Animal Planet has made its name on the love and fascination humans have for animals, and it is impossible to walk away from "The Grizzly Man Diaries" without thinking about the place of humans in the natural world, of how we impose our definitions of love and friendship on creatures who may not be able to reciprocate and why we need to do so at all.

Pretty heavy stuff, not to mention some really great shots of grizzly bears.




'The Grizzly Man Diaries'

Where: Animal Planet

When: 9 and 9:30 tonight

Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)

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