Treadwell Cared for Future of Bears

COMPASS: Points of view from the community

Joel Bennett / Anchorage Daily News / October 16, 2003


Timothy Treadwell died passionately caring for grizzly bears. The risks he took were calculated and though in the end he lost his life, it was through a personal choice not much different in scope from many others who live and work in Alaska.

For months at a time for more than 10 years, Treadwell lived among the bears of the Katmai coast. He was a keen observer who came to know many individual bears well, or as much as anyone can ever "know" a wild bear. This was because he was a unique individual who projected a nonthreatening attitude of the sort that quickly puts animals at ease. He was also willing to put in the time it takes to better understand the behavior and movements of bears at all times of their year.

I was privileged to witness many interactions between Tim and the bears during the many weeks I spent filming him over the years. I never saw Tim touch a bear or directly approach within a distance that I considered dangerous under the circumstances. Often a bear would approach him, causing him to give way or stay put, as appropriate. Amazingly, some females would leave their cubs near Tim, as if he provided some measure of safety from other bears. Tim's unusual voice intonation, body language and predictable movements were recognized by the bears in all the areas of Katmai where he spent time. It was a high degree of tolerance, if not acceptance.

I believe there are people in the world who have the ability to relate to wild animals in a special way and to some extent communicate with them. It's a concept that fits awkwardly in scientific constructs and makes biologists squirm. I count an old friend, Stan Price, the "bear man of Admiralty Island," among these gifted people. For 40 years, Stan lived in a floathouse on a salmon stream in a wild area where grizzlies were plentiful from spring through fall. Bears commonly walked all around his walkways, through his woodshed and toolshed -- even on occasion hibernating under his house. Just like Tim, he gave them names and considered them friends. Deer came inside his cabin to rest on his bunk. Marten and mink, considered arch enemies, fed from pans in his kitchen.

Stan's behavior around bears and other animals wasn't by the book, and if he had been killed by a bear, there are those who would have criticized his choices too. There is a heightened risk to living amid bears, but this man embraced it, and by his attitude and actions influenced thousands of visitors to care more about bears. The place is now officially called the Stan Price State Game Sanctuary.

Tim Treadwell's similar passion to involve himself directly in the bear's world was an intensely personal choice. Not unlike the high altitude mountain climber, the white-water river runner, the extreme skier and the Bering sea crab fisherman, added risk is often taken on. Life out near the edge can be a richer experience for many people -- and that is the way it will always be.

Timothy would be the first to say that other people should not do all the things that he did. The fact is, out on the Katmai coast no campsite is very far from bear trails, and most of them receive frequent bear visitation. If Katmai National Park or other authorities had a problem and considered Tim a hazard, they should have acted long before now to restrict him. It serves no honorable purpose to condemn a dead man after the fact.

When all is said and done, Timothy Treadwell will be remembered by those who knew him as caring for the future of bears. His particular approach was not mine and probably not yours. But he had a good heart, was fun to be around and touched thousands of people across the country with his passion and commitment. That's a pretty good legacy in my book.
And he was my friend.

Joel Bennett is a wildlife filmmaker and former member of the state Board of Game. He lives in Juneau.

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