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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Bear "Expert" Harms Bears

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., March 4, 2006.)
Watching the movie "Grizzly Man" is like
watching an episode of "Mr. Rogers Visits
a Neighborhood of Man-Eating Bears."
Imagine spending your summers on the Alaska Peninsula, inside a federally protected reserve that is part of Katmai National Park and in the highest concentration of Alaskan brown bears anywhere. That's what Timothy Treadwell did. Imagine doing research on these largest land predators on earth. That's NOT what Treadwell did.

By now many have see the movie about Treadwell called "Grizzly Man" and know that he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by bears.

A self-described brown bear expert from Malibu, California, Treadwell spent 13 summers in Katmai. The pretense was that he was studying and protecting bears. But he produced no research, no biological studies, no scientific or behavioral insights into bears. Nor did he do anything to protect the bears. Hunting is not permitted in the area, and he apparently had no encounters with poachers or anyone wanting to harm the great coastal subspecies of the grizzly bear.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Treadwell is that he was a competent photographer and videographer. Thanks to that fact, we have a visual record of his endeavors. It shows him speaking to animals in a soft falsetto voice while exploiting them for his own fame. Watching the movie "Grizzly Man" is like watching an episode of "Mr. Rogers Visits a Neighborhood of Man-Eating Bears."

"Grizzly Man" drips with sentimentality. Treadwell cries while talking to a fox. He gushes over a dead bumblebee saying. "I loved that bee!" He emits emotional prattle over bear poop. He, not the animals, is the central character.

He gave pet names to the animals. He called foxes "Spirit" and "Ghost," and bears "Mr. Chocolate," "Mickey," and "Aunt Melissa" – anthropomorphizing them in a way that seems almost to belittle them. Nothing he did elevated these animals as he pretended; rather, he reduced them to mere instruments of his own narcissistic ambitions to achieve celebrity status based on some sort of artificial unity with wild animals.

Habituating wild animals to human contact is illegal in many states, for good reason. Creating an artificial bond between animal and man fosters an unnatural dependency, destroys the animal's natural fear, and increases the animal's vulnerability. It is a practice that should violate the ethical code of conservative and liberal alike.

He wrote in a letter that he wanted in some strange sense to "mutate" into a wild animal, but instead he made the animals more like his own misguided and pathetic self.

During his time with the bears, the claim is made that no bears were poached in Katmai National Park. But Katmai is a big area, about 4.7 million acres. Treadwell could not have monitored more than a few hundred. In no way could his presence have prevented poaching in the vast park.

During the year after his death, his friends claim 6 bears were poached in Katmai -- simply because the remains of 6 bears were found and assumed to have been killed by poachers. But several likely reasons for their deaths are ignored. Brown bears are known to cannibalize their own kind. Male bears commonly kill the young of lactating females. And it is not unusual for brown bears to be mortally injured while competing for breeding rights. In each of the 6 cases, one of these causes of death is a probability -- yet none of them are mentioned. They don't fit the story line.

It is not likely that Treadwell saved even one bear, and it is true that he himself caused the death of at least two. One October evening, as winter approached and food became scarce, two bears killed and ate Treadwell and his girlfriend. A video camera, with lens cap on, recorded audio of the attack. After the scene was discovered, the bears were found and destroyed. Treadwell knew that was what would happen.

Timothy Treadwell was a victim of his own arrogance and the fantasy that the bears needed someone to protect them from poachers. If poachers were a threat, and it's doubtful that they were, the bears are now more vulnerable. It was Treadwell who was a threat because he habituated the bears to human presence. He was not protecting bears. He was abusing them. He was disrespecting them. He was robbing them of their nobility. He may have loved the bears, but his love was misguided at best, and injurious to the bears for sure. Treadwell's life is a lesson in how NOT to treat wild animals.

One person interviewed for "Grizzly Man" said, "I think he had lost sight of what was really going on." Those are truer words than any words Treadwell spoke.


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