A bear-faced liar

Living among Alaska's grizzly bears, Timothy Treadwell became celebrated as a devoted conservationist. But when his mauled remains were discovered, the legend began to unravel. As a new film documents his years in the wilderness, John Hiscock looks at a complex, compelling man

Saturday 07 January 2006 01:00 GMT

In environmental circles, Tim Treadwell was something of a legend. A self-proclaimed eco-warrior, he devoted the past 13 years of his life to documenting the world of grizzly bears in Alaska and attempting to protect them from hunters and poachers. He gloried in his nickname of "the bear whisperer" and attracted widespread attention when he told the US talk- show host David Letterman that ferocious grizzlies were really nothing more than big "party animals". Friends compared him to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey and celebrities, such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Pierce Brosnan, offered their support to Grizzly People, a non-profit group he formed devoted to educating people about bears.

But when Treadwell, 46, and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, 37, were killed by a grizzly outside their tent in Katmai National Park, Alaska, in October 2003, the legend began to unravel. Critics said he broke park rules and wrongly believed he had a kinship with bears. They said that the hunters he claimed to be protecting the bears from, did not exist, and he had got the sort of death for which he had asked.

The flamboyant Treadwell had found redemption with the bears, but, while his fearlessness earned him fame, his recklessness proved his undoing. Part-activist, part-conman, part-educator and part-performance artist, Treadwell was charming and vulnerable, but also tough enough to spend much of his time living in a tent in the wilderness. A man with a troubled past and no naturalist training, he reinvented himself as a wildlife photographer and documentarian, spending his summers perilously close to wild grizzlies in Alaska.

His life of half-truths, outright lies and passionate environmental activism - and his subsequent macabre death - has now been documented by Werner Herzog in Grizzly Man. The award-winning film-maker - whose documentaries have tracked tribes in the Sahara and the oil fires of the 1991 Gulf War - paints a chilling portrait of Treadwell, shining a light into the soul of a man constantly treading the fine line between ambition and madness. With an innovative mixture of Treadwell's Alaska footage, interviews with friends, family and investigators and his own narration, Herzog has come up with a nature film about human nature. Like some of the characters in Herzog's other films - the maniacal conquistador in Aguirre: The Wrath Of God or the would-be rubber baron in Fitzcarraldo - Treadwell was driven by a grand obsession. "There's a family of men out there and Timothy fits seamlessly into it," says Herzog. "I think being near the bears and believing in his role - which was largely fictitious, that he was needed to protect the bears - redeemed him from his demons. Probably he needed the presence of the bears more than they needed him. In his 100 hours of footage and in my film, over and over he tells the bears how much he loves them. He repeats and repeats it. I think you should not love the bear, you should respect the bear and stay away."

While his whole focus was upon interacting with the bears, Treadwell also captured some wonderful shots of the Alaskan wildernesss, something Herzog believes he was oblivious to. "He captured landscapes of great magnificence, probably unbeknown to him," he says. "He left us footage that you could not get for millions and millions of dollars. He was not an amateur; he was very, very professional."

It is probable that nobody knows or will ever learn the entire truth about Treadwell's background because he reinvented himself so many times. He occasionally adopted an English accent, explaining he had been brought up in an English orphanage. At other times he spoke like an Australian, saying he had lived down under. After his death a family spokesman said he had no Australian connections and had never been there. In fact, Treadwell's story is a variation on a classic American tale: battered by an aimless life in California and ravaged by drugs, he saw the Alaskan wilderness as his salvation.

He was born Tim Dexter to middle-class parents in Long Island, New Jersey. A champion springboard diver in high school and college, he moved to California and changed his name to Treadwell, apparently the name of an English ancestor. For more than a decade he worked as a bartender and waiter in Long Beach, Venice, Santa Monica and Malibu, spending his spare time surfing on a surfboard emblazoned with a Union flag. He admitted to drinking heavily and taking drugs. In his 1997 book, Among Grizzlies, he claimed it took a near-death experience from a drug overdose to change his ways, and life among the bears to cure him.

After he left hospital, he decided to go to Alaska and watch bears. He would later write that bears had always fascinated him. He began spending every summer among the bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve on the Alaska peninsula. In the winter, he returned to Malibu, made videos from his film footage and talked to schoolchildren of the need to protect the bears. He taught students about the history and geography of Alaska.

With shaggy blond hair and an athletic build, he had the photogenic looks of an ageing rock star and, still using a fake Australian accent, he became an in-demand television guest. He would take every opportunity to denounce hunters although his critics say they had not existed for 20 years and were part of Treadwell's fund-raising hype. He drew a small salary from his Grizzly People group, to which DiCaprio became a substantial donor, giving nearly £15,000.

When he was in Alaska, however, his behaviour attracted the attention of National Park Service officials. Spending his time, mostly alone, in a tent for weeks at a time in one of the most hostile environments in North America, he was warned for such things as storing an ice chest in his tent - something not done in bear country. He also frustrated rangers because he refused to carry a can of pepper spray to deter a charging grizzly, nor would he put electric fences around his tent. Instead, according to witnesses and his own videotapes, he would walk up to grizzlies to prove they weren't dangerous and often camped among them. Each year he grew bolder, touching the bears, letting a bear lick his hand and kissing a bear on the nose.

Treadwell met Amie Huguenard, a doctor's assistant in Colorado, after she read his book and contacted him. They spent parts of two summers together in Alaska and, in January 2003, she left her job and moved to Malibu to be with Treadwell. He was again spending the summer in Alaska and, in September, she boarded a plane to meet him there to spend time together there with the bears before winter fell. After she arrived, they headed for the "bear tunnels" - the dangerous paths pounded through the thick brush by years of animal traffic around Kalfia Bay on the Gulf of Alaska coast. In his book, Treadwell had labelled the terrain "The Grizzly Maze" and usually he would have been long gone from the Maze by late September. But that year, he had decided to go back late in the season, when he believed the bears to be at their most dangerous. Why he went back, and why he took Huguenard with him, has become a mystery.

The pilot of a bush plane found the remains of Treadwell and Huguenard at their campsite when he arrived to pick them up on 6 October. A videotape was found at the campsite and the attack had been recorded on the tape, but there is only audio. Investigators believe that Huguenard was inside the tent when Treadwell, wearing a voice-activated microphone, encountered the bear. The tape begins with Treadwell yelling that he is being attacked. "Come out here; I'm being killed out here," he screams. "Play dead!" Huguenard shouted in reply. She then urged him to "fight back". He asked her to grab a pan and hit the bear. Then the tape ends.

Herzog's film includes a scene of him listening to the audiotape of Treadwell and Huguenard's final moments, although the sound is not played. "I wasn't making a snuff movie," says Herzog, who is no stranger to the wilds of Alaska himself, having spent two summers there.

Rangers who investigated the deaths reported that Treadwell had set up his tent in thick brush right on top of a bear trail. "A person could not have designed a more dangerous place to set up a camp," according to their report. On his videotapes, Treadwell often talked about death and said his agenda would be advanced if he did not come out of the wilderness. "He was right about that because he wouldn't have drawn the attention he has if he hadn't been killed by a bear," says Herzog. "Sometimes I have a feeling he had something like a death wish. At the same time, he had a vigorous joy of life and was on a quest for himself and a quest to put his life in order and drive the demons out. The man was magnificent and full of life."

He was also obsessed, manic and sadly human, attempting to deify himself while choosing to forget he was dealing with predators. "He became increasingly irascible," says Herzog. "He unravelled into fits of paranoia. He kept his sanity at the same time. There are moments when he's paranoid, moments where he's grandiose, moments where he's kind of defeated. He is quintessentially human, with all the defects of a human being."

'Grizzly Man' opens in the UK on 3 February

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