Man, Martyr, Myth
Timothy Treadwell, the avowed bear man of the Alaska wilderness, lived poor and little known for most of his 46 years despite a desire for the spotlight of celebrity. He claimed to have led a life of drugs, brawls and booze until, in the late 1980s, he found his way to the grizzlies, most recently in Katmai National Park and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage. His cause: to save them from hunters and poachers who apparently didn’t exist. Those efforts brought him national recognition. He attracted even more when he told David Letterman on national television that the sometimes ferocious grizzly bears were really nothing more than big “party animals.”
But the party came to a macabre end when, on Oct. 6, 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend were found dead after being attacked by a 1,000-pound grizzly bear. Though captured on an audio recording, the deaths remain the topic of much debate. They brought to a dramatic end what had become Treadwell’s Hollywood life, but they opened a new chapter in the saga of the man some had come to call “the bear whisperer.”
Winter was coming fast to the Alaska peninsula in late September when bear man Timothy Treadwell stomped aboard a floatplane in Kodiak for his last flight into bear country. Going with him was girlfriend Amie Huguenard. What years before began as a long-distance relationship after Treadwell conducted a grizzly bear seminar in Boulder, Colo., was blossoming into something more.
Huguenard had recently moved west to join Treadwell at his winter residence in Malibu. To support herself, she took a job as a physician’s assistant for a neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, but she also was active in Grizzly People, the Malibu-based nonprofit organization that for years had supported Treadwell’s forays into the Alaska wilderness to commune with the bears. The 2002 masthead for Grizzly People News listed Huguenard as the organization’s “expedition coordinator & consultant.”
This time she would be joining Treadwell as a companion in the bear tunnels--the dangerous paths pounded through the thick brush by years of animal traffic around Kaflia Bay on the Gulf of Alaska coast of Katmai National Park and Preserve. It was the scary nature of the terrain that led Treadwell to label it the “Grizzly Maze” in “Among Grizzlies,” the book he co-wrote with Malibu’s Jewel Palovak in 1997.
Usually, Treadwell would have been long gone from the Maze by late September. Snow already coated the Aleutian Range mountains, but this year, for some reason, he had decided to go back late in the season, when he believed the bears to be at their most dangerous. On Sept. 2, Treadwell dropped a note to California friends Marc and Marnie Gaede expressing his thoughts about the trip.
“It’s September,” he wrote, “and I’m into the historically toughest and most exciting month. Tremendous storms, and huge gatherings of extremely hungry bears, more and more darkness--intense isolation. I’m going to make it, unless one of the killer bears gets me. There are plenty this year. Lots of beautiful sweet bears, but as my work success takes greater affect [sic], more tough dominant giant male bears come back . . . to their rightful place--to rule--free of poachers.”
The statement about poachers was fund-raising hype. State and federal law enforcement authorities, along with the many scientists who have devoted the past decade of their lives to monitoring the bears of the Katmai coast, say the poachers disappeared nearly 20 years ago. But some believe Treadwell’s claims of danger were very real.
Why Treadwell went back, and why he took Huguenard with him, has become an Alaska mystery. Even more so is the question of how one of the most experienced bear men on the Katmai coast came to die, along with his girlfriend, in the jaws of a 1,000-pound grizzly.
People all over America came to know and love Treadwell through documentary films about his work. They grieved his death. Their suffering only increased as scientists questioned Treadwell’s behavior around grizzlies, and others suggested--sometimes viciously--that he’d gotten the sort of death for which he asked.
Left unresolved was the question of whether Treadwell’s fans grieve for a man or a myth.
Look into Timothy Treadwell’s life and you begin to glimpse a picture far different from the one he crafted for Grizzly People. There, he was “the bear whisperer,” a common man with an uncommon talent for communicating with the largest omnivores on the planet. He was charismatic enough to charm not only bears, but also jaded Hollywood celebrities.
Timothy Treadwell had morphed from a boy named Tim Dexter born to middle-class parents on Long Island, N.Y. A champion springboard diver in high school and college, Dexter migrated to California, affected several accents--first Cockney, later Australian--changed his name to Treadwell (apparently the last name of an English ancestor), started spending his summers chasing Alaska bears and, through the miracle of the modern media, became an environmental celebrity.
Treadwell was an American version of the “Crocodile Hunter” before Animal Planet made Australian wildlife wrangler Steve Irwin an international television star. But he was also much more--part bear activist, part con man, part educator, part performance artist, a character seemingly vulnerable and all-caring, but so tough that he could spend his summers living a lifestyle that made even the hardiest Alaskans shudder.
“He was demonstrative. He was gregarious. It was the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ thing,” says Larry Aumiller, manager of the world-renowned Alaska bear sanctuary at McNeil River, just north of Katmai National Park. Aumiller is the best-known bear man on the Katmai coast.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Pierce Brosnan, among others, rallied to the side of the brave and affable man with the entertaining Australian accent. Former Malibu film producer and friend Peter Dixon--who along with his wife, Sarah, teamed with Treadwell on the 1995 documentary “In the Land of the Grizzlies"--suggests the accent was the lingering result of the childhood Treadwell said he spent in Australia.
“We were the first people he agreed to take into his world of bears,” Dixon says in an e-mail from his home in New Zealand. “Timothy had just finished his first or second summer with the bears and realized he needed exposure if he was to continue his odyssey. . . . Of course, Timothy envisioned the film to be about him and his bears. That began a give-and-take minor conflict. He was mature enough to realize that he wasn’t a media star.”
The vision of instant stardom passed, but the Australian accent remained. He used it at will during the years that followed. Following his death, a spokesman for the Dexter family had to explain to inquiring Australian media that the man known as Timothy Treadwell was “not Australian, and he wasn’t born in Australia. Timothy was born in New York. There’s no Australian link.”
Kathleen Parker, 57, was Treadwell’s best friend in Kodiak. However, she questions how the Dexter family would know. “He was estranged from [them],” says the woman who regularly offered her floor as a place for Treadwell to roll out his sleeping bag in his early years in Alaska. “He never spoke to them. He left them very, very young.”
In the introduction to his book, Treadwell claimed to be the third of five children raised by parents Valentine and Carol Dexter, who “loved me and did the best they could” until he became a juvenile delinquent and his “home life disintegrated.” “In my chaotic state,” he wrote, “abandoning my family was the best gift I could give them.”
Friends who knew him back then--in high school and during summers when he returned from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., to Long Island to work as a lifeguard--don’t remember it that way. And while conceding a few ups and downs in family relations over the years, Treadwell’s mother, now of Pompano Beach, Fla., says she spoke regularly with her son. Beyond that, Carol Dexter added, “we’re not giving out information. It’s too upsetting to our family. You can read his book.”
The introduction to the book is part fact and part fiction, but the heart of the book defines at least one link between New York’s Tim Dexter and Malibu’s Timothy Treadwell: In both there burned a passion for danger and a love for the spotlight.
On a three-meter springboard, nearly 10 feet above a diving pool, an athlete stands alone. It takes guts and daring to launch into the air, twisting and turning on the way up, knowing that the slightest mistake means a blood-gushing brush with the board or a painful landing in the water. Bradley University’s Jim Spink, the now-retired swim coach who also supervised the school’s divers, confesses that even he was squeamish about watching his two divers--Dexter and Jeff Martin--in action.
Dexter and Martin became, in Martin’s words, “reasonably good friends,” even if Spink once had to break up a fight between them. Spink remembers Dexter as a “feisty” kid. Martin agrees, adding he was the “kind of guy who was passionate for what he believed in.” The main thing Martin remembers about the fight was that he held a significant advantage in size and weight over Dexter.
“I irritated him,” Martin says. “He kind of came after me. I basically tried to keep him away.”
Former high school swimmer George Neyssen, a teammate of Dexter’s at Connetquot High School in Bohemia, N.Y., says that sounds like the Dexter he knew. “His personality was such that you couldn’t really get close to him, because he would go off on people. I can’t even recall him having a girlfriend at the time. He was kind of a pretty boy.”
Neyssen not only swam with Dexter in high school, he also spent several years working with him as a lifeguard when both returned to Long Island from college in the summers. Neyssen lends credence to Dexter’s claims of drinking in the introduction to “Among Grizzlies.” “He was a little on the wild side,” Neyssen says. “We partied together. One of the lifeguards, he had his own bar. We used to get in there at 16. We had a good time. He was lively, just a bit of a hothead at times. But he was an exceptional diver in high school.”
Bradley University officials say Dexter set three-meter springboard records there. They don’t say why he left the dive team after only two years and eventually dropped out of school. Martin lost contact with him there.
“I don’t remember him being real buddies with anyone,” Martin says, “but he had a lot of friends or acquaintances. He had a smile that sort of drew people in. I think he probably did have a need for attention. I think he was a little bit of a storyteller. I think I’d call it more of an exaggeration to get people’s attention, like telling a fish story.”
Susan DeFeo, a community columnist for the Cape May County Herald in New Jersey who spent a lot of time at the Dexter family home when Timothy was in high school and college, says she stayed in touch with him until about 1980. “I am sad to hear that an old friend of mine, Timothy Treadwell, was killed last week in Alaska by his life’s work--grizzly bears,” she wrote in her newspaper column in October. “I had lost touch with Tim over 25 years ago, about the same time he changed his name from Dexter to an old family name Treadwell, but [I] was always glued to the set when he made appearances on ‘Letterman,’ ‘Dateline’ or ‘Rosie.’ Despite an outlandish bio that he made up for himself and no one seemed to question, Tim did leave his mark on environmental issues.”
Karyn Kline, a former Californian now living in Washington state, met Treadwell in Sunset Beach in 1981. He apparently had a sister living in Venice and had moved west. He supported himself by tending bar and waiting tables, something he would continue to do off and on into the 1990s
“He had a Cockney accent and told my brothers that he was an orphan from England,” she remembers, saying that Treadwell’s surfboard had sported a Union Jack flag. “He said he’d been thrown out on the street and headed to the U.S.A. His first stop was Long Beach, and then Sunset Beach. We all felt sorry for him at first, then the family caught on.” She adds that “Tim was always in fights. He finally left when he heard several people were out to get him.”
Kline believes those people were drug dealers, as Treadwell later claimed in his book, but she isn’t sure. Once Treadwell left Sunset Beach, Kline lost contact with him until 1997. “After he published his book, he came back to Sunset Beach and tried to brag to my dad that he had made it in life,” she says. “I think his whole thing was to be somebody. He was quite a character. He probably should have been an actor. I am amazed that he got his life together.”
In the book, Treadwell claimed it took a drug overdose near-death experience to change his ways, and life among the bears to cure him. Whether any of that really happened is hard to say. What is clear is that by the late 1980s, he apparently was clean and sober and living in the Malibu area.
Ira Meyer met Treadwell there in the late ‘80s. Meyer says he never knew Treadwell as a drug user. Another Treadwell friend, photographer Alan Sanders from Port Hueneme, knew Treadwell for almost as long and says the same, but admits that his friend had such a compartmentalized life it might be impossible to know what was really going on.
“Most of his friends never met each other, as far as I can tell,” Sanders says. Treadwell’s parents attended an October memorial service for their son at Wolfgang Puck’s Granita Restaurant in Malibu. Marc Gaede, the friend who received the Sept. 2 note from Treadwell, says it was the first time anyone in Malibu had ever met them. Friend Joel Bennett from Juneau, Alaska--who made three full-length films with Treadwell and had been working with him on another film just weeks before his death--didn’t even know that Huguenard was Treadwell’s girlfriend.
“He didn’t mention her while we were working together for a week,” Bennett says. “I’ve been with him for hundreds of hours. I’d never heard him mention her.”
Treadwell’s father won’t even identify Timothy’s four siblings. “His life story began 16 years ago in California,” Valentine says. “They’re really out there hunting for information on him. I smell a movie.”
Don Treadwell, a Ventura retiree, was one of several Treadwells whom Tim Treadwell politely rebuffed when Don once asked him if they were related. “I don’t understand what that was all about,” he recalls of the incident several years ago. “I don’t think it would hurt the image. He appears to be quite the character. He could have lived in the Wild West. He was like Wyatt Earp. He created his own myth.”
Treadwell, like Earp, eventually ended up in Alaska.
When Dean Andrew of Andrew Airways in Kodiak found Treadwell and Huguenard in his hangar on Sept. 30, he figured they were packing to head back to Malibu. Andrew and Treadwell were old friends, but Andrew had only met Huguenard the year before. She had come back this year to visit Treadwell at Hallo Bay, just 20 miles up the coast from Kaflia Bay, what he called the “Grizzly Sanctuary,” but Andrew was surprised when the couple announced plans to fly to Kaflia.
“They said something [like], ‘We didn’t say our proper goodbyes to the bears,’ ” he remembered. “That’s all they said. It was a little unusual. It was unusual he’d go against his plan.”
Kodiak’s Kathleen Parker says she’d never known him to change his plan since he first started hanging out with grizzlies on Kodiak Island in 1990. Parker and Treadwell were close. He stored his gear in the basement of her house. They talked a couple of times a month by telephone.
“Timothy was a very poor young man when he started this,” she says, but also very methodical. “He never, never went out at the end of the season, especially when he had everything put away. That was a little strange.”
“You know,” she says, “that spot they were killed at, Timothy and I found that in ’98 when they were doing a [film] shoot. We were walking through the Maze, and for five, six hours we sat in the creek with five or six bears [that were] eating salmon. They didn’t care about you at all.”
Treadwell was headed back there via Andrew Airways partly because he had destroyed his relationship with longtime friend and pilot Tom Walters, co-owner of Katmai Wilderness Lodge. Grizzly People had published a photograph of shotgun-toting Joe Allen, one of Walters’ bear-viewing guides, walking a beach, and below it a caption proclaiming he was a poacher stalking a bear. Treadwell had taken the photo knowing that many of the Katmai bear-viewing guides carried shotguns for protection, as did National Park Service employees and bear-viewing escorts at the state-run McNeil River grizzly-viewing area to the north.
“Joe Allen wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Walters says. “It was cheesy. We’d helped Treadwell for years, getting him food and stuff. He was always flying in my airplanes. He stayed at my house. He knew there was no poaching over there.”
Katmai’s poaching problem was long over by the time Treadwell arrived on the scene, says retired pilot Butch Tovsen, who had introduced Treadwell to the Katmai bears and flew him for years. Treadwell “knew darn good and well” that Allen wasn’t a poacher, Tovsen says, but “he had to get the hype up.”
Walters called his lawyer and told him to go after the sponsor of the brochure--clothing company Patagonia. “I laid it all out for Patagonia,” Walters says. The company collected and destroyed as many of the brochures as it could, and temporarily pulled its support from Treadwell. “I had [Treadwell] on a telephone tape saying, ‘I’m sorry. It was a mistake. I didn’t think anyone would recognize Joe. It was just meant to portray a poacher.’ ”
Though Treadwell trumpeted the poacher theme in the Lower 48, he had over the years began to play it down in Alaska. The self-proclaimed eco-warrior who once proudly bragged of confronting bear hunters in the city of Kodiak had even become friends with hunting guide Bill Sims.
“Timothy changed a lot,” Parker says. “He became wiser. He became less cocky. Early on, it was like he wanted to change the world, and he wanted to change it right then and there.”
Andrew knew the broad outlines of what had happened between Walters and Treadwell--Kodiak is, after all, a small town--but brushed it off as an accident. Treadwell seemed like a nice guy, and everyone said he was doing a good job of teaching kids about bears stateside.
“I kind of liked that,” Andrew says, and it didn’t hurt that Treadwell occasionally served as a guide for some of the eco-tourists Andrew brought to Hallo Bay or Kaflia to see bears. Andrew was curious about why Treadwell was going back to Kaflia so late in the year, but not concerned. Treadwell had long ago proven himself. His tenure alone spoke loudly in a land that shows little tolerance for human frailties.
The incompetent and the crazy don’t last in the Alaska wilderness. One of the most famous of them, Chris McCandless, didn’t make it a year. McCandless, a top student and athlete at Emory University in Atlanta, abandoned his possessions in 1992, gave all of his money to charity and eventually hitchhiked to Alaska, where he went to live in the wilderness. His life and death became the subject for author Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book “Into the Wild.”
Treadwell referred to this in an interview with a writer for DiCaprio’s Web site, saying that he was reading Krakauer’s book one year as his own food supplies dwindled, “and I was in huge trouble. I didn’t know what to eat, and I read excerpts from that book . . . where the kid went into the wild near Denali National Park and he eats a poisonous plant. You see, in Alaska, for every plant you can eat there is a poisonous one that looks just like it.”
Actually, Alaska doesn’t have many poisonous plants, and researchers at the University of Alaska ultimately determined that those weren’t what killed McCandless. But then, a slight botanical error was a small thing compared to the many outright fictions Treadwell passed off over the years--from his life in the English orphanage, to his struggle to make it through high school, to those imaginary poachers that aided Grizzly People fund-raising efforts.
The hype brought in the money that allowed Treadwell to do what he loved: commune with the bears. Bear professionals debate whether Treadwell had any special knack for this, but there is little doubt about his ability to communicate with children.
Pleasant memories flood back when former teacher Valerie Roach of Santa Monica talks about the appearances of the bear man before her third-grade classes at two California elementary schools. Everyone agrees this was the stage on which Treadwell performed at his absolute best. He rose without pretensions, his oversize personality flooding the room with enthusiasm. When Treadwell came to class, Roach says, there was no stodgy schoolroom presentation. This was show time.
Treadwell would set up when the kids were at recess or lunch. By the time they came thundering back, he would be in position with his slide projector ready, straining to hold his excitement in check. “He always looked so professional,” Roach adds. “He always wore black pants and a white shirt with a button-down collar.”
His blond hair was shaggy, his posture athletic. It gave him the look of an aging rock star. The kids already knew who he was; they’d seen a pre-appearance screening of “Grizzly Diaries,” a 1999 Discovery Channel program in which Treadwell starred. Now, his personality would bring his experience with bears to life in the classroom.
“He was like a little kid, almost like a jumping bean. He had so much energy. This was his passion, his love,” Roach says. “He was so honest, and the kids identified with that.”
It didn’t hurt that Treadwell was a first-rate performance artist. A lot of that came through in the videos Treadwell made for Grizzly People over the years. On film, he displayed a remarkable talent for engaging and capturing the lens. Film producer Dixon says he was a natural. Treadwell was at his humorous best, for instance, narrating the destruction of his tent in a windstorm along the Alaska coast. As flapping nylon pounded around him, he talked to the camera as if it were his best friend, describing what a miserable day he was having. When at last the tent fell--his head pinched between sheets of nylon--he confessed that he was going to have to put the camera away. He closed with the words “Bye, Mom.”
“He used humor a lot,” Roach says. “The first time he came to our class, the kids had so much fun I didn’t believe they learned anything. So I gave them a pop quiz the next day.”
What she discovered was that Treadwell’s game-show-style slide presentation--he’d often repeat slides and then ask, “Now what is this?"--proved a highly effective educational tool. “He taught a lot about Alaska,” Roach says. Students learned the state capital, Juneau; the largest city, Anchorage; a bit about the geography, and a lot about the environment--with a Treadwell spin.
Letters later written by students from other classes sound like testimonials:
“Timothy the fox was very funny, and so was Timothy Treadwell,” wrote one boy in a letter posted on DiCaprio’s Web site.
“I admired how serious Timothy’s messages were,” wrote another. “He risks his life for the bears.”
“I had a lot of special guests come in,” Roach says. “Timothy was always the one they’d remember. He was always the favorite. In part it was the bears, but it was really his personal style and this game-show thing.”
She also says he had a good message beyond the bears, telling the kids to stay in school, study hard and avoid drugs. “Every year he said that. He was a darling. Every time he came to my classroom, he brought another photograph. He did not ask to be paid. I said, ‘Why do you do this for free?’ He said he was just working for the bears.”
Roach settled for making a contribution to Grizzly People.
Long before Timothy Treadwell became famous, biologist Vic Barnes met him at Camp Island in the middle of Karluk Lake, the largest lake on Kodiak Island. Barnes was then leading brown bear research for the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Now retired and living in Colorado after 17 years of work with Alaska bears, Barnes remembers Treadwell.
“He came in a skiff,” Barnes recalls. “He’s got on shorts and hiking boots. He jumped out in two feet of [50-degree] water. I asked him, ‘Why aren’t you wearing hip boots?’ He said, ‘That’s the way the bears do it.’ ”
Right away, Barnes knew Treadwell was different. In the years to come, Barnes’ team would observe Treadwell regularly engaging in bear-like behaviors--splashing in streams, bending down to run as if on all fours, fleeing from visitors--and ponder what he saw. Treadwell claimed to be studying the bears, but Barnes observed something else. “I think he really wished he could be a bear,” Barnes says. “It made no sense what he was doing otherwise. It was contrary to any sort of research.”
Where trained researchers try to disappear from view, so as to observe the behavior of bears free of the influence of man, Treadwell did exactly the opposite. He walked right up to grizzlies to prove they weren’t dangerous and often camped among the bears. And each year he seemed to get bolder, touching bears, letting a bear lick his hand, kissing a bear on the nose.
“It was stupid,” Barnes says, not only because it was dangerous, but also because “it just made no sense based on what he said he was trying to accomplish.” Any observations Treadwell made were based on how bears interacted with him, as opposed to observations on how bears behave. More than once Barnes tried to explain to the newcomer from Southern California that he was contaminating his own research, if it could be called that. Treadwell didn’t listen. Neither did he wish to be lectured about the risks he appeared to be taking around grizzlies. He had already concluded that he could handle the bears in one way or another.
Aumiller, the most experienced bear man on the Katmai coast with his many years at McNeil, once considered whether Treadwell and a handful of others were capable of taking human-bear interactions to some misunderstood “next level.” Aumiller contemplated but finally rejected the idea of humans and bears developing personal relationships.
“I just don’t think [the bears] give a rip,” he says.
Barnes is more blunt: “They’re wild animals. I’ve watched them tear each other up, or just thrash an elderberry patch because they were having a bad day. If you fail to respect bears as wild animals, you’ve lost it.”
Barnes is one among many bear biologists who expected Treadwell to be killed by a grizzly. That he got away with tempting fate for 13 years, they say, mainly demonstrates the tolerance of the bears. Barnes remembers breathing a sigh of relief when Treadwell left the Kodiak Island refuge for the national park on the other side of Shelikof Strait. By then, the biologist had heard Treadwell observe that it would be an honor to be eaten by a bear.
“I thought, ‘C’mon, give me a break,’ ” Barnes says. “That doesn’t make any sense.” By getting himself killed, Treadwell would only just make grizzlies look bad, reinforcing their image as bloodthirsty killers.
“I’m probably one of many who tried to tell him the mission he described for himself would be harmed if he died,” says Sanders, the Port Hueneme photographer. “You can’t write your own legacy. He can’t control how people think about this now. It’s had a real negative side toward him, toward bears, toward wildlife.”
But Treadwell was stubborn. To do what he did in Alaska, he had to be.
few can grasp the simple day-to-day difficulty of Treadwell’s Katmai life. This was a pioneer existence, something more akin to living in a Plains Indian encampment of old than anything anyone can imagine today. He spent his time largely alone in a tent for weeks at a time in one of the most hostile environments in North America.
“You know, there must have been times when he was really cold and really wet, and he couldn’t make a big old pot of chili because every bear in the neighborhood would be on him,” says Sanders.
“I don’t know how even someone from Alaska could go out there for weeks at a time,” says John Rogers, owner of a 70-foot-long bear-viewing boat that tours the Katmai coast. “Sometimes, for days on end, it’s just pouring, pouring, pouring, blowing, blowing, blowing. It’s miserable.”
“Inside, a lot of people [would] like to do it,” says Parker, “but they don’t have the guts to do it.”
As a backpacker, Sanders regularly queried Treadwell about his living conditions. Treadwell didn’t try to put a shine on his adventures. “He was cold, hungry, bug bit, scared to death,” Sanders says. “All of that and he kept going back year after year after year.” Aboriginal Alaskans facing similar conditions built sturdy shelters of wood or sod. Treadwell rejected such an idea.
“That’s not what he was about,” Sanders says. “He didn’t want to have a cabin. He didn’t want to be comfortable. He wanted to have a purely wilderness experience.” He wanted, as his book proclaimed, “to be the bear.”
That approach made Treadwell an icon in the Malibu environmental community. His memorial at Granita attracted a standing-room-only crowd. He was eulogized by Terry Tamminen of Environment Now, Chris DeRose of Last Chance for Animals and Louisa Willcox, director of the Wild Bears Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Willcox, for whom Treadwell named one of his bears, touched many with her tribute. Dry eyes were scarce.
“Watching him perform in a classroom, you saw a magician who explained the mysteries of bears and their lives in such a way that children emerged glowing, as if they too were the discoverers of wild America,” Willcox said. “Hearing him talk about his bears, by name, with their bonds of affection, quirky behavior and playful antics, you felt that you were let in on great secrets that few receive today or have forgotten as wilderness has been paved over and subdivided.”
Treadwell was compared to gorilla researcher Dian Fossey, and historic figures such as Gandhi and Thoreau, among others. Some admitted they shared the view of the scientists who said Treadwell’s death by bear was only a matter of time, but they did so in the context of the inevitability of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Treadwell cared, they said, and that was what really mattered.
“Timothy had a heart to him,” Parker says. “I’ve known a lot of men in my life as friends; I’ve never met anyone like Timothy. He was not afraid to go up and hug another man. He was not afraid to go up and kiss another man on the cheek. Timothy was not afraid to show his feelings. The man was remarkable. He had something inside of him that the rest of us don’t have.”
“He was poor,” Sanders says. “He gave his photos away. He tried to get paid, but if you didn’t pay, he didn’t care. He lived in a little apartment. He was still driving this old motorcycle. He deserved better.”
“Charismatic” is a word people often use to describe Treadwell. Sometimes it is voiced as a blessing, other times as a curse.
“His personality could attract a lot of people, but not me,” says Elizabeth Laden, an Idaho weekly newspaper publisher who had talked to Treadwell many times about bears. “He believed he had a spiritual connection to the bears. He always said he was doing more good than harm.”
Laden says Treadwell was preaching love. But considering the grisly way his story ended, she wonders if perhaps the greater lesson of his life should be about respect and caution.