Bears Kill Pair Who Lived Among Them
Every summer for the last 13 years, Timothy Treadwell fled Malibu for the wilds of Alaska, where he lived among dozens of grizzly bears. He photographed the bears, slept near them and crawled into their dens when they were off fishing for salmon.
In the words of one friend, “he became feral.”
On Monday, Treadwell, 46, and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, 37, both of Malibu, were found dead in the remote Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, the victims of a bear mauling, according to the National Park Service and Alaska state troopers.
A bush pilot from Andrew Airways, who arrived to pick Treadwell up Monday, found the remains.
The couple’s two tents had collapsed, but were untorn, and there was no evidence they had been dragged from the tents, said Joe Fowler, chief ranger and acting superintendent of Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Jewel Palovak, program director of Grizzly People, an educational project about the bears, was the last person from outside the park to talk to Treadwell before he was killed.
Treadwell called Palovak with his satellite phone at noon Sunday and gushed about having seen his favorite bear, a fat female named Downey. “He wanted to make sure she was safe,” Palovak said.
Treadwell, whom Palovak likened to Dr. Doolittle, had written a popular book about his adventures and had talked about them on David Letterman’s late-night television show. He had been in Alaska since June, shooting photos and videos of bears.
He and Huguenard, a physician’s assistant, were supposed to arrive in Los Angeles on Tuesday night.
An adult male bear and a juvenile male were shot and killed by park rangers and state troopers when the bears charged officials recovering the remains of the victims.
“He died doing what he loved,” Palovak said. “If he had to pick a way to do it, it would be that way. He always knew they were wild animals and he accepted them on those terms.”
She said Treadwell -- who was always unarmed -- had never wanted others to do what he did.
“He recognized that he had a special gift or was lucky. A lot of people said he shouldn’t do what he was doing or it was crazy. But he proved them wrong for a long, long time,” Palovak said.
Park service officials said they had long feared that Treadwell would be killed by a bear.
“We all had grave concerns about what Timothy Treadwell was doing,” Fowler said.
Tom Smith, a research ecologist with the Alaska Science Center of the U.S. Geological Service, visited Katmai several years ago and watched Treadwell interact with bears.
“He was breaking every park rule that there was, in terms of distance to the bears, harassing wildlife and interfering with natural processes,” Smith said Tuesday. “Right off the bat, his personal mission was at odds with the park service. He had been warned repeatedly. It’s a tragic thing, but it’s not unpredictable.”
Yet the park service had cited him only once, for improperly storing his food, Fowler said. He said that the park hadn’t had the authority to remove Treadwell from the area and that Treadwell had been on good terms with backcountry rangers who checked up on him throughout the summer.
The circumstances of the deaths were still being investigated, Fowler said. Treadwell and Huguenard had been camping in the park, about 100 miles from the nearest town, since July.
Their campsite was near an unnamed stream where dozens of bears congregate each fall to feast on salmon in preparation for winter hibernation.
Treadwell was well-known in Southern California, where he often lectured to schoolchildren. His 1999 book about his adventures, “Among Grizzlies,” reached the Los Angeles Times’ best-seller list and he had appeared on “Dateline NBC,” in addition to his appearance on Letterman’s show.
On the show, in February 2001, Letterman asked Treadwell if he feared that one day he would be killed by the bears. Treadwell replied that he felt safer in Alaska than he did walking through New York’s Central Park.
“My parents loved me and did the best they could, but I was a handful. I wasn’t a criminal kid, just a bit mischievous, with the heart of a wild animal,” Treadwell wrote in his book.
He wrote that, while living in Malibu in the 1980s, he struggled with drugs and alcohol. He said that after he nearly died of an overdose, a friend asked him to name the one thing that he was passionate about. Treadwell’s answer: “Grizzly bears.”
In the late 1980s, he rode his motorcycle to Alaska, a state teeming with bears. His favorite stomping grounds became Katmai, a nearly roadless area encompassing 4 million acres along the southwestern Alaskan coast.
The area attracts bears because of its salmon-filled streams. The park is believed to have 2,000 bears that gorge themselves on fish in preparation for winter hibernation. With food plentiful, some male bears reach immense sizes. A large one can weigh 1,100 pounds and be more than five feet tall while standing on all fours, bear researchers say.
When Treadwell arrived each summer, he would pitch his tent in the best bear habitat he could find.
“He was a different beast, a different animal,” said Rebecca Dmytryk, a friend of Treadwell who runs a wild animal rescue operation in Malibu. “He was an oddity. He was kind of crazy. It allowed him to be unafraid when a normal person would be.... The bears adopted and allowed him into their community. Most researchers would say that’s an impossibility.”
Treadwell was not a scientist, nor did he try to pass himself off as one. He was interested in bear behavior and protecting them from the poachers who he said raided the park looking for trophy animals.
His other love was photography, and each year he returned to Malibu with hundreds of close-up photographs of the animals that he would use in lectures that he gave for much of the year.
“I’ve known Tim going back six or seven years,” said Barrie Gilbert, a retired wildlife biologist and grizzly researcher at Utah State University in Logan. “He told me he camped on bear trails in the willows and that he was up all night with bears growling at him and I thought this wasn’t common sense to get right in among the bears.”
Gilbert has first-hand experience.
He was mauled by a grizzly in Yellowstone National Park in 1977. The bear nearly tore off his scalp and face. A dozen operations were required to stitch his head back together.
When their trip was over, Treadwell and Huguenard had planned to return to a new one-bedroom apartment, which she had been fixing up before she left to join him, Palovak said. Treadwell hadn’t seen the new place.
Huguenard had been a physician’s assistant in Boulder, Colo., until she moved to California in February to be with Treadwell and live by the coast, Palovak said. She had just accepted a job with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
She had been to Alaska two or three times with Treadwell before, Palovak said.
This year, she joined him for a month, beginning July 23, and she returned again in September.
Bear researchers such as Smith said that most bears typically will do anything to avoid a human encounter.
He said problems often occur when people begin giving bears human characteristics and begin believing that they aren’t wild creatures.
“He wasn’t just putting himself at risk,” Fowler said. “Now, we have the tragedy of them losing their lives and we had to put our people at risk. The rangers and troopers killed those bears because they were an immediate threat to their lives. That was no fun for them. They didn’t get into this line of work to shoot bears.”