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Wednesday, 28 June 2006 00:00

Can you say inevitable?

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I recently saw some previews for the documentary “Grizzly Man.” You may remember the story. Back in 2003, after 13 summers of camping among Alaska’s brown bears, Timothy Treadwell was mauled and partially eaten by a bear. A companion, Amie Huguenard, met the same fate.

Now I know that trailers are simply advertisements trying to sell a product, but any suggestion that this film is about the natural history of brown bears is grossly misleading.

It’s a documentary about the self-destructive behavior of a delusional young man who traded in his addiction to alcohol and drugs for the adrenalin rush of living in proximity with Alaska’s wild and powerful brown behemoths.

If a pool had been started back in the ‘90s when Treadwell began his treks into bear country, I would surely have been a loser. I don’t think I would have given him more than four years tops. Not that you can’t camp in bear country. It’s done all the time in Alaska, which has an estimated population of more than 40,000 brown bears and more than 50,000 black bears.

What you can’t do is continue to camp in bear country with the sole intent of getting closer and closer to the bears. Some things are inevitable. If you play enough Russian roulette, you’ll eventually lose once. And once is all it takes whether we’re talking a bout a .45 at your head or a hungry, 1,000-pound brown bear.

Apparently Treadwell had a history of not being able to separate fact from fiction. Born Timothy Dexter in Long Island, N.Y., he went to Hollywood seeking fortune and fame. There he invented a new persona – Timothy Treadwell, an orphan from Australia who moved to the states as a teenager.

Treadwell didn’t make the cut in Hollywood, and according to anecdotal evidence gathered from various Web sites, his addictions were getting the better of him when he discovered Alaska’s brown bears on a summer camping trip.

In the film, Treadwell states that it was the bears that allowed him to overcome his addiction to alcohol. That may be true, but all he did was transfer that addiction to the bears.

Treadwell’s fate was sealed. There was a live round in one of the chambers, and Treadwell was spinning the cylinder furiously. He wasn’t going to stop until the hammer fell on the sweet spot.

Treadwell’s antics in the Alaskan wilderness gained some notoriety in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. The self-appointed “protector” of the bears appeared on the Discovery Channel and the Letterman show and he penned a book, Among Grizzlies: Living with Wild Bears in Alaska with an ex-girlfriend, Jewel Palovak. Palovak, Treadwell and friends started a grassroots organization called “Grizzly People.”

The book, the group and Treadwell’s continued reference to grizzlies in the documentary all point to the Hollywood-inspired theme of Treadwell’s debacle. Treadwell’s encounters and videos were with and of brown bears — but brown is not as marketable as grizzly.

This is how the Alaska Department of Fish and Game differentiates among its brown bears: “When using the term ‘brown bear,’ we refer to both the inland ‘grizzly’ bears and the coastal brown bears. These bears are both of the same species, Ursus arctos. They vary in appearance due to ‘grizzly’ brown bears living inland, while other brown bears are coastal. The inland bears are smaller overall due to less salmon in their diet. Their hair is often lighter on the tips, giving them a grizzled appearance (hence the name ‘grizzly’) as compared to larger coastal brown bears. Despite the differences in appearance and size, they are still the same species. The term ‘Kodiak’ bear refers to brown bears that are found only on Kodiak Island. These bears are the largest of all brown bears due to a high percentage of salmon in their diet.”

It may seem like semantics, but it is a difference that any knowledgeable bear researcher would note and point out. The “grizzly man” wasn’t eaten by a grizzly at all, but rather by a brown bear.

According to the documentary, in that fateful year of 2003 Treadwell had finished his summer bear sojourn and was returning home when an inexplicable argument with an airport attendant sent him packing back to the woods. It was October.

Any biologist will tell you that by October Alaskan brown bears are in a feeding frenzy known as hyperfagia. They are in a race to put on enough fat to see them through winter hibernation, and they will eat enough to gain 3.5 pounds daily.

Treadwell’s demise, while in psychological, human dimensions is one of convoluted cause and effect, in bear terms is one of simple survival. The bear that killed Treadwell was an old animal (27 years) with failing teeth. The older and slower predators get the easier prey they seek. What could be easier for a 1,000-pound brown bear than a meal that walks up to it?

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