Monday, May 05, 2008

Book Review: The Grizzly Maze - Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears by Nick Jans

Nearly five years after his death, Timothy Treadwell still remains a divisive character among biologists, wildlife experts and novices, and even his closest friends. Treadwell, who had received some media and celebrity attention from his exploits “protecting” bears over 13 summers in Alaska’s Katmai Coast, was mauled and killed by a bear in 2003, along with companion Amie Huguenard. In a bitter twist of irony, the bear believed to be their killer was shot to death by rescuers, as was a younger bear that was possibly showing aggressive stalking behavior.

In the aftermath that followed, Treadwell’s critics used the deaths to reinforce various views that the amateur had pushed his luck too far, had caused more harm than good by interfering with Alaska’s wildlife, and had contributed very little to either a better understanding or appreciation of bears. Likewise, Treadwell’s supporters were quick to portray him as an ecowarrior solely focused on protecting bears from poachers and increasing the public’s appreciation of the animals. The reality probably falls somewhere in between.

All these aspects of Treadwell and his life are examined in Nick Jans’ The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears. Published prior to the release of Werner Herzog’s docudrama Grizzly Man and since updated with a new introduction, Jans’ book is a far more expansive study of Treadwell than Herzog’s artful and controversial film. Whereas Herzog’s film essentially portrayed Treadwell as a man teetering on the edge of insanity -- though it should be noted that Herzog did also show some empathy towards Treadwell -- Jans’ book offers a far more thorough examination of Treadwell’s life, motives, and legacy, or infamy.

The author’s portrayal of Treadwell is largely sympathetic; Jans shows that, despite Treadwell’s lack of any institutionalized education about bears, Treadwell clearly viewed himself as an expert of things ursine. Although Treadwell’s methods ranged from misguided at best to wildly dangerous and blatantly illegal at worst, Jans does a nice job showing how Treadwell used his excursions as a vehicle to advance the cause of ursine preservation, including the oft-noted fact that Treadwell frequently shared his findings and photos with schoolchildren free of charge. For whatever flaws he had, Treadwell did clearly think “his” bears would not survive without his watchful eyes.

Nevertheless, the book is not exactly a ringing endorsement of Treadwell; much of it focuses on the many mistakes he made and plainly idiotic notions in which he clearly believed about his relationship with the Katmai bears. Jans shows how Treadwell either broke or blatantly ignored basic rules when camping in bear habitats, including making actual contact with the bears, refusing to use any type of bear spray or electric fence, and deliberately setting up his camp at some areas highly trafficked by bears. Treadwell also clearly became emotionally attached to the bears, giving them names and attributing to them human emotions that were clearly not there.

Jans also shows how both Treadwell and his Grizzly People organization’s claim that Treadwell’s presence was necessary to discourage poaching was misleading at best and irrelevant at worst. Poaching incidents in the Katmai region Treadwell camped in were non-existent; in addition, poaching was a far larger threat in other parts of Alaska and during the non-summer months, when Treadwell had left Alaska for the year. Jans shows the added irony that by interacting and living closely with bears, Treadwell might have actually made the bears less safe: by making himself a constant presence in the bears’ lives, Treadwell might have caused the bears to be more relaxed around other humans, including poachers.

Whether Timothy Treadwell’s incredible 13-year run of surviving with bears is attributable to some innate sense of bear psychology that he had, or is simply a testament to the high tolerance level of bears toward humans, is open to debate. It would be too easy to dismiss Treadwell as a mentally-disturbed amateur intent on playing grabass with bears for his own selfish reasons. At the same time, the ultimate irony of Treadwell’s tragic end is that both the deaths of Huguenard and two of the bears he so desperately tried to protect are on his hands. Far more balanced than Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Jans’ The Grizzly Maze allows the reader a fuller glimpse into the life, motives, and psychology of Timothy Treadwell.

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