January 18, 2006

Seeking the bears' blessing

If you visit Grizzly People, site of a small environmental group, you will see this advice: "People should remain at least 100 yards from bears at all times."

Founder Timothy Treadwell did not follow that advice, which is why he ended up dead, eaten, and the subject of Werner Herzog's 2005 documentary film, Grizzly Man.

Treadwell's new girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, was also a victim.

Treadwell is likable in a sort of golden retriever-puppy way, but he is also self-aggradizing and messianic. He keeps saying things like "I would die for these animals!" but no one is threatening them! He is in a protected area on Kodiak Island. He never sees a poacher.

In fact, the only outsiders who come near him (in the film) are a party of anglers in a big inflatable boat with a guide. They are armed with spinning rods, probably for salmon. Treadwell curses them from a safe distance when they haze a grizzly who approaches them by shouting, waving their arms, and tossing some rocks.

But who accustomed the bears to human contact? Timothy Treadwell. He is always trying to pet them, pushing their boundaries.`

An Aleut museum curator is quoted about boundaries that his people respected "for thousands of years" but that Treadwell crossed. It's a standard rhetorical trope: "We Natives are sensible. White people are crazy." But he has a point. Treadwell exhibits signs of Doctor Doolittle Syndrome. He wants to be loved by the animals and to talk with them. Instead, he is eaten.

Animals do talk to us, of course. And about us. Some crows once told me where the elk were hiding. And when I passed up the shot, they were probably mad at me. But they have their own motivations, and giving us spiritual guidance probably is not normally one of them.

Postscript: I notice that the February 2006 issue of Outdoor Life has a snarling bear on the cover. Back when I was trying to be a serious outdoor writer (about 1987-92), I decided that OL's subtitle should be, "Wild animals want to kill you--so buy stuff from our advertisers." Compared to the other hook-and-bullet mags, OL has ten times as many snarling-bear covers. Shoot! Shoot!

Where's the middle ground?

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