One of the most egotistical notions humans have is that we can "commune" with unpredictable wild animals. News headlines over the last couple of weeks have revealed the depth of our folly.
During Siegfried and Roy’s
Las Vegas nightclub act, a tiger turned on trainer Roy Horn.
Doctors still don’t know if he will survive. And in a New
York City apartment house, a pet tiger, raised from a cub, mauled
Those stories support the adage, "You can take
the animal out of the wild, but you can’t take the wild out
of the animal." But probably the most tragic story comes out of
Alaska’s Katmai National Park where an Alaskan brown bear --
also known as a grizzly -- killed Timothy Treadwell and his
companion, Amie Huguenard, both of Malibu, Calif.
self-proclaimed bear expert, Treadwell carved himself a career out
of living close to -- some called it harassing -- Alaskan
grizzlies. Treadwell has said that he discovered Alaska by accident
a decade ago when he was "at my wits end" and "a troubled person."
He traveled to Alaska allegedly to end his life. When the bears
didn’t immediately eat him, he believed it was because they
had accepted him as a spiritual equal. He decided he had something
worth living for -- protecting the bears from poaching.
Year after year, Treadwell returned to Alaska to an area where
brown bears gather to harvest salmon. Although Montana grizzlies
are typically aggressive loners, the bears in Katmai have developed
a social etiquette that allows them to fish together for the
bountiful prey in relative peace.
In an interview posted
on actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s' website, Treadwell explains
that he didn’t "specifically try to get close to the bears,
but in my living with them they have opened up to me
Treadwell produced videos, co-authored a book and
gave lectures about his experiences. I once saw him on television.
At the time I was researching bear pepper spray and getting an
earful from wildlife biologists about the dangers of getting too
close to any wild animals. In his video, Treadwell sat on the shore
of a stream where the bears fished, sang to them and told them how
much he loved them as if they were two-year-olds. It was exactly
what it sounds like -- New Age California meets the Alaska
The most disturbing part of the show was that
I knew people all over the country -- many of them not
knowledgeable about wildlife -- were watching. Treadwell
didn’t explain the difference between Alaska brown bears and
those in the Lower 48,or that bear pepper spray would give a human
a fighting chance to survive an attack. Even if he had done so, the
damage was already done.
When a child sees a man on
television romancing a 500-pound bear, what’s to stop that
child from thinking it can pick up and pet the next raccoon it
sees, or hug a neighborhood deer? More people are harmed by deer,
moose and even cattle every year than bears or mountain
Chuck Bartlebaugh, who runs the Center for Wildlife
Information in Missoula, Mont., knows how dangerous wild animals
can be. He’s worked for years to get people to stop pestering
wildlife -- especially in national parks. He once yelled at two
busloads of people in the Shoshone National Forest who were
crowding a bear for photographs. He probably saved someone from
injury -- and saved the bear as well.
His reward? A night
in jail for interfering with tourists.
"The last three
deaths by grizzly bear maulings in Glacier National Park all
occurred similar to Treadwell’s action in bear country," he
told me. "People went off the trail, they went looking for bears,
and they found their bears."
After Bartlebaugh got on his
case a few years ago, Treadwell began admonishing his admirers to
stay at least 100 yards from the animals and to carry bear spray,
although he himself publicly announced he did not. So why should
other bear lovers heed his advice? Did he think he was the only one
who enjoys a spiritual connection to animals? Don’t we all
want to be a Grizzly Adams?
The tragedy didn’t end
with the death of Treadwell and his companion. Park rangers killed
two grizzlies in the vicinity of Treadwell’s camp the next
day. It’s ironic that a man whose stated goal was to protect
the bears ended up being the cause of their demise.