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Know the West

A grizzly attack that was bound to happen

  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 its owner.

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.

A 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 more."

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 wilderness.

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 lions.

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.

Mark Matthews is a contributor to Writers on the Range (hcn.org), a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He writes in Missoula, Montana.