Bear lover alarmingly close to his subjects

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- There was no mistaking Timothy Treadwell on the ''Late Show with David Letterman'' recently.

He was the guy in the blue suit who looked like a shaggy-blond rock star and told viewers that the brown bears he lives with in Alaska are mainly harmless ''party animals'' out to have a good time.

When Letterman asked whether the bears might someday kill him, Treadwell said he feels safer living among Alaska's grizzlies than jogging through Central Park in New York City. Besides, he said, a fox yips a warning when bears come near his tent.

Treadwell, a self-taught bear expert from Malibu, Calif., has spent each of the past 12 summers living solo among Alaska's bears, mainly in Katmai National Park and Preserve. He has given them names -- like Booble and Aunt Melissa -- and he's made it his mission, and living, to videotape bears close up and share his experiences. In the process, he has become one of Alaska's most controversial summer guests.

Despite misgivings, National Park Service officials have tolerated Treadwell, saying he has the potential to reach millions of people with his stunning footage of bears and his goofy though engaging television personality. But increasingly, park officials, bear biologists and other people have become concerned.

''At best he's misguided,'' said Deb Liggett, superintendent at Katmai and Lake Clark national parks. ''At worst he's dangerous. If Timothy models unsafe behavior, that ultimately puts bears and other visitors at risk.''

She worries that Treadwell might someday get mauled or killed by a bear. The park would have a tragedy on its hands and would probably have to destroy the bear.

Beyond that, Liggett and other officials worry that Treadwell is spreading the wrong message. During previous television appearances, Treadwell has been shown so close to bears that he could touch them. He has been filmed crawling on his hands and knees singing as he approached a sow and two cubs. Another time, he chased a bear away from his camp with a stick.

''He tries to act like a bear,'' said Mark Wagner, chief of interpretation for Katmai and Lake Clark national parks. ''He thinks he's a bear. He lays down in their sleeping holes. I think that's a pretty scary message to give to the public. He's trying to make bears like a friend or pet instead of a wild animal.

''Is that how we want people looking at wildlife in a national park, like a dog or something?''

Treadwell did not return phone calls last week and has refused many past interview requests. Likening himself to the late Southwestern writer Edward Abbey, Treadwell refuses to name the places where he works so they don't become overrun.

''I'm working for the bear,'' Treadwell said last summer in a brief telephone interview. ''I just want to continue living with the animals. I'm documenting amazing things and looking out for a particular group of bears. If I screw up, the very bears I'm in love with will be killed.''

In his book ''Among Grizzlies,'' Treadwell says he was compelled to devote his life to saving grizzlies after nearly dying of a drug overdose and then experiencing several close scrapes with brown bears during his early trips to Alaska. Once, he said, he fell into a fetal position when a bear ran toward him. The bear just stepped over him, scraping its belly on his shoulder.

He says those experiences led him to quit drugs, study bears and start a nonprofit organization, called Grizzly People, that seeks to increase people's appreciation of bears.

Joel Bennett, Alaska director of Defenders of Wildlife, said Treadwell is effective at what he does. He described him as a ''bona fide naturalist'' and as someone who connects well with schoolchildren.

''He can take a segment of the classroom that couldn't care a whiff about bears, and he'll have them in the palm of his hand by the end of his talk,'' Bennett said.

Because of the educational work he does and his appearances on talk shows with Letterman and Rosie O'Donnell, Liggett said, the Park Service has chosen to work with Treadwell to tailor his messages rather than cite him or try to shut him out of the park.

Chuck Bartlebaugh, executive director of the Center for Wildlife Information in Montana, also is working with Treadwell so he'll give people sound advice for behavior around bears. He said this latest appearance with Letterman showed considerable improvement over past episodes because Treadwell didn't talk about getting close to bears and advised people not to feed them.

Tour guides who take visitors to the bays along the Alaska Peninsula where Treadwell lives each summer said their clients find him entertaining and well-informed.

''He gets to know the bears by name,'' said Dean Andrew of Andrew Airways in Kodiak.

''I've watched him talk to those bears. It's almost like they are big dogs. And I've seem them mind what he says, like a dog would mind you.''

Tom Smith, a bear biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, argues that Treadwell is contradicting the basic national park philosophy of leaving nature alone.

Smith said it appears Treadwell has habituated at least some bears to his presence.

While that may be fairly easy to do among Katmai bears, accustomed to living in dense populations because of plentiful food, Smith worries that someone might try to duplicate Treadwell's behavior in places where grizzlies are more aggressive.

And as the bear-viewing industry grows in Alaska and as reality TV grows in popularity, some bear experts fear tourists might get the idea that bears aren't all that dangerous.

''I'm afraid it will be the next 'real TV' experience'' to try to get as close as possible to bears and put it on film, said Colleen Matt, regional refuge manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

''The worst part of it is that if somebody does get hurt, they will kill that bear,'' Smith said. ''What kind of tribute to the bear is that?''

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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