Grizzly Man is about Timothy Treadwell, a self-styled bear expert and naturalist that spent 13 summers living with the bears in Katmai National Park. Much of the footage in the movie was taken by Treadwell who spent his last few years at Katmai recording over 100 hours of footage of his bears, his foxes, and himself. He did as many as 15 retakes of scenes where he is doing commentary, so he was obviously preparing to make a movie with himself as the on-camera narrator.

On October 5, 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed and eaten by one or more bears. The attack was recorded on 6 minutes of tape. His friends grieved his death, but they were not terribly surprised. Treadwell took a lot of unnecesary risks, despite warnings from Park Rangers. After a few years with the bears, he stops using an electrified fence around his camp site and he stops carrying pepper spray.

Timothy Treadwell, 46, and Amie Huguenard, 37
Timothy Treadwell, 46, and Amie Huguenard, 37

He loved his bears, called them by name and treated them like friends. In some of the footage, he reaches out beyond the camera lens and into the frame to touch the bears on the nose. He tells each one “I love you.” It is a dangerous and foolish thing to treat wild and potentially dangerous animals like cuddly friends and get so close. He sets up camp in locations that he himself called very dangerous. In other ways he lived by the rules, being scrupulously careful about food storage and cooking.

He knew the bears and their individual behavior very well. He knew how to behave around the bears and what he could and couldn’t do with each invidual bear. He is a strange contradiction, being both very knowledgeable and aware, and naively foolish. Perhaps it is this naivete and innocence, combined with his knowledge of the bears and wonderful photography that made him so popular with school children as he went around the country and made presentations about living with the bears.

While his love for the bears grows, so does his paranoid suspicion about humans. He finds a note on a downed tree, “Hi Timothy, see you summer 2001,” and a happy face drawn on a rock and interprets both of these as threats. He goes into an angry rant against the National Park Service, filled with vulgarities (bleeped out) and obscene gestures (fuzzed out). Then he comes back on camera to do more takes of his rant. In Treadwell’s world, bears are perfect, people are bad, and he is the only one who cares about and protects his bears from poachers, eco-tourists, and the National Park Service.

One of Treadwell’s Foxes

Some of the videography is stunning. The fight between “Mickey” and “Sgt. Brown” is terrifying in its power and ferocity. It leaves no doubt what one of these bears could do to a human. The landscape is beautiful. There are delightful scenes of the bears at play and charming scenes of Treadwell at play with the foxes that den near his campsite.

The foxes that become habituated to his presence climb on his tent, chase him across the fields, and let him stroke their fur like they are pet dogs. There is some mutuality betwen him and the foxes and he grieves when one is killed. It also conflicts with his fairy tale view of nature. He doesn’t like nature “red in tooth and claw” and he is disturbed when his “perfect” bears eat the cubs when there aren’t enough salmon during a drought. He yells at God for not providing enough rain so the salmon can run upstream so the bears can feed.

There is no evident mutuality between Treadwell and the bears. His affection for them is obvious, but it isn’t a two way street. The bears are just curious about this strange creature in their environment. They aren’t hostile or ferocious with Treadwell. They really do seem like giant teddy bears in much of the footage – but we all know the dangerous potential for things to go terribly wrong in an instant.

On October 5, Treadwell called his best friend by satellite phone with good news to share. He spotted one of his favorite sows that had been missing and he feared she had been killed by poachers. Now that she had been spotted and is safe, Treadwell was ready to be picked up. Arrangments are made for a pilot to come the next day.

Treadwell shot some more video footage that afternoon of the bears and Amie. He does a final on-camera commentary. Later that day or that night, he left the tent to check on a bear near the tent. He (or Amie) turned the camera on but the lens cap was left on so the final 6 minutes of tape is audio only. Mercifully, the audio is left out of the movie. The very few persons who listened to the tape describe the final horrifying minutes.

Treadwell yells that he is being attacked. His girlfriend tells him to play dead and the bear ends the attack. When Treadwell moves the bear attacks again. Huguenard attacks the bear and hits it repeatedly on the head with a pan but to no avail. Amidst his moans, Treadwell senses the end and tells his girlfriend to run away. She will not leave him and continues to fight the bear. Her screams change in intensity and volume. The tape runs out.

Two of Treadwell's Bears
Two of Treadwell’s Bears

The next day the pilot who comes to pick them up is charged by a large older bear. He escapes to his plane and takes off. He flies over the camp and sees the bear over a human rib cage. He buzzes the bear but can’t scare it off. He calls state troopers and park rangers. When they come on the scene they are charged by the same bear and have to shoot it. While they gather the few remains, they are stalked by a 3 year old bear and have to shoot it too. They take the remains and all of the camping gear and leave. Hindered by bad weather, they can’t return for two days.

When they come back, all of the younger bear has been eaten except for its head. There is nothing left to tell if he was involved in the deaths. The bigger bear is 28 years old, weighs 1,000 pounds and has broken teeth. When they cut him open, he is filled with human parts and clothing. Having eaten his fill, the older bear was preparing to cache what was left of the remains when the pilot first arrived. There is no way of knowing if he killed the couple, or came along later to take advantage of a smaller bear’s kill. The whole thing was a real trajedy.

Treadwell stayed at Katmai much later than he had in other years. Most of “his” bears had begun to den up for the winter. Bears from the interior that Treadwell was not familiar with had moved into the area to feed on salmon remains before hibernating. It is a dengerous time when the bears are more desparate and aggressive as they try to put on a few last pounds, especially the older bears. Treadwell was camped within yards of several bear trails through the thick brush. It was a very dangerous situation. He is judged most harshly by some of his critics for risking his girlfriend’s life.

Grizzly Man is a fascinating look at this contradictory man and the the world he loved. At times Treadwell is likeable and almost charming. At other times he is disturbed and disturbing. Director Herzog’s view of nature is the opposite of Treadwell’s, but he is still sensitive to Treadwell the man and his complex motives.

Timothy Treadwell
Timothy Treadwell and one of his beloved bears

For further reading:

The Myth of Timothy Treadwell
A tragic loss by Lynn Rogers
News Account: Grizzly mauls, kills a bear ‘expert’
Blood Brothers

Treadwell’s book and Herzog’s movie:

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