Screens The 25th grizzly

Grizzly advocate Jewel Palovak talks about why Timothy Treadwell loved the most dangerous bear

In the fall of 2003, self-taught grizzly-bear expert Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, died at the paws of the animals to whom Treadwell had devoted his life. A co-founder of Grizzly People, Treadwell spent his last 13 summers with the bears in Alaska's wilderness. Back in the lower 48, he shared his remarkable footage of life among the grizzlies with schoolchildren and the general public, becoming something of a celebrity. Treadwell's videos - in which the towheaded Prince Valiant cavorts, scolds, whispers, sings, and crows with and about the bears - form the backbone of Werner Herzog's documentary, Grizzly Man, but the footage, raw and intimate as it is, leaves unresolved man's ongoing conflict with nature: Is it to be loved or feared? Pacified or preserved? Jewel Palovak, Treadwell's best friend and co-founder of Grizzly People, spoke with the Current by telephone about Treadwell's singular life, death, and the future of Grizzly People. The full interview can be found online at

Grizzly-bear advocate Timothy Treadwell, bottom right, spent 13 summers among the grizzlies of Alaska, interacting closely with them and, during the last five years, documenting their behavior. Werner Herzog's documentary, Grizzly Man, uses extensive footage from Treadwell, and interviews the friends and family who are still mourning his untimely and violent death.

Is the way Timothy is in his wilderness documentaries the way he was in everyday life?

I think the film is truly like a photo album of Timothy Treadwell. He was all those ways: He was happy, he was passionate, he was pissed, he was full of life, he was downtrodden.

He talked to the dogs and horses in a singsong kind of voice like that; he was very ebullient, effusive a lot.

I was struck by the scene in which `director Werner Herzog` listens to the audiotape of the attack `the sound recording on Treadwell's video camera was activated during the fatal attack`, and I think at that point you said you hadn't listened to it ...

No, I've not listened to it.

... and then he urged you to destroy it. Did you take that advice? No. He keeps saying that he gave me stupid advice and he's glad that I didn't destroy it.

He was just so in the moment.

He was. He was very, very shaken - I mean he needed a full 15, 20 minutes just to kind of regain himself after the cameras went off.

Do you ever feel the temptation to listen to the tape or is it just that you feel like it needs to be preserved?

I don't really want the last memory of my best friend to be `of him` screaming for his life. I'm glad it's in a safety-deposit box because when I got it it was a Saturday, my lawyer got it to me late, the banks weren't open the next day, and it was kind of like the telltale heart ticking away in my closet. There's a chance it could be analyzed by a forensic audio expert, someone that could separate layers of sound, see if there was more than one bear, see maybe what else they may have said to each other. I know there's a lot of people that think I should destroy it, but it's safe and sound and I just feel like it's the same: If I listen to it, there's no going back. If I destroy it, there's no going back.

In the film, Herzog talks about how he believes Timothy was facing down some of his demons by retreating to the wilderness and interacting with the bears. What did the bears mean to Timothy?

I think that the bears truly gave Timothy a sense of salvation. He was separated from his family, he was very close to his mother, but I really think that he felt that the animals were his true family.

What are your future plans for Grizzly People?

The main goal was and still is preservation and protection. I'm hoping to make the website an interactive forum for grizzly-bear issues, for reporting of poaching. The movie doesn't really address that. In the 13 summers Timothy was up there there were no reports of poaching in Katmai National Park and Preserve, and in 2004, the first year that he wasn't there, six bears were poached at the park.

If someone volunteered to take Timothy's place, would you let them go?

No, not under Grizzly People sanctions. People are really, really afraid of the bears when they first get there, and then after an hour they're not so afraid, and then they're kind of a little more ... It would really have to be the right person. I don't want there to be Timothy Treadwell imitators. He had a real gift with them and he knew them for a really long time. Some of them were tolerant of him because of the fact he knew them since they were cubs, and then the cubs grew up and had their own cubs and left the cubs with Timothy. It takes a really long time and a certain special kind of person to develop that kind of bond.

What do you think happened with the bear or bears that attacked Timothy?

You know, if you drink and drive every day, you're probably going to get a DUI. If you interact with 1,000-pound grizzly bears, you're bound to run across one that's not so good. They call it the 25th grizzly. They say like one in every 25 grizzlies is aggressive and can have that kind of attitude.

Grizzly Man

Dir. Warner Herzog (R)
And then there's also the theory that he could have actually accomplished his goal: I think he really kind of wanted to morph into a bear. Bears don't normally kill people and eat them. They will maul somebody; male bears will kill each other and partially eat the loser in a show of dominance. So there's a chance that possibly he tried so hard to become a bear, he was being treated just like one.

Text and interview by Elaine Wolff


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