Fearless Grizzly Activist Tempted Fate -- and Lost (2024)

By his own account, Timothy Treadwell barely survived his first summer camping in Alaska’s wilderness.

He had no idea how to pitch a tent, stay dry or cook for himself. He brought a sleeping bag several sizes too small.

In those early years, Treadwell looked like what he was: a shaggy blond beach bum from Malibu. But he had a thing for grizzly bears.


Treadwell, 46, persevered and spent the last 13 summers living among the immense creatures. Friends took to comparing him to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

The object of Treadwell’s affections turned on him last Sunday, when he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, 37, were mauled to death by an old male bear outside their tent in Katmai National Park in Alaska.

Treadwell’s story was a variation on a classic American tale. Battered by an aimless life in Southern California and his body ravaged by drugs, he saw the Alaskan wilderness as his tonic.

There, Treadwell discovered a sense of purpose: He would live with and protect grizzlies from poachers. His fearlessness earned him fame. He wrote a book and appeared on national television programs.

He also had many critics, who say he broke park rules, harassed wildlife and believed wrongly that he had a spiritual kinship with the bears. They had long predicted his demise if he didn’t change his ways.

Treadwell was undeterred. When a Times reporter asked him in 1994 if he was afraid of the bears, his answer was: “They wouldn’t hurt me.”


“He was out there for 13 years, and it was probably a combination of skill and luck, and the luck ran out,” said Louisa Willcox, a friend of Treadwell’s and director of the Wild Bears Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“But he also had a magic with the bears. There isn’t anything else to explain it with.... He was a bear whisperer.”


Whether or not Timothy Treadwell had a special connection with the bears is doubted by experts, who say the animals merely tolerated his presence, and he contributed little to the body of knowledge about them. His friends say he taught more people around the world about the bears than any serious researcher ever could.

Treadwell wasn’t the only person watching grizzlies in Alaska. In Katmai National Park and Preserve -- one of his favorite stomping grounds -- 69 commercial operators offer bear-viewing excursions, according to park records.

The park, like much of Alaska, has a lot of bears. State wildlife officials estimate that there are 30,000 to 40,000 grizzlies, also known as brown bears, living in Alaska, compared to a population of 1,000 to 1,400 mostly in the northern Rockies in the contiguous United States.

What set Treadwell apart was his insistence on camping near the bears and wanting to interact with them.

Officials at Katmai National Park say they have nothing against people hiking or camping in bear country, but they worried that Treadwell had crossed the line.

Treadwell was born in New York in 1957 as Timothy Dexter, the third of five children. As an adult, he changed his name to Treadwell, from his mother’s side of the family. He liked the alliteration of it, he told friends.

After high school, Treadwell left for Southern California and landed in Long Beach, eventually working in restaurants. He spent much of his time indulging in booze and drugs.

The inevitable overdose -- on heroin and cocaine -- came in the late 1980s, according to his book “Among Grizzlies.” After he left the hospital, at the urging of a friend, he decided to go to Alaska and watch bears. He had never spent time around bears, but later wrote that they had always fascinated him.

His early attempts at camping were, at times, almost comical. He wrote that he often was cold, hungry and tormented by insects. The first time he saw a grizzly, it immediately ran away. Treadwell later said he was sad that any bear would find him a threat.

Mark Emery, a wildlife filmmaker and outdoor guide, first saw Treadwell from the air in the early 1990s. Emery, who splits his time between Ocala, Fla., and Alaska, was on a charter flight over Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park with a film crew from National Geographic. They looked down and saw Treadwell desperately waving his arms.


“He said he wanted to get out of there right away because the bears had been in his camp,” Emery said. “I took a picture of him holding a water jug that was crushed by a bear. He said he was learning to be around bears.”

Treadwell was camping near the coast and was nearly out of water -- although a freshwater stream was nearby, Emery said. At Treadwell’s request, the film crew contacted a charter service to come pick him up.

A staple character in Treadwell’s slide shows came from one of his misadventures. This was Timmy the Fox, who Treadwell said brought him fish to eat after he had run out of food while camping one year. Treadwell eventually taught the fox to fetch tennis balls and allowed Timmy to sleep inside his tent.

Joel Bennett, a Juneau-based filmmaker, had known Treadwell since 1989, and over the years often filmed him interacting with the fox and the bears. Bennett said he saw things he never thought he would see, including the time a mother bear left two cubs near Treadwell as if she expected him to baby-sit her babies.

“He wanted to give the animals his unconditional love and he cared what people thought of him,” Bennett said. “The thing I grappled to understand with Tim and try to place him in the cosmos is there are these special people who interact with wild animals that regular people don’t. Who knows what their ability is, the special language, smell or body language.”

As the years passed, Treadwell kept getting closer to the bears. He liked to tell of the time he calmly defused a potentially dangerous encounter with a bear by talking to it. When the confrontation was over, he laid down and took a nap next to the snoozing bear.


In the early years in Alaska, Treadwell stayed away from people, said John Rogers, 54, who owns Katmai Coastal Bear Tours in Homer. “He wished to maintain a very secretive existence out there [so that]

Treadwell began acting like a bear. “Sometimes, when you come up on a bear on occasion, if it doesn’t want nothing to do with people, it will run off in the other direction,” Rogers said. “As it runs, it will stop and turn around and look, and run and stop and turn around and look. It’s just a thing a bear does. Tim would mimic that.”

In California during the winter, Treadwell worked as a bartender at a number of Westside restaurants. He stayed sober. With an old friend, Jewel Palovak, he wrote his 1997 book “Among Grizzlies.”

And together they began Grizzly People, a nonprofit group devoted to educating people -- especially schoolchildren -- about bears. But Treadwell’s altruistic notions often overrode what little business sense he had, said Palovak, who had to remind him not to give away too many of his photos for free.

Treadwell drew a small salary from the group and his lecturing. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio became a donor, giving Grizzly People nearly $25,000 in the last three years, said DiCaprio publicist Ken Sunshine.

Did Treadwell have a special connection with the bears? Not all bear researchers thought so.


“I’ve been working on bears for a long time, and more and more I’m convinced that most of the credit for bears and people getting along goes to the bears,” said John Hechtel, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who specializes in bear-human interactions.

Bears along the Alaskan coast are well-fed because of the area’s salmon runs. The salmon attract an extremely dense population of bears. So, the challenge for the coastal grizzlies isn’t dealing with people -- it’s competing with other grizzlies for food.

Treadwell spent his summers camping in several parks in Alaska, but Katmai National Park, in the southwest corner of the state, became a favorite. Almost from the start, though, National Park Service officials worried about his behavior.

In 1998, according to the park service, Treadwell was issued a citation by park rangers for storing an ice chest in his sleeping tent -- a dumb move in bear country. Rangers also found boxes of co*ke and canned fruit outside his tent. On another occasion, he was ordered by rangers to remove from his campsite a portable generator, a device prohibited in wilderness areas.

Treadwell also frustrated rangers because he refused to carry a can of pepper-like spray to deter a charging grizzly. Nor would he put electric fences around his tent.

Deb Liggett, outgoing superintendent of Katmai National Park, became sufficiently concerned about Treadwell that she took him for a cup of coffee in Anchorage several years ago. “I told him that if we had any more violations from him, we would petition the U.S. magistrate to ban him from the park,” she said.


Liggett applauded the fact that Treadwell was winning fans for the bears, and was being more careful to implore people not to attempt what he did. But she and other park officials fretted that one swipe of a paw would undo all that and result in a media frenzy of stories about fearsome, man-eating grizzlies.

Amie Huguenard apparently didn’t share the same concern. A physician’s assistant in Aurora, Colo., she first fell in love with Treadwell’s book and eventually its author, said Kim Sullivan, a friend who worked with Huguenard.

Huguenard quit her job on Jan. 31 and moved to Malibu.

The couple had spent parts of the two previous summers together in Alaska. Huguenard told Sullivan once about the time that she and Treadwell were trying to cross a river when a bear charged them. Sullivan recalls Huguenard telling it: “It was a two-hour standoff, and she could feel the bear’s breath on her.”

In September, Huguenard again boarded a plane to Alaska to meet Treadwell. The couple wanted one more chance to be with the bears before winter fell.


A few weeks ago, Treadwell wrote Bill Sims a letter. Sims owns the Newhalen Lodge near Katmai, and in the letter Treadwell said that a few bears at his campsite near Kaflia Bay were more aggressive than usual.

Investigators are still trying to sort out exactly what happened to Treadwell last Sunday. They say it’s doubtful they will ever know the full story.


The pilot of a bush plane found the partially buried remains of Treadwell and Huguenard at their campsite Monday when he arrived to pick them up. Years ago, Treadwell had told a journalist that if a bear should kill him, he hoped his body would never be found.

When park rangers and state troopers arrived at the scene, they killed two bears that they say charged them. A necropsy of one of the bears, a 28-year-old male adult, determined that it had fed on the bodies, said National Park Service spokesman John Quinley.

A video camera was found at the campsite. The attack was recorded on the last three minutes of the tape, but there is only audio. Investigators believe that Huguenard was inside the tent when Treadwell ran into the bear, and that for some reason he may have been wearing a voice-activated microphone.

According to Alaska state troopers, the tape begins with Treadwell screaming that he is being attacked. “Come out here; I’m being killed out here,” Treadwell said.

“Play dead!” Huguenard yelled in reply. She then urged him to “fight back.”

He asks her to get a pan and to come hit the bear. And then the tape ends.

Biologist Larry Van Daele of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wrote a report on the mauling. The report, according to the Anchorage Daily News, concludes that Treadwell had set up his tent in thick brush smack on top of a bear trail. “A person could not have designed a more dangerous place to set up a camp,” Van Daele wrote.

Even some of Treadwell’s friends were left shaking their heads.

Doug Peaco*ck was one of them. A medic who served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, he spent much of the 1970s and ‘80s running from the war while roaming the Rockies in search of bears before writing a popular book about his adventures titled “Grizzly Years.”


Treadwell had read it and traveled to Peaco*ck’s Arizona home to seek his advice. Peaco*ck, who now lives in Livingston, Mont., said Treadwell -- regrettably -- ignored much of it.

But unlike other wannabes who have sought Peaco*ck out over the years, Treadwell actually summoned the gumption and courage to walk into the wilderness and live among the bears on his own terms.

“A lack of concern whether you die or not gives you incredible advantage,” Peaco*ck said. “By the end of his life, Tim Treadwell knew more about brown bear behavior than anyone.”

Officials also believe Treadwell had become the first person to be killed by a grizzly in the 85-year history of Katmai National Park.

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Fearless Grizzly Activist Tempted Fate -- and Lost (2024)


What were Timothy Treadwell's last words? ›

"Come out here; I'm being killed out here," he screams. The fact that the tape contained only sound led troopers to believe the attack might have happened while the camera was stuffed in a duffel bag or during the dark of night.

Is Amie Huguenard still alive? ›

Who was the couple eaten alive by the grizzly bear? ›

Back in October 2003, Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed by the very thing he loved the most. The documentary maker was nicknamed the 'Grizzly Man' due to his absolute adoration for bears. He had a 13-year-long tradition of flying out to Alaska every summer to mingle with the animals.

What is the 25th bear theory? ›

What is the 25th bear theory? The 25th bear theory is a superstitious explanation for the fact that, while most bears tolerate humans, some do not.

Is Brutus the Grizzly still alive? ›

Brutus died on February 2, 2021, at the age of 19.

Who was the couple killed by the bear in Algonquin Park? ›

Jenny Gusse and Doug Inglis died during a backpacking trip through Canada's Banff National Park. They're seen here on a river trip in Saskatchewan. The two campers who died in a grizzly bear attack in Banff National Park in Canada were able to send a desperate message before succumbing to their injuries.

Where was Amie Huguenard buried? ›

Eight days later, Timothy and Amie both lost their lives when a Grizzly bear attacked them in Katmai National Park and Preserve's Kodiak Island area. Her remains were cremated. Her ashes were given to her family.

Is the Mexican grizzly bear still alive? ›

The Mexican grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis, formerly Ursus arctos nelsoni) is an extinct population of the grizzly bear in Mexico.

Who was the lady killed by a bear while camping? ›

Leah Davis Lokan, 65, was killed by a grizzly bear while camping in Ovando, Montana, last year. An investigation found that Lokan scared off the bear an hour before it came back and killed her. The report said Lokan declined an offer to stay in a hotel after she chased away the bear.

Who was the bear activist killed by a bear? ›

Grizzly Man chronicles the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, who was killed, along with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, by a rogue bear in October 2003.

Who was the couple killed by a bear while filming? ›

Grizzly Man is a 2005 American documentary film by German director Werner Herzog. It chronicles the life and death of bear enthusiast and conservationist Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard at Katmai National Park, Alaska.

What is the black bear rule? ›

If a black bear charges and attacks you, FIGHT BACK WITH EVERYTHING YOU HAVE! Do not play dead. Direct punches and kicks at the bear's face, and use any weapon like rocks, branches, or bear spray to defend yourself. If a grizzly/brown bear charges and attacks you, PLAY DEAD.

Has a bear ever saved a human? ›

A northern California man who says he was attacked by a mountain lion while out on a hike has a helpful hand - or claw - to thank for his life. Robert Biggs, 69, of Paradise, Calif., says he was saved by a helpful bear.

What is the bear IQ? ›

Bear IQ takes the guesswork out of measuring and benchmarking event performance. The Bear IQ engine ingests, cleans, enriches, and measures your audience, exhibitors, and content performance across more than 100 metrics.

How long do bears live? ›

On average, bears can live up to 25 years in the wild and 50 in captivity. Six species, including the polar bear and the giant panda, are included on the IUCN Red List as threatened or vulnerable.

Does bear spray work? ›

1. Does Bear Repellent Spray Actually Work? The short answer is yes—bear spray does protect you from bears. A study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management found that bear spray is effective at stopping aggressive bears more than 90 percent of the time.

Is there a movie about Timothy Treadwell? ›

How many people are attacked by bears every year? ›

Since 1784 there have 66 fatal human/bear conflicts by wild black bears. Less than a dozen non-fatal conflicts happen each year, and the vast majority of encounters end with zero bodily contact. Why? Because black bears are far more likely to run away from you than engage.

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