Ask a Bear

Ask a Bear: What Did Grizzly Man Do Wrong?

Sometimes, there's a lesson in tragedy. There certainly is here.

Q: I just watched the movie Grizzly Man for the first time, and it gave me chills. What do you think Timothy Treadwell did wrong?

A: Oh boy. How much time ya got?

If you haven’t heard the story before, Timothy Treadwell was an American bear enthusiast who decided he found his calling when he discovered the brown bears of Katmai National Park. He spent 13 summers living with the bears, occasionally getting so close to them that he was able to touch them and play with their cubs, before he and his girlfriend met their, er, “grizzly” end in 2003.

First up: I’m really not the social type. Treadwell believed he had formed a two-way relationship with us, one based on respect and mutual understanding. But, like airplanes, taxes, and Instagram, those are both human inventions that I don’t really have a lot of use for. Bears are solitary creatures: We hang out with our cubs, and we come together to reproduce and stuff our faces with seasonal foods like salmon or berries. Other than that? I mostly keep to myself, and I certainly don’t make “friends” with humans. (I’m sorry you had to find out this way.) Treadwell may have gotten the bears used enough to him that they stopped seeing him as an immediate threat, but as we can see from how the story played out, that didn’t mean he was safe.

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But trying to get chummy with bears isn’t just dangerous to you—it puts us at risk, too. Bears that have stopped seeing people as threats are more likely to approach them in search of food. After all, it’s easier to beg or steal than it is to forage or fish, and your kind always seems to be carrying snacks. (Mmm, Clif bars…) And while Treadwell, to his credit, knew enough not to feed the bears he hung around, his constant proximity to them probably eroded their natural, and healthy, fear of people.

Of course, if you think of bears as your friends, you’re less likely to take steps to protect yourself from us too. During the later part of his time in Alaska, Timothy Treadwell refused to carry bear spray or use electric fencing. And look, it’s not like I enjoy getting a face full of pepper spray. But while getting maced or shocked stings like heck, it’s not all bad: It teaches me to keep my distance from humans in the future. While it can be difficult to get bear spray into some locations in Alaska, because it’s so tough to fly with, it’s a must-have whenever you can get it.

Can I be uncharacteristically serious with you for a minute? I’m just not like your kind. Human cultures from around the world have anthropomorphized me for centuries, making me into everything from a cuddly protector to a monster. But in truth, I’ve always been a wild animal that played by my own rules. I eat when I’m hungry (which is most of the time), I sleep when I’m tired (or it’s too cold out) and I defend myself and my offspring from danger when I see it. Like all other wild animals, the best way to appreciate me is from afar. So give me my space, or Werner Herzog may end up making a movie about you, too.

–BEAR