Bears Fan

updated 10/03/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/03/1994 01:00AM

THE ALASKAN BROWN BEAR FACING Timothy Treadwell weighs about 1,000 pounds. It has tree-trunk-size limbs and claws that can take the head off a man in a single swipe. As the grizzly edges closer, Treadwell does what he always does in situations like this: he begins singing ever so softly. "Hello-o-o, Mister Chocolate," he croons. Then he lies down in the damp sedge grass. Mister Chocolate looks Treadwell over...and gives a big bear shrug. Timothy Treadwell, the man who lives with the bears and sometimes sings to them, has once again survived to tell the tale.

Like a real-life Mowgli, Treadwell, 32 and single, spends three months of the year with bears, living rough on the edge of a bay in coastal Alaska, in a strange state of grace with the grizzlies. He follows the bears through their seasonal migration from the seashore, where they feed on crustaceans, to grasslands and salmon streams inland. He takes pictures of them, makes notes on their habits—and conducts a one-man crusade to protect them from people. "I will not rest," he vows, "until the last grizzly bear is free from the harm of man." Alaska, with 30,000 of the animals, is one of the last refuges of the grizzly, whose numbers in the lower 48 states have plummeted in the last two centuries from 100,000 to about 1,000.

Born in Australia, the third of five children, Treadwell at 14 moved with his family to California, where his father worked for AT&T. He was a troubled child who got into fights. "I can't put my finger on it," he says, "because I can't say I was from a dysfunctional family; they were nice parents. I'm just a little different."

After graduating from high school, Treadwell, by now in a drugs-and-alcohol haze, continued to drift. Still, he says, "I always found solace in nature, talking to squirrels and horses. The bear thing didn't come out of nowhere." Eight years ago, seeking the serenity he could get only from animals, he rode his motorbike to Alaska and met his first bear. "This big, beautiful grizzly bear bounded out," he says. "It was like being with an alien, something godlike. That one bear, that one sighting, I was lit."

Most of the year Treadwell supports himself tending bar and waiting on tables in Malibu, but every spring, when the bears' hibernation ends, he sets out to his lonely bay and sets up camp. "I'm there at the same time every year," he says. "I'm the only human that sees them, and I'm singing the same goofy songs." Treadwell estimates that he has from 10 to 50 bear encounters a day—and he has never been injured. "My finest moments," he says, "are those moments spent intimately with bears."

About four years ago, struck by the realization that "I was never going to be able to be a voice for the bears if I continued to drink," Treadwell took the pledge—addressing it, naturally, to one of his favorite bears. "Booble," he said, "I promise you from this day I'll never drink again." He has been sober ever since—and his activism has escalated. Four years ago, he founded the Great Bear Project to protect the grizzlies from hunting, poaching and loss of habitat, and he regularly lectures schoolchildren and civic groups about the plight of the grizzly. The Man Who Loves Bears, a documentary on his activism produced by Audubon Productions and Turner Broadcasting and hosted by Northern Exposure's Darren Burrows, will be shown next year.

Treadwell's in-your-snout approach to the cause of the bears doesn't draw universal acclaim. Chris Servheen, grizzly-bear recovery coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is one skeptic. "I think it's unwise to do what he does," he says. "He means well and he certainly cares a lot about bears, but if a bear kills or injures Timothy, that bear will probably be destroyed."

Dr. Stephen Herrero, a research biologist at the University of Calgary and author of Bear Attacks, Their Causes and Avoidance, calls Treadwell's approach "dangerous and very unorthodox," but does concede that "he has the potential for seeing previously unseen aspects of bear behavior."

Treadwell, blissfully singing to the great bears, doesn't worry about that. He has little contact with his parents, who now live in New York State, or his four siblings—but he does have an album filled with pictures of his nearest and dearest. In it are photographs of Mister Chocolate and Booble and Windy and Casper and all the other bears he has met and named. "My family," he says, "are the bears."

MICHAEL NEILL
LYNDON STAMBLER in Alaska

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