Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Timothy Treadwell was mauled to death by a giant grizzly bear. The remarkable thing may be that it took so long. For 13 summers the self-taught bear expert and grizzly advocate—an occasional TV guest of bear aficionado David Letterman—flew from his Malibu apartment to Alaska's Katmai National Park, home of the world's densest grizzly population. There, armed only with an edgy passion, he communed closely with dozens of the animals. "My finest moments," he once told PEOPLE, "are those spent intimately with bears."
Often likened to Dr. Dolittle, Treadwell filmed the bears, slept among them, sang to them, took notes on them and gave them names like Booble, Squiggle and Mr. Chocolate. Yes, grizzlies weigh half a ton or more and can decapitate a human with a flick of the paw. But to Treadwell we were the dangerous ones: It was his mission to protect the bears from hunting, poaching and loss of habitat. "I will not rest until the last grizzly bear is free from the harm of man," he vowed. And as he told NBC's Dateline, "I would never, ever kill a bear in defense of my own life."
He was as good as his word. Sometime late on Oct. 5, a male grizzly killed Treadwell, 46, and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, 37, a physician's assistant, at their campsite. The next day a pilot who had come to pick the couple up spied what appeared to be a bear hovering over a body. When three Park rangers arrived at the foggy, rain-soaked scene, the estimated 1,000-lb. bear charged them. Firing 19 shotgun and pistol rounds, they killed the animal—an elderly 28-year-old male that was later found to have human remains in its gut. As Alaskan state troopers landed their plane, they heard the shots and at the campsite discovered body parts identified as Treadwell's and Huguenard's and, in Treadwell's video camera, a chilling six-minute clip—audio only—capturing the attack.
"You can hear him screaming," state trooper Chris Hill says. "She's screaming, 'Is the bear still there? Play dead.' He tells her to hit the bear with a pan or can. He said something to the effect that he was dying or he was being killed. We really didn't hear the bear at all."
While many admired Treadwell's devotion, many others believed he pushed the safety envelope beyond its limits. "The truth of it is, he broke Park Service rules—no one is to approach a single bear closer than 50 yards," says Tom Smith, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Though fond of Treadwell, he believes he was an irritant to the bears as much as a friend. "Video after video, he's doing not much less than harassing wildlife."
Smith, who has chronicled 100 years of bear attacks in Alaska, says that contrary to popular belief, they are uncommon and in only 1 percent do the bears eat their human prey. "It was just a bad coincidence," says Barrie Gilbert, a retired biologist and grizzly researcher at the University of Utah, who survived a 1977 mauling in Yellowstone National Park. Still, he harbors no enmity. "These are very tolerant animals," Gilbert says. "If you give them half a chance they're going to meet their life's needs without messing with you. I don't think people should do what he did. Let's not try to form some pseudorelationship. Let bears be bears."
Treadwell's ardent embrace of bear society was a direct result of his struggles among his own species; he often said the bears saved his life as it spun into a haze of substance abuse. The third of five children, he was born in New York to Val and Carol Dexter. (He later changed his surname.) At 19, Treadwell moved to California. He indulged liberally in drugs and alcohol and nearly died after overdosing on a speedball. His one natural high had always been animals and the outdoors. In the late 1980s, Treadwell rode his motorbike up to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska and had an epiphany: "This big beautiful grizzly bear bounded out. It was like being with an alien. Something godlike. That one bear, that one sighting, I was lit."
He sobered up and spent the rest of his life commuting to Alaska, supporting himself in Malibu as a waiter and bartender. In 1995 Treadwell and Jewel Palovak started Grizzly People, an advocacy group. He lectured more than 10,000 schoolchildren a year and cowrote (with Palovak) a 1997 book on his experiences, Among Grizzlies. He met the 5-ft.-tall Huguenard—who weighed less than 100 lbs.—during a grizzly presentation in Boulder, Colo. A graduate of the University of Alabama School of Medicine, she planned to move in with Treadwell this fall and take a physician's assistant post at L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "They were bonded together on a totally unique level," says her sister Kathleen Huguenard Stowell, an art teacher. "Amie and Timothy were doing what their hearts said to do. There couldn't be any other way for them."
It's clear they were not a pair of bear-hugging naïfs—each accepted the peculiar risks of their relationship. "If people try to copy what I do, I would say that they will in fact probably die," Treadwell once said. "You can't rush it. It takes a lot of time. You've got to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice."
Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles
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