On October 5th, 2003, Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed by a large male grizzly bear in Katmai National Park, Alaska. The 2005 film Grizzly Man, directed by acclaimed (and often controversial) film maker Werner Herzog, documents the life of Treadwell and explores the unique and dangerous relationships that he had developed with bears over 13 summers in Alaska.
It would have been very easy for Werner Herzog to take this story and turn it into a grisly animal attack film and glorify these tragic deaths. Instead Herzog develops a narrative around Treadwell’s motivations and his history working with the bears in Alaska.
Starting in 1990, Treadwell made annual trips to Katmai National Park in Alaska where he began observing and later interacting with the local bear populations. He went to great lengths to document these experiences and in the later years he accumulated over 100 hours of video footage.
Much of this footage featured Treadwell’s alarming desire to be one with the bears. He named many of these bears and in his mind he forged relationships as we was visited by the same bear’s season over season. There is footage of Treadwell within only a few feet of these wild animals and in some instances he was filmed making contact with bears and bear cubs.
While Herzog’s treatment of Treadwell’s story is respectful, he does paint a vivid image of a man who with demons who struggled with reality. At times Treadwell’s close interactions with these animals brings to light that perhaps he had a death wish.
This film compliments the footage shot by Treadwell with interviews and conversations with his friends and associates. It is very clear that Treadwell was somewhat of an outsider and in the years leading up to his death he became obsessed with his interaction with these bears.
The most chilling moments in the films focus on the gruesome discovery of the bodies of Tim and Amie as described by pilot Willy Fulton. Upon the discovery of the bodies a camera was recovered that captured 6 minutes of horrifying audio detailing the bear attack. Director Herzog sensibly avoids playing this audio for the audience, but does feature video of him listening to the attack. His expressions clearly highlight the horror of Tim and Amie’s last few minutes alive.
For all of his flaws, Treadwell did leave his mark as a passionate environmentalist and activist for bears. He founded the organization Grizzly People which is still active today. Their goal is to “elevate the grizzly to the kindred state of the whale and dolphin through supportive education in the hopes that humans will learn to live in peace with the bears.” Although in my opinion this philosophy is slightly misguided, this organization does have a long history of preserving bear populations from poaching and educating people on bears and bear safety.
Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard’s tale is tragic and made that much sadder by the fact that it was avoidable. Even though Treadwell had tremendous respect and trust for his beloved grizzly bears, Grizzly Man is a stark reminder that wild animals cannot be trusted and that sometimes Man and Beast are not meant to come together.
Grizzly Man is recommended viewing and hopefully acts as a cautionary tale.