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Malibu's grizzly man

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Bear activist Timothy Treadwell watches the Indys John Dicker play with his fox friend.
  • Bear activist Timothy Treadwell watches the Indys John Dicker play with his fox friend.

Play with fire and you will get burned.

It's easy to prattle off such a truism after learning how Timothy Treadwell spent his last 13 summers and how he met his gruesome end last week.

But smug dismissals don't explain very much.

Last week, Alaskan park rangers found the mauled bodies of Treadwell, 47, and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard near their campsite in Katmai National Park.

Katmai sits on the southwestern Alaskan coast; its 4 million acres include the Brooks River, the world's largest salmon run, and a population of 2,000 coastal grizzly bears. Treadwell had made the park his home since 1990, living with the bears from May to early fall.

As he explained in his 1997 memoir Among Grizzlies, Treadwell's passion for bears delivered him from a life of drug and alcohol abuse in Los Angeles.

On Oct. 6, park rangers found a video camera among Treadwell's belongings. In it was a tape chronicling his last three minutes alive as he was being mauled. There was no picture, just sound of his final struggle.

Treadwell never carried a gun, or even bear mace. The possibility of hurting the animals he loved so much just wasn't part of his game plan.

As he once told me, "Imagine someone coming into your home and you have to die because they messed up."

Five years ago, I paid too much money to chill with the G-bears of Katmai. I'd never heard of Treadwell, but I understood something of his obsession.

Expecting to be surrounded by nothing but bear, save a bush pilot and a few German tourists, I was shocked to meet an energized, sunbaked man whose tank top, bandanna cap, and blond hair reeked of Southern California.

On a tidal meadow the size of a dozen football fields, Treadwell and I talked bear. Seventy yards away, half a dozen grizzlies chomped on sedge grass.

Treadwell told me how when a full-grown griz is running nearby, you can feel the earth shake.

He told me that his relationships with bears -- some of whom he'd given such nauseatingly cute names as Cupcake, Bobble and Freckles -- helped save his skin.

For example, when an irascible adolescent bear gives him trouble, Treadwell said he'd maneuver into the territory of a friendlier bear that would chase off the assailant.

He told me that on more than one occasion bears would approach his campsite at night. It was Treadwell's belief that if he stayed put, the startled bear would attack him in his tent. So Treadwell often attacked first, screaming like a madman, he bluff-charged bears, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds.

This worked for 13 years.

Two years ago, I phoned Treadwell at his Malibu home for a story I'd pitched to a magazine. He talked with me for half an hour, explaining why he didn't want to talk to me about being with grizzlies.

The fact that I could reveal his location, he said, would attract bear poachers. Treadwell claimed his long stints in bear country were to protect the bears from poachers who sold their parts on the Asian black market.

Treadwell remarked that many of his friends felt he was due to get picked off any summer. He didn't disagree.

He said that if he were ever mauled, he wanted his body hidden in the woods so the bear that killed him wouldn't be shot by park rangers.

Sadly, this wish was never granted. Rangers destroyed an older toothless bear that was found near his remains.

But Treadwell's legacy of stories, photos and film footage, his legend of surviving where humans reign anything but supreme, will no doubt serve as his legacy.

John Dicker is an Independent staff writer.

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