October 5th marks the 10 year anniversary of the death of “Grizzly Man” Timothy Treadwell, and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, from the claws of a Grizzly Bear. What is tragically ironic is the grizzly is the animal he swore to protect. This unfortunate story has inspired numerous books, two documentaries, and a host of articles and other tawdry media hype.
So why am I expanding on a story that has already been dissected immensely?
My goal as a nature and wilderness photographer is to communicate what I saw and felt in the great outdoors. I want my viewers to appreciate the natural world; to get outside and get dirty and instill a sense of stewardship to the land. Appreciation paired with education inspire conservation. A smoker is far less likely to flick their cigarette butte on the street if they learn that it takes 15 years to breakdown and the chemicals can poison an animal’s food source (http://www.preventcigarettelitter.org/why_it_matters/environment.html).
In fact the impetus for this essay was not inspired by bears but by newly born deer fawns.
This past June as I was photographing the calving season of whitetail deer I came across more photographers and nature enthusiasts than ever before. To get up close images of the fawns I noticed a group of photographers scaring a mother away, to which the fawn reacts by bedding down in concealment. In nature whitetail does will leave their fawns in hiding as they feed. If a predator approaches, they will run around wildly in order to distract it. This is how the whitetail has evolved to behave in the natural world. My problem with this group of overzealous photographers is that they are actively interfering in the doe and fawn’s life to get that “picture.”
Timothy Treadwell actively interfered in the lives of Alaskan Grizzlies for 13 years. Singing to wild bears, touching wild bears, swimming with wild bears and he seemingly broke every rule about surviving in bear country. Yet there was a dichotomy in his approach as well. The man truly believed in his mission to save the bear. He actively preached conservation of the bear’s environment and gregariously shared that message with thousands of children in schools for no fee. He went to Alaska to heal himself from depression and addiction, and if you talk to anyone who shares a kinship with the wilderness they too will speak of the mental healing you can experience in nature, myself included.
We live in a world where it is easier to get to wild places than ever before, and every year there is a headline of a death from a wild animal that could have been prevented. Since the Treadwell tragedy there have been other “whisperers” of wild animals who are warmed under the glowing spotlight of the media. The uninformed among us go into national parks and look at the wildlife as analogous to an amusement park. I once witnessed park rangers in Yellowstone chastise a visitor because he thought it would be “cute” to try to put his child on top of a bison for a photograph. The bison almost charged.
Seeing the mighty grizzly bear in the wild is one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. It is a privilege to see them in Yellowstone and Glacier, the Yukon and Alaska. I highly encourage you to get out there too, and appreciate the great bear and its environment. But with appreciation also comes respect. Do your research, err on the side of caution, and never harass a wild animal. We all share this world so let us all be safe as well.
I believe that is what Treadwell would have wanted.