The Bears Are Not Your Friends.
Have you ever seen Werner Herzog’s heartrending 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, about the life and death of nature enthusiast Timothy Treadwell? It’s hard for me not to be struck by the depth and breadth of the delusion that the unfortunate Mr. Treadwell harbored until he and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were mauled to death by grizzly bears at Katmai National Park in Alaska: The delusion that the bears were his friends.
It turned out, in the end, that the bears were not his friends. But he didn’t understand that until he was being ripped and clawed and eaten by a bear. And maybe not even then.
Timothy Treadwell loved the bears, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong at all with being enthusiastic about grizzlies – they are, after all, magnificent creatures. It’s understandable that a person would be in awe of their sheer power and commanding presence and natural beauty. I suppose that it’s not even terribly surprising that a person might come to desire being part of the bear’s world, to travel in the wake of their magnificence. Who doesn’t want to think that danger will not touch us if we hold a strong enough belief that it won’t? Who doesn’t want to believe that one might control and even command the kind of power that makes others tremble with fear? But there is a point at which admiration and respect becomes a kind of manic, obsessive idealization. Earlier, I used the word ‘unfortunate,’ and it was a poor choice of words – fortune is defined as “chance or luck as an external, arbitrary force affecting human affairs.” The word implies randomness, coincidence, the unexpected. It is a tragedy that Treadwell and Huguenard lost their lives at so young an age, and in so horrific a manner. But really, given their actions, is there anything unexpected in this?
At no point does Herzog make the claim that Treadwell was a bad person. But this film, like so much of Herzog’s work, explores madness; in this case, the inherent madness of Treadwell’s beliefs. “I am a kind warrior!” Treadwell railed, “I will not die at their claws and paws! I will be a master!” Whether this bombastic declaration is born of sincere conviction or arrogant speciousness or some mixture of both we cannot say. So much of Treadwell’s belief and manner seem to make him a ripe target for ridicule (and indeed, much of the news coverage that followed in the wake of Treadwell’s death skews towards the sarcastic), but Herzog avoids the cheap shots and his calm, measured narration never treats his subject with anything less than dignity and compassion even as he highlights, through interviews and Treadwell’s own wealth of video footage, how inevitable the misguided environmentalist’s death was.
This is perhaps the most maddening aspect of the documentary – the fervor with which Treadwell clings to his delusion, despite repeated warnings from park rangers and officials that his interaction with the bears could only have one ending. “At best, he’s misguided,” Deb Liggett, superintendent at Katmai, told the Anchorage Daily News two years before Treadwell’s death. “At worst, he’s dangerous. If Timothy models unsafe behavior, that ultimately puts bears and other visitors at risk.” In other words, anthropomorphizing the grizzly bears was foolish enough, but his delusion gave other people a false impression of the nature of the bears. Amie Huguenard would pay with her life for accepting Treadwell’s naïveté – or arrogance – as being representative of reality.
For thirteen years, Treadwell, convinced of his mastery of the bears and of the bears’ own good will towards him, interacted with the bears and escaped death, to the incredulity of of park rangers and experts. The park rangers even tried to use Treadwell’s love of the bears to save him from them – they pointed out how horrible it would be if they had to kill bears in order to save his life. As it happens, Liggett’s prophecy was completely accurate: Two bears were killed during the retrieval of Treadwell and Huguenard’s remains. So even in sacrificing his life and his companion’s life to his ideals, he ultimately betrays them. So it is when you trifle with bears, and with government. Don’t try to feed them; don’t try to pet them. Keep a respectful distance, and always keep a wary eye open.
Did Treadwell have a connection with the bears? Of course not. But if we judge by the portrait that Herzog paints of Treadwell in this film, he needed to feel as if he did have that connection. Like some people are rabidly Democratic or immovably Republican, Timothy Treadwell’s identity was completely consumed by his relationship with the bears. He had been rejected by the world of people, or so he thought, and so tried to make his place in the world of bears – the only existence that mattered to him, by the end, was his identity within the context of the bears.
“For the majority of people cannot endure the barreness and futility of their lives unless they have some ardent dedication,” writes philosopher Eric Hoffer, “or some passionate pursuit in which they can lose themselves.” For some people, it’s politics; for others, it’s religion. For Timothy Treadwell, it was the bears. In the footage displayed by Herzog in his documentary, Treadwell rails with profanity against civilization in general and the park service in particular. He declares himself the bears’ protector, stressing his own importance as the only thing that stands between the fierce animals and some vague, undefined doom. “I am the only protection these bears have,” he snarls, completely convinced of the indispensability of his crusade, likewise completely oblivious to his actual irrelevance to the bears except, perhaps, as an object of curiosity… or, later, as a food supply. He whispers with almost manic intensity, over and over, “I would die for these bears. I would die for these bears. I would die for these bears.” The bears themselves had done nothing to inspire this feverish devotion… except to be bears. But Treadwell looked for, and found, an affinity with the bears that he could not find with other people. But grizzly bears do not become our friends because we wish them to be.
Yeah. Politicians are like grizzly bears. Government bureaucrats? Grizzly bears.
It’s not a compliment, by the way, or an insult. It’s just, I think, a felicitous metaphor. Bears, like politicians, are what they are. Expecting them to be anything other than what they are is foolishness. Ignoring what they are because you like them is dangerous. Grizzly Man could be considered a nature documentary, I suppose, but really, if it’s about any sort of nature at all, it’s about the nature of humans to delude themselves about the nature of other things. Like grizzly bears, for instance. Or government.
You may delude yourself into thinking the bears understand and like you, and give them whimsical names like ‘Rowdy’ and ‘Mr. Chocolate,’ but the reality is that they are still bears. It doesn’t matter how strongly you believe in the bears’ good will. It doesn’t matter how much you love the bears and support them. It’s not enough. The bears do not care. The bears will do whatever instinct tells them is in their best interest. They are not driven by friendship or mutual respect. They are driven by hunger, the need to feed, to consume. When salmon is available, they consume salmon. If roots and berries are available, they consume roots and berries. If garbage is available, they consume garbage. And if you happen to be the thing that is easiest to reach, then you are the thing that they will consume.
Like the bears, the State does whatever is in its best interests, not yours, and like the lumbering grizzlies, the mechanism of government cares little for your belief in the system or your unswerving faith that it would never harm you. But in reality, government is driven to consume to sustain itself as ravenously, as instinctively, as any grizzly bear. And if you should happen to find yourself in its path, it will consume you, too. It’s madness, or arrogance, to assume otherwise. This doesn’t mean that you should fear the bears, or hate the bears, or reject bears altogether. If you like bears, there’s nothing wrong with that. The bears have a place in the ecosystem that is useful. Appreciate the bears. Love the bears, if you like. But never, ever make the mistake of thinking that the bears are your friends.
The bears are not your friends.