‘Grizzly Man’s’ friends defend his memory

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Jewel Palovak and Timothy Treadwell. Palovak co-founded the nonprofit organization Grizzly People with Treadwell.

The recent spate of films and books about late Malibu resident Timothy Treadwell has riled longtime friends, who say inaccurate information on the man who befriended the grizzly bears of Alaska, and then died in a bear attack, is being spread by the media.

By Rachael Stillman / Special to The Malibu Times

When fierce grizzly bear activist and Malibu resident Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, died two years ago after being mauled and partially eaten by a grizzly, he left behind a hundred hours of grizzly bear footage, six minutes of video audio track recording his death and speculation about the attack and his own dangerous and risky behavior. His death and life have inspired fury and fascination in the media-most recently with Michael Lapinski’s book “Death in the Grizzly Maze: The Timothy Treadwell Story” and Werner Herzog’s documentary “Grizzly Man”-not necessarily because he lived with grizzly bears for 13 summers, but because he seemed unable to stop charging toward what some say was a foreseeable demise.

Treadwell grew up in a middle-class Long Island, New York family. His love of animals came at an early age and he was an excellent diver in high school. In his late teens, he headed to California to pursue a career as an actor. However, success in show business eluded him and Treadwell eventually got involved with drugs and alcohol. After almost overdosing on heroin, he came to Alaska and fell in love with the grizzly bear. He annually made trips to Katmai National Park during the summer and lived among the grizzlies for 12 years.

Close friends of Treadwell are opposed to how he has been portrayed, especially Lapinski’s depiction. They had refused to be interviewed by the author, who, they say, is a bear trapper, for “Death in the Grizzly Maze,” and that his book contains a great deal of misinformation.

Jewel Palovak, who maintains the grassroots organization, Grizzly People, which she and Treadwell founded in 1998, is responsible for keeping Treadwell’s work and legacy alive. She continues to craft his tapes and pictures into educational slide shows, videotapes and DVDs so people can learn about and better understand the grizzly bear.

“When Timothy was in the wild it was to shoot video and still photography to craft into educational videos,” Palovak explained. “Timothy had a protective mission. He wanted to bring the bears into focus as creatures that are very intelligent, playful, with their own hierarchy … through Timothy, people can continue to be inspired to preserve and protect grizzlies.”

As Treadwell’s executor of estate, Palovak granted documentary filmmaker Herzog access into Treadwell’s life for “Grizzly Man,” but refused to speak with ex-bear hunter and trapper Lapinski, in regards to his book.

“He e-mailed me as “Trapper Mike” and when I Googled his name, I discovered that he was a bear hunter and trapper,” Palovak said. “He had an online video that taught people how to trap and kill bears. I told him that I was not interested in working with a bear hunter.”

Lapinski detailed this brief exchange with Palovak in his book to explain why he was not able to offer her insider account on Treadwell’s life. At the end of the book, he also apologizes for not being able to offer further research and insight, as many of Treadwell’s friends preferred not to speak with him. “Death in the Grizzly Maze” largely explores conservationists’, bear researchers’ and former Katmai National Park superintendent Deb Liggett’s dismay with Treadwell’s behavior. Experts repeatedly make it clear that Treadwell was violating bear safety rules, getting way too close to the grizzlies. Lapinski referred to Treadwell’s behavior as “bear harassment,” saying he stressed the bears out, and far from protecting them, did more harm than good by acclimating them to humans. Lapinski speculates how the attack would have played out had Treadwell not refused to carry bear pepper spray. By his own admission, the purpose of his book was to “make sure this tragedy is not repeated.”

Palovak said she felt the book contained too much conjecture.

“He didn’t really do much research. There is a lot of inaccurate information in the book. Timothy never worked as a cocktail waiter. Pierce Brosnan never gave Grizzly People money,” Palovak said. “The book was more of a diatribe than anything else; this was a book about a man he never met, and whose friends wouldn’t talk to him. That was what got me about [The Malibu Times] David Wallace’s review of the book, because he said the book was well researched.”

Marc Gaede, a close friend of Treadwell’s for about eight years, was equally incensed by Wallace’s review. (Treadwell often spoke at the environmental class Gaede taught at the Art Center College of Design, and Gaede often contributed money and material support to Treadwell’s projects.) In a letter to The Malibu Times, Gaede detailed his disapproval for Wallace’s review.

“With the exception of one person, Lapinski wasn’t able to interview any of Tim’s close friends because they wouldn’t talk to him. Yet he goes on and on quoting from erroneous newspapers and magazines, which also lacked inside information,” Gaede wrote. “Lapinski’s endless portrayal of the mauling couldn’t be more off base as evidenced by the coroner’s report, which transcribes the final audio tape.”

Director Herzog, famous for his portrayals of complicated figures, gave a more varied look at Treadwell’s life in “Grizzly Man.” He saw Treadwell as an egocentric, a man with demons, an attention-getter forever inserting himself into his videos, but someone not without charm and passion.

Although Palovak collaborated with Herzog on giving him information and access to Treadwell’s life and friends, she was not entirely happy with the outcome of that work either.

“I knew it wouldn’t be a real nature documentary, or a love letter to Timothy,” Palovak said. “Yes, he acts crazy, he’s intelligent, he’s funny, he’s mad; people are all of these things … I do wish there was more of a nature spin to it. I wish the movie had done more to educate people on the plight of the grizzly bear and preservation of the bears.”

Valerie Roach, an elementary school teacher who had Treadwell as a guest speaker in her classroom several times, said she thought the documentary was unbalanced.

“Timothy spent six months of the year lecturing at schools, which he would do for free. He spent a great part of his life teaching people about grizzly bears. And he was great at what he did. He made his listeners accountable for what he was teaching them,” Roach said.

Whatever the media view is presented of Treadwell, his work and his life, he had major supporters who believed in him, including superstar Leonardo DiCaprio, who contributed greatly to the nonprofit Grizzly People foundation.

DiCaprio explained to The Malibu Times before Treadwell left for his last and fatal trip: “I am a strong advocate of Timothy Treadwell because he risks his life to protect animals and he is reaching the next generation by teaching children how to preserve the planet.”