Celebrity seeker or wildlife protector?

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Timothy Treadwell with Pierce Brosnan and IFAW Director A.J. Cady at Duke's Malibu in January 2003 for the screening of his documentary "On Thin Ice," about the slaughter of the harp seal. Treadwell is more known for his work with grizzly bears, of which one or more killed him on his last trip to Alaska later that year.

“Death in a Grizzly Maze,” by Mike Lapinski, Falcon/Globe Pequot Press, $14.95.

By David Wallace/ Special to The Malibu Times

During the last years of his 46-year lifetime, the image of Malibuite Timothy Treadwell assumed near mythic proportions. He was a self-described alcoholic loser who cleaned up his act by losing himself in the Alaskan wilderness. He was seen as a “bear whisperer,” a person who could relate to grizzlies as something akin to a companion, while, he claimed, protecting them from poachers. He was a Malibu waiter who, without any background, became a celebrity wildlife evangelist, lecturing students, appearing on major television talk shows, and attracting the attention of stars like Malibu’s Pierce Brosnan and Leonardo DiCaprio who became a major supporter of Treadwell’s annual “expeditions.”

Yet, all the while, more objective friends as well as the National Park Service, guardians of the Katmai National Park where he spent 13 summers with the grizzlies, watched his encounters with the grizzlies of the north with growing alarm. Treadwell was repeatedly warned that unless he stopped taunting the bears and took commonsense precautions, disaster was inevitable. Nevertheless, instead of arming himself with a gun or pepper spray, Treadwell, who loved show-business gossip, carried along copies of “Vanity Fair” and, on his last trip, the book “Lost Hollywood,” (authored by this writer) to keep him company in the wilderness.

And then, on Oct. 5, 2003, the predicted disaster arrived in the form of one or two grizzlies, ravenously hungry because of a poor salmon run. They killed and partially ate Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, the day before they were to leave their late-season camp. Since then, opinions over his activities seem as divided as ever. At his Malibu memorial service many of his friends and followers more or less canonized him. A few months ago, DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company optioned a June, 2004 Vanity Fair feature about Treadwell by Ned Zeman; in association with Columbia Pictures, they are developing a feature in which DiCaprio may star as the grizzly lover. The famed documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” is set for nationwide release this week. Others have assumed an “I told you so” mode. Some claim he was a desperate, mentally unstable individual bent on committing suicide in a unique way (Treadwell often said he wouldn’t mind dying with the bears).

Now comes the book, “Death in the Grizzly Maze,” by Mike Lapinski, an award-winning writer and nature photographer (from Falcon/Globe Pequot Press, $14.95). Perhaps inevitably, Lapinski’s style suffers somewhat from a semi-documentary storytelling, but the result is a thoroughly researched, refreshingly objective look at both Treadwell the man and Treadwell the celebrity, and the horrifying death he and his girlfriend met.

“I wrote this book because I wanted to make the public aware of the danger of trying to reinvent the grizzly bear as a kind and friendly animal,” says the author. Lapinski’s book is more than that, being not only a cautionary tale about coexisting with wild animals, but also an exploration of the self-delusions of celebrity as well as the motivations of the media and public that can make someone like Timothy Treadwell into a national figure.