Karen Reads The Grizzly Maze (and discovers a new way that she would prefer not to die)

by Karen Gsteiger

Spoilers, etc. etc.

I had originally heard of Timothy Treadwell through a recent Vanity Fair article, and I'm glad that now more attention is being paid to this tragic, foolish, and fascinating character with the release of at least two documentaries (one of which is directed by Werner Herzog) and a compelling new book, The Grizzly Maze by Nick Jans. Treadwell was a quixotic crusader for Alaskan brown/grizzly bears who fancied himself their protector and their friend. He spent 13 summers living among these animals in the Katmai National Park. Some admired Treadwell for his passion and devotion; some loathed him for getting all up in the animals' grills; many more marveled that he lived to tell the tale. Then in October of 2003, he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were attacked and eventually eaten by a hungry or threatened bear. Or two. As authorities investigated the situation, they found it necessary to kill two bears who were threatening them, compounding the tragedy (and perhaps the bleak irony). In The Grizzly Maze, Nick Jans sets out to discover the truth behind Treadwell's life and death among all the rumors and mythology and addresses the difficulties of humans coexisting with grizzly bears.

There is a lot about Timothy Treadwell that fills me with scorn. Here is a man who has no formal scientific background and no experience with wild, dangerous animals setting up camp in the middle of a national park and trying to be all cuddly-wuddly with grizzly bears, getting as close as possible to them (even mothers with their cubs), habituating them to the presence of humans, christening them with monikers such as "Mr. Chocolate" and "Booble." He refuses to carry any sort of protection against the bears, such as a pepper spray designed to thwart a bear attack or set up an electric perimeter fence to protect his campsite. He purposely sets up camp in the middle of the bear's feeding ground, in a location where it is highly likely to startle a hungry or feeding bear. He rails against "poachers" in the park, whereas many dispute the dangers that bears face from poachers in this protected area, and many suspect that Treadwell's ominous warnings of poachers were mere fundraising strategies. Treadwell gains national attention for his Steve Irwin-esque encounters with bears, and he is strongly criticized for perhaps encouraging other naive and inexperienced individuals to go right up to a thousand-pound grizzly bear and give it a pat on the head. There are tales of bizzare behavior, running around on all fours and snarling at other visitors or tour guides whom he believes are crowding "his" bears. I believe that his arrogant assumptions that he would be safe with the bears and his foolish unwillingness to take basic precautions against an attack was the direct cause of his death and, worse, the death of his girlfriend. I also believe that his foolishness was the primary cause of two bears being shot on what should have been their turf.

Yet...I must confess, I recognize parts of myself in him as well. I often joke with Matt that I would pet any animal if I were allowed to. And I share in the sentimental love for teddy bears and Winnie the Pooh and adorable little baby bear cubs one sees on Animal Planet documentaries. Treadwell has such a vivid dream, one can't help rooting for him and feeling disappointed that he was so thoroughly bitchslapped by Mother Nature.

The Grizzly Maze addresses all of these contradictions--Treadwell, the endearing and passionate dreamer and Treadwell, the criminally negligent fool. As Jans traced Treadwell's life and work and approached his inevitable death, I found the air around me becoming thick with tension and dread. The chapters dealing with the horrific maulings and the gory aftermath were some of the most riveting and unsettling I have ever read.

I can't stress this enough--this is not a book for the squeamish (and I am, normally). These people were killed in a really awful way (the sounds of which happened to be recorded by Treadwell's camera) and totally, totally eaten. Thanks to Jans, I now rank a bear mauling as one of the top ways I'd rather not meet my demise (along with a plane crash, murder, or the Ebola virus). Consider this excerpt, for example: "The memories and perceptions of mauling victims often bear striking similarities. One common, chillingly vivid recollection is the sound of the bear's teeth scraping against the skull, and the sensation of the incredible pressure as the animal tries to crush the head in its jaws...In human victims, often entire areas of tissue--a forehead, a nose and cheek, or a jaw--are mangled or ripped free. The gush of blood often makes vision during the attack impossible." And folks, that's not even getting into the details of Treadwell's and Huguenard's deaths and the oh-so-appetizing description of the bear autopsy that followed. No, sir, bear attacks = not for me.

But now that you have new fodder for your nightmares, Jans helpfully provides us with some tips for avoiding and surviving a bear attack. Interestingly enough, brown/grizzly bears and black bears attack in different ways and for different reasons. For example (and I'm sort of generalizing a very detailed section of the book), brown/grizzly bears tend to attack defensively--to protect themselves or defend their food. Therefore, if you "play dead," and reduce the bear's sense of endangerment, you may just have a better chance of ending the attack more quickly. Black bears, on the other hand, very rarely attack at all. Jans claims that when they do, it's very often for the purpose of eating you. So if you just played dead, so much easier for the bear to make a snack of you. Better then, so the advice goes, to fight back with all you've got when attacked by a black bear. There. Life-saving information from Happy Insomniac, courtesy of Nick Jans.

Overall, I think this book is a solid, engaging read and extremely informative, but there are some flaws. I feel that the book has a somewhat odd structure. There is a tight narrative arc as Jans describes Treadwell's journey from California slacker to bear activist to bear victim. But Treadwell and Huguenard have been killed by the middle of the book, and one is left wondering, "What could possibly be next?" Jans spends the rest of the book ruminating on Treadwell's legacy (good and bad) and the ability of humans to be good neighbors to grizzles. Which I still found to be very interesting; however, I can imagine Jans losing a lot of readers midway. Like it or not, Treadwell is the charismatic heart of the story, and when he disappears, the book becomes flatter.

Also, I have very mixed feelings about Jans' confessions of hunting grizzly bears for sport. Granted, he expresses remorse for his actions, but I just have a hard time conceiving how someone could kill such an animal for kicks. I admit that I have no moral high ground whatsoever, as the omnivore who's too squeamish to think too much about where her burgers come from. I also think that hunters are among some of the most avid conservationists out there. As long as they are hunting with some purpose--obtaining food, for example, or culling an overpopulated species--I don't mind too much. But I personally would never hunt out of sheer bloodlust, as Jans claimed that he once did, and I just happen to think that grizzly bears deserve more respect from our species. Jans ruefully relates an anecdote regarding the time that he found himself trapped by a grizzly bear who, for whatever reason or perhaps no reason at all, spared his life. Then he went and killed the same damn bear! It makes me wonder to what extent he could really understand Treadwell, who loved bears so much that he wanted to be one.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is looking for more information about Timothy Treadwell or to anyone who just needs to read about people who have it worse off than he/she does. Because no matter how shitty things may be for you right now, at least you're not being eaten by a bear! It's a good character study of obsession and love and fatal carelessness. And you may even learn how to stop one of the planet's most magnificent creations from ripping your damn face off.