Was Calif. bear advocate naturalist or 'con man?'

Treadwell was complex character - part wildlife enthusiast, part showman and part impostor

Posted: Monday, January 05, 2004

LOS ANGELES - Timothy Treadwell's death came just the way he had predicted.

Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled by a 1,000-pound grizzly bear last October in a remote section of Alaska wilderness that Treadwell knew well after years of living among its bear population.

That Treadwell was killed doing what he loved did not surprise many of those who knew him. He had acknowledged his forays into the backcountry were tempting fate.

He had started an environmental group and received donations from celebrities such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio and supermodel Gisele Bundchen, in part by saying the bears he loved were in jeopardy. He spun colorful stories about his adventures for the Discovery Channel, David Letterman's late-night audience and the Walt Disney Co.

What few knew about Treadwell was that much of his life was an invention.

Interviews with associates and reviews of public records reveal Treadwell as a complex character - part wildlife enthusiast, part showman, part educator, part impostor.

The organization he said was dedicated to saving bears did find a useful outlet educating school children, and some researchers have said his detailed observations about bear behavior are valuable. But his organization was not registered as a nonprofit, as it claimed, and some wildlife experts said the bears he claimed to be saving didn't need his protection.

His tales of being Australian or raised as an English orphan, later rescuing himself from a life of drugs and alcohol through his fascination with bears, only made his story more compelling.

It was only after his death that many of his more recent friends learned he was born under a different name as the middle-class son of a Long Island phone company foreman.

Charismatic in life, Treadwell had become an enigma in death.

Grizzlies are rare in the continental United States but common in Alaska, where they are known as brown bears along the coast. Reaching up to 10 feet tall and weighing as much as 1,500 pounds, the largest and most aggressive are much more likely to attack people than the smaller black bear. More than 400 grizzly attacks on humans have been documented in Alaska since 1900, a fraction of them fatal, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Science Center.

Treadwell refused to see the bears as "savage beasts." What others feared, he sought out. He spent nearly a dozen summers living among grizzlies, primarily in the Katmai National Park and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula.

He once was filmed crawling along the ground singing as he approached a sow and two cubs, and wrote of trudging through a warren of tunnels formed in tall brush and used primarily by grizzlies.

"He was good-hearted, but misguided," said former Katmai park superintendent Deb Liggett, who met with Treadwell over coffee in 1999 to express Park Service concerns about his behavior around bears.

Nonetheless, Treadwell, 46, won national acclaim for his daring and devotion. He named some bears and videotaped many of his encounters.

In 1997, he published a book, "Among Grizzlies: Living With Wild Bears in Alaska."

More recently, he offered filmmakers working on Disney's animated feature "Brother Bear" his insights into grizzlies. He also appeared in a short segment about bears that ran on the Disney Channel before the film's release, said Cardon Walker, vice president of television specials for Buena Vista Pictures Marketing.

Treadwell made regular visits to schools after returning to Southern California from his annual trips to Alaska. Blond, good-natured and animated, he held students spellbound with tales of Mr. Chocolate the Bear and other animals in regions of Katmai he named the "Grizzly Sanctuary" and "Grizzly Maze."

"His passion for the bears and wildlife was just infectious, and the students loved his stories," said Phil Cott, principal of Webster Elementary School in Malibu, where Treadwell lived in a rented condo. "But he wasn't just a storyteller. He was very serious about the bears and their habitat and their role in the overall ecology."

Not everyone embraced Treadwell's views.

"Bears are bears, and the sooner we treat them as bears instead of humans in a bear suit it will be less dangerous," said Tom Smith, a biologist at the Alaska Science Center.

Critics said Treadwell's lifestyle could encourage copycats who would enter the wilderness and harass wildlife. Some worried that the mauling death of Treadwell and his girlfriend, 37-year-old Amie Huguenard, would harm grizzlies by turning public opinion against them.

Elizabeth Laden, a newspaper publisher in Idaho who has reported on bears for more than 20 years, noted that Treadwell's death led authorities to kill two bears in self-defense after arriving at his campsite.

"I think he did harm to the bears," Laden said. "He made the bears think it was OK to be around humans. He took the wildness out of the grizzly."

Stephen Stringham, a bear biologist and professor with the University of Alaska system, defended Treadwell's work.

Treadwell, he said, kept meticulous diaries of bear genealogy, mating patterns and maternal behavior. All that will be valuable to researchers once his notes are organized, said Stringham, who had planned to collaborate on several papers with Treadwell.

"Look, Tim's a naturalist, not a scientist," Stringham said. "Still, the details he has, no one's got anything like it. It's extremely valuable to science."

During a middle-class upbringing on Long Island, Treadwell - born Timothy William Dexter - nurtured a passion for animals and the outdoors.

As a boy he had a collection of teddy bears, including one called Mr. Goodbear, and he often spent summer days playing in a nature preserve, said his mother, Carol Ann Dexter.

A high school swim team member, he earned a scholarship to Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and set a university record on the 3-meter dive.

"He wasn't big, but he wasn't afraid of anything," said Jim Spink, his former diving coach at Bradley.

In what his father, Valentine Dexter, called the start of a downward spiral, Tim injured his back while diving, lost his scholarship and dropped out in 1977 before starting his junior year.

Back home in Ronkonkoma, his troubles worsened: He crashed the family station wagon and was arrested on charges related to drunken driving.

"That led up to his leaving," said his father, who now lives with Carol Ann in Coral Springs, Fla. "He wanted to make a fresh start."

Packed in Treadwell's bags was a childhood keepsake: Mr. Goodbear.

He moved to Southern California in 1978, staying with his older sister, Vikki Pless, in Long Beach before striking out on his own and beginning a personal transformation.

Over the years, he waited tables and mixed cocktails in beach communities. He legally changed his last name to Treadwell in 1987 after using it informally for years, according to Los Angeles County records.

He also shed his Long Island accent. He told friends of being Australian or of growing up a British orphan on the streets of East London. People magazine in 1994 quoted him as claiming to be a native of Australia who moved to California as a teenager. His feigned accent fooled English nationals who frequented a pub where he worked, said Tom Reilly, Treadwell's former roommate and friend.

"And the pub was co-owned by a woman from Liverpool," Reilly said.

Treadwell first spoke with an Australian accent to stand out while applying for an apartment in Long Beach, his father said.

Supporters defended Treadwell's shifting persona, noting that in his book he said he was raised in New York.

Besides, said friend Jewel Palovak, his partner in the organization that promoted his work with bears, Grizzly People: "People reinvent themselves a thousand times over in L.A., and they're usually lauded for it."

In his book, Treadwell wrote of an ongoing battle with alcoholism and drugs and a paranoia so acute he carried a gun and slept with a loaded M-16.

He appears to have been in trouble with the law at least twice.

In 1984, a Timmy Treadwell was accused of illegally discharging a firearm, according to court records in Beverly Hills. Three years earlier, a Timothy Winthorpe Treadwell of Sunset Beach was booked on suspicion of assault, Orange County records show. Treadwell was living in Sunset Beach then and had used the middle name Winthorpe, those who knew him said.

As a bartender, he once got into a brawl with a patron who had insulted a woman, said former friend Tessa Winterberger.

Treadwell's book also tells of a near-death experience from a drug overdose. Re-evaluating his life, he wrote, he decided to seek out bears in Alaska.

Treadwell's environmental crusade began slowly but quickly gained attention, propelled by his outsized personality.

He and Palovak started Grizzly People in the mid-1990s to support Treadwell's forays to Alaska and educate the public, particularly schoolchildren, about bears. To make ends meet, Treadwell occasionally fell back on bartending and friends' generosity.

But increasingly, he turned to the most obvious source of charitable giving in Southern California - celebrities. The list of Hollywood stars who either attended his fund-raisers or gave him money included DiCaprio, Bundchen, and actor Pierce Brosnan.

Darlene Malott, who until recently was a representative for DiCaprio's foundation, said the actor met with Treadwell about three years ago after seeing him on Letterman's show. The foundation gave Grizzly People nearly $25,000, said Malott and DiCaprio's publicist, Ken Sunshine.

"We at the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation are honored to have been able to assist Timothy in fulfilling his dreams and living his passion," said a statement from DiCaprio to The Associated Press. "We're sure he's still watching over these beautiful animals."

Bundchen met Treadwell at one of his events a year ago and contributed money, although she wasn't sure how much, said her manager, Anne Nelson.

Brosnan and his wife, Keely, also attended Treadwell's fund-raising events.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of our friend and admired environmental warrior," Brosnan and his wife said in a statement to the AP. "He was passionate and committed to the Earth and its inhabitants."

Robert Towne, the screenwriter whose credits include "Chinatown" and "Mission: Impossible," said Treadwell made a presentation at his daughter's elementary school. He remembered Treadwell showing him video footage of what looked like a grizzly nuzzling its snout in the activist's palm.

"I was fascinated," said Towne, who with his wife wrote Treadwell a check he recalled was in the thousands of dollars. "However eccentric he was ... I think his work should be valued and honored."

Towne said Treadwell was terrified the bears would be killed by poachers without his presence, a pitch Treadwell commonly made to contributors.

A Grizzly People statement distributed to supporters last year said the bears "are attractive targets and without Treadwell's care would be easy to poach."

Alaska wildlife experts discounted that, saying sporadic poaching isn't jeopardizing Alaska's grizzly population of 35,000. Katmai boasts the densest population of grizzlies in the world, said Liggett, Katmai's former superintendent.

The animals aren't listed as an endangered species in Alaska, although they are categorized as threatened in four other states.

Despite Grizzly People's claim in a 2003 newsletter that it was established "as a nonprofit organization," the organization is not registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit, said Victor Omelczenko, an IRS spokesman. The group was, however, eligible to receive donations through its nonprofit sponsor.

The nearly $33,000 that Grizzly People took in during 2001 was mostly used for reimbursing Treadwell for equipment, film development, travel, telephone bills and equipment, Bedrosian said.

Friends said Treadwell would have reveled in the attention his life and work have generated since his death.

"He's in hysterics up there," said Warren Queeney, an actor in Los Angeles and a friend of Treadwell's for 10 years.

Queeney only learned his friend was from Long Island when he met Treadwell's father at a memorial service, but he said he felt more amused than duped.

"He was a con artist, but boy, he pulled it off," Queeney said. "The man was truly a riddle wrapped in a sleeping bag. I don't know if any of us will ever know who he really was."

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