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Grizzly Man, Again

The subject of Tim Treadwell, the “Grizzly Man” portrayed in the 2005 Werner Herzog film of the same name, came up again in the blogosphere when Greg Laden recently reviewed it on his blog. I posted there, and will now post here, my response. It’s long, I warn you.



Thank you for covering this. I’m sorry I missed this post when it first came out, but I’m going to comment on it anyway.

It took me a while to figure out the real reason “Grizzly Man” bothered me so much, but here it is:

One of the things we humans have for guiding our behavior is a general social “lore” about all the various aspects of our lives. Picture the Lore as all that stuff that got handed down around the campfire in our earliest tribal years – how to live with lions, how to pound yams to make them edible, the best pickup lines to attract females – and is handed down today around the dinner table (or more likely, via a television or movie screen, talk radio, Twitter, Digg, YouTube, blogs, etc.).

We’re so damned adaptable that the Lore can be mistaken, sometimes grossly so, and we can survive it, often even living somewhat comfortably under self-created way-less-than-ideal conditions.

For centuries, for instance, the Lore said that women were inferior to men – unworthy of owning property, unqualified to drive cars or vote wisely and possibly even uneducable in math. The consequences of that belief were and are huge, it seems to me, invading every aspect of human society and having an extremely broad negative impact. On the lives of both women AND men.

One of the chief glories of science and reason is that they gave us a way to defy the Lore, to show it to be wrong in the places it’s wrong, and to back up these new conclusions with difficult-to-deny real facts.

The main fact of the Lore, though, is that it changes slowly. One of the many somewhat-shaky explanations for why we say “Bless you!” when someone sneezes is that it dates from an outbreak of the bubonic plague in about 590 A.D., when the blessing was a prayerful effort to halt the spread of the disease. And here we are, 1400 years later, STILL SAYING IT. The lag in corrective change between the Lore and the facts can stretch to decades, even centuries, after the true stuff becomes known.

The Lore about wild animals is that they’re deadly dangerous, and “When in doubt, wipe it out.” Our chief wildlife management technique, for anything even remotely threatening, was and is killing.

Several thousand years after we started building cities, most of us today live in places that are so damned divorced from our wildlands that we have to make a major effort of time and money to get to where the wild things are.

And yet I’ll bet you could go to the most concretized, ungreen, unwild parts of New York City, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Paris or Berlin and ask random 12-year-olds “What do you know about grizzly bears?” and get the answer “They’ll kill and eat ya!”

That’s the Lore in action. Despite the FACT that most of those people won’t get within 500 miles of the nearest grizzly, our automatic understanding of them is that they’re deadly dangerous. Which means: The vast majority of us think that anytime we DO get to grizzly country, or wolf country, or mountain lion country, we need to be prepared to either kill or be killed (or to have armed “wildlife management” people nearby ready to blast away at anything that even slightly scares us).

It also means that nothing wild can be permitted near cities. Hell, I show people this picture of a delightful little red fox that I took in my back yard, and about 80 percent of the time I hear, first, “Was it rabid??” and then stories about the disappearance of domestic cats. Which, because foxes generally weigh only about as much as a sack of potatoes, probably falls short of the most likely explanation.

I can’t tell you how many parrot-screeches of exactly this sort I’ve read on blog after blog anytime the subject of wildlife has come up. Yet for reasons I detail in an associated piece on my blog, Grizzly’s Gamble, that view is a vast distance from true.

My main objection to “Grizzly Man” is just this: Given a choice of presenting useful new facts about grizzlies or the human-grizzly interface …

… such as the details of the method by which Tim Treadwell managed to live within spitting distance of these supposed “killer bears” for 13 summers …

… Herzog – like a cheap whore telling her latest client “Me love you long time” – chose the path to greatest profit. He chose to sensationalize – and reinforce – the Lore. (Take a look at the movie-DVD on Amazon.com for a long, LONG list of perfectly representational comments.)

The result of that sort of thing is, inevitably, more killing, more pushing away, more destruction of nature and natural systems. More difficulty at intelligently managing wildlands and wildlife, and more shortsighted solutions to “problem” wildlife. Worse – and this should be especially resonant with you, Greg – more difficulty at getting voters and elected officials to listen to scientists and researchers who know the most about the natural systems and species in question.

For that alone, I don’t like the bastard. Or his stupid film.

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