No one appreciates an armchair diagnosis comprised of pyschobabble from unlicensed mental health professionals, much less a one from random FB users. To my knowledge, public sentiment is not a viable diagnostic tool for clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. If it was, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, could be sharing a padded room. These days, opinions are increasingly less evidence-based. They tend to muddy the waters and certainly do not usually help drain the swamp.
Because I have been compared, albeit more favorably, to the late Timothy Treadwell, and by no coincidence sit on the board of his foundation Grizzly Bear, I took great issue with a response to a post on the Foundation’s FB page. The comment concerned Treadwell’s mental status leading up to his untimely death. It challenged my unlicensed appraisal of him, the the portrayal of him in the film Grizzly Man and my HuffPost article on Jackson Hole’s grizzly sow ‘399’. The story of the celebrity mamma bear was posted because of its relevance to habituation and food conditioning in wild animals.
A surprising decision if you asked some of my colleagues including academic, and state and federal agency bear biologists, I was quite honored to join the board of Grizzly People. “Grizzly Man” had been released years before. The organization was some what inactive and I saw an opportunity to both revisit and reframe Treadwell’s legacy. I also felt poised to use the advocacy platform to engage the the public in important discourse on human-bear conflict worldwide (and what to do about it). It was and still is a great opportunity to help protect the largest land carnivores on the planet.
More recently, I penned this opinion piece, which is a response to the widespread outcry and disdain for SeaWorld from more than just animal rights activists over the film Blackfish, was similarly surprising and controversial. Ironically, it favors SeaWorld. As a disclaimer, I was not paid by the corporate marine park conglomerate to write the op-ed, nor have I been for contributions promoting them in other publications
As a “publicist” in Hollywood these days, I’m in a decent position to respond to public sentiment concerning highly sensationalized ”documentary” films, and particularly those featuring subject matter relevant to wildlife conservation and animal welfare.
These cinematographic productions are based on true stories, but were produced as vehicles for entertaining, not for educating. And unfortunately, these movies have distorted reality enough to influence the way we steward nature and care for ambassadors of conservation-sensitive species. The films have also greatly influenced the trajectory of my career and careers of many of my colleagues working with wildlife in nature and in human care.
Here is my assessment of Timothy. Again, it is an opinion, not a diagnosis. Some of my more esteemed and recognized big game biologists questioned my support of Timothy, considering him a divisive, polarizing and radically uniformed “public figure” —a charlatan among grizzly aficionados and popular media naturalists.
I saw him differently and perhaps because I saw myself in him. Indeed, he was a showman and certainly I’m an unapologetic showman. And the Alaska Department of Fish & Game would entirely and emphatically agree. I remember that Dr. Larry van Daele, the supervisory research biologist for Alaska Fish & Game who had collected Timothy’s remains and I had briefly talked about my showmanship when was Curator of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. I have utmost respect for Larry and can’t thank him enough for introducing me to some very special orphaned bears when he was based on Kodiak Island. Although, Larry did not say this, I suspect my actually work, which was much more up close and personal with arguably the largest ursine species, is overlooked because I’m still alive and not because of my academic credentials (BA, MS, PhD, and an incomplete DVM degree). While I have vocational training relevant to domesticated companion canid (aka dogs), you can’t go to school to become a bear trainer.
That said, it is the exposure and attention drawn to the plight of these giant carnivores, can’t be understated.. His reach outweighed the delivery of his message and the content of the message itself. Media exposure to these wildlife icons for people who would otherwise never see them in nature or in human care, is what I find important and critically vital to their future.
The following is excerpted commentary on the late Timothy Treadwell by Grizzly People board member Dr. Jordan Carlton Schaul (http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/author/jschaul)
Malibu, California-based Grizzly People was founded by Timothy Treadwell and friend Jewel Palovak. An impassioned voice for grizzly bears and an educator, Treadwell originally aspired to become an actor. He was iml and was innately charismatic, endearing, charming, lost at a young age, and much like grizzly bears, profoundly misunderstood.
Treadwell’s untimely and tragic death was featured in the controversial film Grizzly Man. The production was released to general audiences in 2005. It was directed by Werner Herzog and produced by Jewel Palovak.
Dr. Schaul describes Katmai as a “serene, beautiful and clearly unmodified landscape, which remains largely free of people while many natural places, including some “protected areas” around the globe, continue to become human-dominated and threatening to nature.”
Schaul conducted field studies on grizzly bears in Katmai as part of his PhD research and later acclimated and conditioned orphaned grizzly bears for rehoming at accredited zoos in Europe and the Lower 48 states as the Curator of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He has worked with seven of the eight species of bears during his professional animal care career in zoo and sanctuary settings, including polar bears and giant panda. He has trained orphaned animals and captive bred individuals assigned to conservation breeding programs. He uses reward-based practices for training wildlife for the educational films, public presentation, as well as enrichment and stimulation to optimize quality of life for wildlife in human care.
Schaul served as a member of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group and as an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research & Management, says that Timothy was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
His unfortunate fate was mostly due to bad luck, but after 14 seasons in Alaska he definitely learned something about the sociobiology, sociality, and social dynamics of Alaska’s brown bears from an anecdotal perspective. This was valuable. He may not have interpreted his observations as objectively as credentialed behavioral researchers using rigorous methods of study or sophisticated technology to assay bear activity budgets, but he certainly learned something, perhaps even more than some bear biologists can appreciate with regard to brown bear behavior. And in some cases he may have learned more because typically when bears are examined or studied up-close by researchers in nature, they are stressed and eager to get away and retreat or defend themselves. Hence, they often have to be sedated.
Most field biologists studying bears examine their biology in regard to population densities and relevant social dynamics. Some do examine aspects of behavioral ecology like foraging preference and reproductive behavior, but for the most part they are studied to examine impacts of hunting and ecotourism on this large game mammal.
However, few bear biologists, unlike great ape biologists and anthropologists/primatologists like Jane Goodall, for example, study ethology and comparative/experimental psychology with regard to bears. They do not rigorously study social behavior in wild bears. Steve Stringham, another colleague is one of the few I can think of who has.
Treadwell observed and informally studied grizzly bears when they congregated in areas of high feeding activity like salmon dense waterways.
In the off-season, Tim educated thousands, if not millions of people about bears through his outreach in schools and on network TV programs like Letterman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCi4QgPoHZE), but most importantly he inspired people to protect and preserve them.”
Dr. Schaul who has trained orphaned grizzly bears for film and research and public presentation said, “Yes, at times Tim may have gotten too close to bears and breached thresholds that induce fight or flight responses. Unfortunately lots of people besides Timothy Treadwell get too close to bears in the wild. These include fishermen to ecotourists. I don’t condone permitting such proximity to bears if it can be helped, but a lot more people are killed by companion canids than grizzly bears.
Bears are dangerous because they are so big and strong and not because they are inherently dangerous or malicious creatures. They are sentient beings with remarkable intelligence and yes they need space, although we have increasingly learned how adaptable they are in areas even as urbanized and densely populated as the city of Anchorage, Alaska…..
I myself have been in enclosures with 900 lb bears, so I’m not one to talk about keeping my distance. I take calculated risks to manage captive animals. But when I have encountered wild brown bears I have tried to keep a safe distance. I respect these formidable large carnivores. Tim respected them too.”
Dr. Schaul said, “In Tim’s case, he was particularly unlucky and at times he may have pushed the envelope. With that said, he drew attention to the world’s largest land carnivore—an iconic opportunistic omnivore, which is still treated with malice and hunted as a game animal in North America where populations are deemed healthy enough to support trophy hunting and as some believe, inhabit ecosystems that warrant predator control.
But I believe Tim was ahead of his time as a grizzly bear advocate and activist for their protection. He may have been eccentric, but so too was Jane Goodall considered radical in her early years studying wild chimps. I know that a lot of my colleagues, including field biologists working with grizzlies dismiss the work of Treadwell. They considered him a wacky showman with misguided compassion.
But we don’t really need more scientists to study grizzly bears; we need more charismatic and engaging advocates to help protect them. People are not nearly as moved to advocate for wildlife conservation by reading about demographic data and population studies, as they are by viewing the captivating and enthralling video footage that Treadwell was able to share with the world.
Showcasing the grizzly bear as a wondrous and fascinating fellow inhabitant of the planet, which is as vital to ecosystems as much as salmon are, is the way to generate public support to safeguard these most beautiful and misunderstood animals on Earth.” – Jordan Carlton Schaul
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