BOOKS: Bear & The Grizzly Maze
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2006:
Bear by Robert E. Bieder
Reaktion Books Ltd. (79 Farringdon Rd., London, EC1M 3JU, U.K.),
2005. 192 pages, paperback. $19.95.
The Grizzly Maze by Nick Jans
Dutton (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), 2005.
275 pages, hardcover. $24.95.
Robert Bieder and Nick Jans explore the mythology of bears
from opposite angles but to common purpose in Bear, a global
overview, and The Grizzly Maze, an examination of the fatal
maulings of bear advocate Timothy Treadwell, 46, and his friend
Amie Huguenard, 37, by a brown bear on October 6, 2003, in Katmai
National Park, Alaska.
Bieder, a career scholar, starts with the evolution and
diversification of bears. Bear ancestors emerged in Europe and Asia
as long as 25 million years ago, but the forebears of today’s bears
appeared at about the same time that great apes evolved in Africa.
Conflict emerged between modern bears and early humans as
soon as population expansion brought them into overlapping habitat.
Bears, as carnivores who had developed the ability to eat
vegetation, and humans, as ancestral vegetarians who had learned to
scavenge and hunt, were direct competitors. Each killed and ate the
other, if able.
Bears had a slight head start, and established themselves in
North Africa before humans, but domesticating dogs and taming fire
eventually gave humans a decisive edge. By Cro Magnon times, bears
had already begun a long retreat to the rockiest, coldest, and most
densely forested parts of the temperate latitudes. Humans dominate
Yet human competition with bears has never really ended. In
one-to-one encounters, bears still have the advantage of size and
strength. Wherever bears persist in the presence of humans, or have
managed to re-establish themselves, as in rural New Jersey, humans
tend to feel threatened, despite outnumbering the bears by ratios of
hundreds or even thousands to one.
Intuitively, humans tend to perceive bears as human-like,
whether benignly as in the example of Teddy-Bear toys, or
menacingly, as bears are typically portrayed in folktales. Bears in
turn tend to respond to humans as if we were just another bear
species. They might eat us, as brown bears might eat black bears,
or ignore us if we offer no threat.
Either way, bears usually expect humans to understand bear
gestures and etiquette, which has evolved to minimize trouble
between bears who mind their own business. Fatal bear/human
conflict, as in the case of Treadwell and Huguenard, typically
occurs when humans do not do what other well-behaved bears would do,
staying out of other bears’ way unless specifically welcomed.
Humans, as Bieder discusses, have developed an extensive
inventory of art, literature, and legend imagining bears as
possible mates and ancestors. Bears, so far as is known, do not
hold such perceptions of people. Among the hundreds of accounts of
bear/human conflict on file here at ANIMAL PEOPLE, there are none in
which a bear appeared to attempt to initiate sexual contact.
Yet bear behavior toward human children can indicate
recognition of likeness. Thousands of bears have killed and injured
human children, especially Asian brown bears, but a few bears of
almost all kinds have occasionally fostered lost or abandoned
children with their own cubs, sometimes for days, weeks, or even
The answer to the seeming paradox may be that unlike humans,
who will mate any time, bears only mate during a short part of each
year, when they rarely meet humans. Yet, like humans, bears
nurture their young for an extended time. A female bear is thus more
likely to be psychologically primed to parent a child who is close to
the size of her own cubs, than any bear is likely to be primed to
mate. For humans the odds are almost the opposite.
The Treadwell tragedy occurred, apparently, because he
learned to exploit the bear tendency to accept humans as different
kinds of bears, and for 13 years got away with often approaching
brown bears much more closely than most experts would without
tranquilizing the bears first.
Treadwell imagined that he understood Alaskan brown bears
much better than anyone else, and perhaps he did, yet he
over-anthropomorphized in believing that the mutual understanding he
may have developed with some bears would protect him.
Grizzly Maze author Nick Jans visited the site where
Treadwell and Huguenard were killed and mostly eaten soon after the
incident. Jans continued his investigation by interviewing most of
Treadwell’s close associates, viewing his videos, reading his
writings, and soliciting much expert perspective.
Jans also paid more attention to Huguenard than most others
investigating the case. Huguenard often seems to have been regarded
as only another of Treadwell’s many girlfriends. Despite their five
years of involvement, she was not well-known to most of Treadwell’s
associates. Huguenard seems to have been much more fascinated with
Treadwell than with either bears or outdoor living, but she
appreciated his work, and visited him in the bush three summers in a
In addition, Jans discusses the December 2003 fatal mauling
of Vitaly Nikolayenko, a Russian ethologist who for 33 years lived
among brown bears on the Kamchataka peninsula. Unfortunately, the
bears who became habituated to his presence also became easy pickings
for poachers. At least 20 bears Nikolayenko knew were massacred
about seven months before his own death. Jans compares and
contrasts the Treadwell story to his own changing perspective, as a
former bear hunter who now favors leaving bears and their vital
habitat alone, and was among the three sponsors of an unsuccessful
petition drive that tried to put a ban on aerial predator control on
the 2006 Alaska ballot.
Jans concludes that trying to show that humans and bears can
co-exist does bears no favors: when humans and bears mingle, bears
die. Jans advises admiring bears from a distance, and teaching
bears to respect that distance, just as they respect their distance
around others of their kind.