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If you go down to the woods today

Written by: on February 2, 2010

Timothy Treadwell and Steve Irwin: Both of these men shared a consuming passion for dangerous animals. They also, however, share something altogether more sinister; they were both killed by the creatures they wanted so desperately, and publicly, to protect. Steve Irwin was killed, not as so many had predicted, by one of his beloved crocodiles, but by a stingray that put a barb straight through his heart. Treadwell, who possessed an almost identical fervent attitude to his animal of choice, the brown bear, got not only himself killed, but also his girlfriend, Amie Huguengard and two of the bears he had spent the last thirteen years trying to protect. These two men nonetheless shared an insatiable passion for the spotlight.

However, despite what some might dismiss as simple glory-hunting or a desire to increase awareness of their cause, we should ask ourselves what part the media contributed in their endless production and consumption of these dangerous acts. Irwin, the most infamous of the two, was built up by the media as an outsider, whilst simultaneously assuming all the characteristics of a clichéd Australian, with his dark tan, bleach blond hair and relaxed attitude when staring into the ‘jaws of death’, as a local Sydney newspaper so breathlessly put it. As Adam Hills accurately joked, “he was like Australia’s Princess Diana” However, Irwin’s title as ‘king of the crocodiles’ (another media -assigned pseudonym) was stripped after he pulled a Michael Jackson, dangling his baby son in a crocodile pen. He afterwards explained that the child was not in any danger – one might wonder what he thinks does qualify as a dangerous situation – but it was too late: the media had banished him from their list of extreme heroes, and he would only regain this status posthumously.

Nowadays, it feels as though Irwin has been both glorified as some kind of mythic institution, yet has also been held up as an example of what happens when man and nature mix. I remember my brother and I approaching our sleeping dad, my brother gravely narrating in Irwin’s familiar twang: ‘now I’m gonna poke him with this stick. What a beauty! Let’s see what he does,’ and running away as a predictably enraged dad awoke. Irwin’s lure to children, with his natural enthusiasm for touching and provoking animals is obvious, and was criticized by Jean-Michel Cousteau, who insisted against his hands-on approach, stating: “you don’t touch nature. You just look at it.”

In Treadwell, like Irwin, there is a natural childishness that endeared him to the youth of America. Werner Herzog, who made the documentary Grizzly Man about Treadwell, described him as visiting thousands of schools, un-paid, in order to ‘educate the pupils about the bears,’ though quite what we taught them is unclear. He did not carry pepper spray or use electric fencing in camp, two things he was repeatedly asked to do for his own safety. He said he had used pepper spray once and was distressed by the bear’s reaction. He lived in the Katmai national park in Alaska, a federally protected reserve rather than the inhospitable and remote wilderness he made out. Park rangers, irritated by his constant violations even proposed new legislation titled: ‘The Treadwell rule’, insisting that persons should not camp in the same place for over seven days.

In Herzog’s documentary we see him get precipitously close to the animals he claims are his friends; at one point, he is swimming in a lake with a female bear and narrowly misses getting clobbered across the head by her. “At best he is misguided,” Deb Liggett, former superintendent at Katmai told the Anchorage Daily News in 2001. “At worst, he’s dangerous, if he models unsafe behaviour that ultimately puts bears and other visitors at risk.” A worse consequence than this, however, was the fearful response that the dual killing provoked in the public. Though the media and public saw it as partly deserved, the grisly reporting: photos of Treadwell’s chewed leg and lurid descriptions of the four bags of remains that were taken out of a bear’s stomach certainly did not help Timothy’s assurance of bears as ‘mostly harmless.’

The most dangerous threat that is posed to these men, is, it seems, their bravado. Treadwell adopted a posturing and posing bluster, demonstrated in his endless re-takes of action shots of him running down hills.

He and Irwin were renegades in their childlike nature, their fearlessness, and their refusal to join normalized society. Treadwell, who dressed like a pirate with his black bandanna, seems to be a lovable and harmless man, whose years alone turned him into a proselytizing lunatic. He gives his bears ridiculous nicknames: ‘Cracker, Aunt Melissa, The Grinch and Mr Chocolate’ being just a few of my favorites, and he possesses a boyishness that seems slightly naive in the face of the animals he was dealing with. Yet, it must be taken into account that he lived and continuously interacted with these bears, and other animals for thirteen years. He got amazing footage and had an indubitable affinity with the creatures.

In a particularly lovely scene Treadwell is joined by a fox, ‘Spirit’ and her cubs while he ponders on leaving the idyllic plains of the park to venture into the altogether more inhospitable ‘grizzly maze.’ Fellow grizzly enthusiast Charlie Russell defended him, saying: ‘If Timothy had spent those thirteen years killing bears and guiding others to do the same, eventually being killed by one, he would have been remembered in Alaska with great admiration’, and it seems clear that his death has been used by some organizations as propaganda for the shooting of bears.

There seems to be have been a re-appropriation of the landscape by both of these adventurers. Irwin used both sea and land as his own personal playground, getting his hands on whatever beast he could find. Treadwell spoke at length at how he was a visitor in the bears world, “I am like a flower… a fly on the wall”, but there is no doubt that he felt he was the most deserving of being their guest, and often makes problematic statements to the camera about being both one of them, and ruling over them: ‘I will be one of them. I will be master.’

These two adventurers both have similar admirable qualities: of boyishness, courage and a fearlessness that transcends danger. Ultimately, though, their desire to, as Herzog puts it “leave the confines of [their] human-ness”, rather than any boring aim of protecting or educating the public, is dangerous, not only for them, but for others swayed by their mythologizing in the media. It is up to us to decide whether these ‘conservationists’ are furthering the cause of animal rights, or hindering it with their choices.

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