The Life and Death of Timothy Treadwell, the 'Grizzly Man'

By: Sascha Bos  | 
Some people see a teddy bear; others see a foreboding beast. Thomas Faull / Getty Images

For Timothy Treadwell, observing and protecting grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) was a way of life. Until one day Treadwell and his partner, Amie Huguenard, were eaten alive by the same bears they revered.

Learn more about Treadwell's life and death, and how to observe bears safely.


Who Was Timothy Treadwell?

Timothy Treadwell (1957-2003) was a bear enthusiast famous for his up-close encounters with grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness.

Early Life

Born in Long Island as Timothy Dexter, he attended Bradley University on a swimming scholarship before dropping out, moving to Southern California, and legally changing his last name to Treadwell in 1987.


Treadwell struggled with substance use disorder before his first visit to Alaska in 1989. In his 1997 memoir, "Among Grizzlies," he described his first close-up encounter with a bear as "like looking into a mirror." The experience inspired him to get sober and sparked a lifelong passion for grizzly bears.

Alaskan Expeditions and Emergence as a Public Figure

Treadwell left his home in California every year to spend the summer in the Alaskan wilderness, where he observed and recorded grizzly bears, often at close range. Treadwell's charismatic personality and his intimate relationship with grizzly bears drew media attention.

In 1999, Treadwell produced and starred in "The Grizzly Diaries" for the Discovery Channel, and in 2001, he was interviewed by David Letterman.


Timothy Treadwell's Death

Timothy Treadwell was already somewhat well-known when he embarked on his last trip to Alaska in 2003, but he became famous for his gruesome death in Katmai National Park. Here's what happened.

Before the Attack

Treadwell spent the summer of 2003 in the Kaflia Bay area of Katmai National Park with his partner, Amie Huguenard. They had planned to leave Alaska before October, when food is scarce and most bears have already begun hibernating.


Treadwell and Huguenard actually left Kaflia Bay on September 26, but decided to return on September 29 for another week of bear-watching. Rain was on the forecast, which would flood the creeks leading to more fish and potentially more bear sightings.

The Attacks

Treadwell and Huguenard were killed on October 5, 2003, the day before they were scheduled to depart Kaflia Bay. There were no other people in the area to witness their deaths, but Larry Van Daele, a wildlife biologist who accompanied park rangers and state troopers to investigate the scene of the attacks, believes the encounter occurred during twilight or early evening, in the rain.

According to the National Park Service's official investigation report, Treadwell likely stepped outside the tent to investigate the presence of a bear nearby. The bear, probably startled by Treadwell's sudden appearance, either hit or bit Treadwell, who called out to Huguenard for help.

Huguenard told Treadwell to "play dead," and the bear left for a few minutes — only to return once Treadwell started moving again. As the bear continued to attack, Treadwell called for Huguenard to hit it with something, and she told him to fight.

Van Daele believes that Huguenard's screaming may have sounded like the cry of an animal, which may be why the bear returned to kill her after Treadwell's death.


Huguenard and Treadwell's remains were discovered on October 6, when bush pilot Willy Fulton returned to the couple's campsite to pick them up. Fulton found the tent flattened and a bear protecting a cache of human remains near the campsite.

Fulton unsuccessfully tried to drive the bear away from the campsite before calling the National Park Service in nearby King Salmon and State Troopers in Kodiak. Within an hour, Alaska State Troopers and National Park Service personnel arrived at the scene.

They encountered two bears at close range (an older, larger male and a smaller subadult) and shot them due to perceived aggression. The larger bear was later found to have human remains in its gastrointestinal tract; the smaller bear was eaten by other bears before it could be necropsied.


4 Conditions That May Have Led to Treadwell's Death

Bears rarely kill people. Even though Katmai National Park has the highest density of brown bears in the world, Treadwell and Huguenard's deaths were the first documented human fatalities due to bear attacks in the area.

According to the Park Service's official report, "Treadwell and Huguenard died from a bear attack that might have been avoided by adhering to basic principles of camping in bear country." Here are some of the conditions that may have contributed to their unusual deaths:


1. Low Visibility

The Park Service report noted that "the campsite and general area had poor visibility due to tall grass and heavy shrub cover." Low visibility means bears are more likely to be taken by surprise and act defensively. (It also makes it harder for humans to maintain a safe distance from bears.)

2. Getting Too Close

Treadwell and Huguenard set up their campsite to maximize their chances of bear encounters.

"The camp was set up in such a way that bears wishing to traverse the area would have had to either wade in the lake or walk right next to the tent," Van Daele explained in the report. "A person could not have designed a more dangerous location to set up a camp."

3. Time of Year

According to the Park Service, Treadwell was attacked "during a time of year when bears were fiercely competing for food sources."

Bears need to gain enough fat during the summer in order to hibernate during the winter. Any bears who haven't put on enough weight by October are likely to be stressed out and desperate for food.

4. Food in the Tent

Although Treadwell and Huguenard kept most of their food in bear-resistant food containers (BRFCs), there were some easy-access snacks found in the tent. "It is possible that a bear investigated the camp in part due to the food found in the sleeping tent," Van Daele reported.


Timothy Treadwell's Legacy

In 2005, filmmaker Werner Herzog released a documentary about Treadwell called "Grizzly Man." The film, which incorporated Treadwell's own footage, was met with critical acclaim and won numerous awards.

Treadwell captured wild bears in intimate, everyday moments that, despite his gruesome end, showcased the beauty of the brown bear. "I think a large number of people now see that grizzly bears aren’t bloodthirsty, mindless killers," wildlife biologist Wesley Larson, told Outside magazine.


In life and death, many criticized Treadwell's risky behavior and questioned his contributions to conservation. "His mission was a failure in that he was trying to protect those specific bears, and he got at least two of them killed," says Larson.

Although Treadwell's organization, Grizzly People, claimed to fight animal poaching, there is limited evidence that Treadwell's expeditions prevented any actual poaching.


3 Grizzly Bear Safety Tips

Getting too close to grizzly bears is dangerous for humans and bears alike. When humans come into contact with bears, they increase the chances of conflict, which puts bears at risk. Here's how to stay safe.

  1. Keep your distance. Follow local rules and recommendations regarding how far away to stand from bears. Depending on the area, you may have to stay 200 feet (60 meters) or 300 feet (90 meters) away, according to the National Park Service.
  2. Carry bear spray. Bear spray is a type of pepper spray you can use in the rare event of a bear attack. Bear spray is a must for backcountry hikers and anyone else spending time in bear territory. (Note that bear spray is not the same as pepper spray for humans.)
  3. Stay calm. If you do encounter a bear up close, the National Park Service recommends you stay calm and talk to the bear in low tones — this will help the bear recognize you as a human and not a prey animal.


Timothy Treadwell FAQs

What did Timothy Treadwell name the bears?
Treadwell was known for assigning nicknames to the bears he observed. His favorite female brown bear was Downey. The bear that eventually killed Treadwell is believed to have been "The Big Red Machine." Other bears received names like Booble, Demon, Freckles, Emmy, Baby Letterman, Cupcake, Mr. Chocolate and Ms. Goodbear, per a Vanity Fair profile of Treadwell.
What is the 25th bear theory?
The 25th bear theory is a superstitious explanation for the fact that, while most bears tolerate humans, some do not. Treadwell described the 25th bear in his memoir as "one that tolerates no man or bear, one that will kill without bias."