A new documentary about Timothy Treadwell (search), who gained notoriety for living and dying among Alaska's grizzly bears, has many worried that the compelling close-up footage of the animals could inspire other misguided adventure-seekers to emulate him.
"Grizzly Man," (search) directed and narrated by Werner Herzog (search), relies on scenes from more than 100 hours of raw footage shot by Treadwell while he lived among the bears at Katmai National Park and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula.
Treadwell, 46, and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, 37, both of Malibu, Calif., were mauled and eaten in October 2003 by a bear at their campsite, which lay at the confluence of several heavily used bear trails.
Many of the film's scenes show Treadwell chatting amiably at the camera while sitting just feet from thousand-pound grizzlies, or gingerly touching their noses with his fingers.
"Everything Timothy was doing was wrong, as far as behaving responsibly around wildlife," said Mike Lapinski, who wrote "Death in the Grizzly Maze," (search) one of the several books that have been written about Treadwell since his death.
Lapinski called the film "beautiful," but said he wishes Herzog had put more emphasis on the dangers of approaching grizzlies.
Missy Epping, wilderness district ranger at Katmai, has not seen the final version of the film, but said she was disappointed when she viewed the raw footage shot by Treadwell, particularly the sequences of him touching the bears.
"These are wild animals and we have to remember that," Epping said. "They are not teddy bears."
Epping and others confirmed that, since Treadwell's death, at least a few copycats hoping to gain the same celebrity status as the amateur naturalist have been following bears somewhere on Katmai's 5 million acres.
"You can't just say, 'Because you're a Timothy Treadwell wannabe, you can't come to the park,'" Epping said.
However, many of the park's business partners and air taxis refuse to shuttle tourists to bear country, Epping said.
The film opened Friday in large markets such as Los Angeles and New York, but has yet to debut on screens in Alaska.
The movie will not likely alter the opinion of most Alaska residents, who believe Treadwell's behavior around bears was foolish.
"I never received more hate mail in my life than from people in Alaska, hundreds and hundreds of letters," said Treadwell's longtime friend, Jewel Palovak, who with him co-founded the organization Grizzly People (search), whose goal is to preserve the bears and their habitat.
Palovak believes Treadwell was a dynamic, inspirational person whose his motives were to protect the grizzlies.
"Timothy was a unique individual and handled things the way he wanted to," Palovak said.
Grizzly People does not encourage people to use the same tactics as Treadwell, Palovak said. Posted prominently on the group's Web site are several rules for properly dealing with bears. At the top of the list is a warning Treadwell repeated regularly: "People should remain 100 yards from bears at all times."
"Tim never wanted anyone to do things the way he did," Palovak said. "It's very dangerous. Tim had a relationship with those bears and was unscathed."
Treadwell himself at times seemed to revel in the possibility of dying in the paws of a grizzly. In the first scene of the film, he ruminates on his possible death.
"Once there is weakness, they will exploit it, they will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me into bits and pieces. I'm dead. But so far, I persevere, persevere," he says directly to the camera while two bears forage in the fields behind him.
Numerous reviewers have lauded "Grizzly Man," which won the Alfred P. Sloan award at this year's Sundance Film Festival (search).
Director Herzog does depict in his film a host of what can easily be taken as caveats, including a chilling shot into the seemingly soulless eyes of a grizzly, and the coroner's description of an audio recording of Treadwell and Huguenard as they struggled to fight off the bear that killed them. The tape was discovered by investigators and, according to Palovak, will never be made public.
Herzog is in Thailand this week and was not immediately available for an interview, according to his publicist.
The nearly two-hour film "Grizzly Man" is co-produced by Lions Gate Entertainment and the Discovery Channel.