Friday, August 13, 2010

Crossing the Wild Line: Thoughts on Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man

Crossing the Wild Line: Thoughts on Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man

Prompted by a philosophically minded friend, I recently watched the film Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog's documentary of Timothy Treadwell. For those of you who do not know of Treadwell, he is the fellow who went to Alaska and lived amongst the grizzly bears up there for 13 summers, filming himself and thus capturing some astounding wildlife footage in the process. In 2003, he and his girlfriend were killed by a bear--surely an ironic, as well as sad, end for this man who professed unreserved love for the bears and other animals, and who was an advocate and educator.

Grizzly Man is a compelling film, consisting mostly of Treadwell's footage with narration from Herzog and interviews with various people associated with Treadwell's life--and death. Among the most important questions it raises, I think, is how humans relate to and interact with animals, and along with that how we perceive them and their habitat. Whether driven by love or by greed, humans have a long history of crossing the "boundary" between species, charging into areas without full thought (or respect) for the indigenous inhabitants. And in the case of Treadwell, we see one instance of this trend...with typically tragic consequences.


First and foremost, I feel genuinely sorry for Timothy Treadwell, since it seems like he had serious personal issues that drove him to do something seriously foolish. This jumps out at you from the first few frames of Herzog's film, using only footage filmed by Treadwell himself, of himself. Your first thought may be that he is crazy or in someway mentally handicapped. But with more reflection and insights gained through the film, you start to understand how Treadwell's demons drove him to create a sort of nature boy alter-ego, to build an identity around his role as Savior of the Grizzlies...or Grizzly Man. Whatever altruistic and selfless love he might have felt for the bears and other animals, he surely was satisfying some deep personal need, which unfortunately killed him in the end.

At one point in the film, Herzog interviews a Sven Haakanson, the curator of the Alutiq Museum in Kodiak, Alaska, near where Treadwell spent his summers, who explains his feeling about Treadwell's in situ activism. As he puts it, from a native perspecive, Treadwell pushed himself into the bears' territory and, though apparently well intentioned, ultimately disrespected the bears by thinking he was "one of them." Thus we see Treadwell swimming with and even touching bears, pursuing them to get footage or "study" them, and consistently acting as if they both understand and "relate" to him in some way. This form of sympathetic fallacy explodes the obvious biological and cultural differences between human and non-human animals. While we share so much with them on a physical and mental level, we are still very different in our capacities, our beliefs and desires, and our system of morality, to name a few. Pretending that humans are "the same" as non-human animals would be as fallacious as pretending that dogs and cats are "the same," or that fish and mammals are "the same."

This presumption and error on Treadwell's part are enough reason for concern for people who work to change peoples' disrespectful or apathetic attitudes towards animals, their habitats, and their very livelihoods. A foolish, naive understanding of animals can be as harmful as apathy or even cruelty, undermining the effort to use science-based evidence to show why they deserve respect and how to go about doing so most effectively.

But the larger error on Treadwell's part was crossing an ancient, primal line: not human-animal, but predator-prey. He forgot that those grizzly bears he cooed over and treated like teddy bears--stuffed toys like the one he slept with every night--are keen predators and, when pushed to desperation, will do whatever they have to to survive--even eating their own species, including the cubs of mother grizzlies. As we can see from his footage, Treadwell seemed arrogantly confident that he had "conquered" both them and nature, not to mention the people and civilization who did not have the guts to do what he did.

While it is important to view Treadwell with fair criticism and recognize his mistakes, at the same time I must say that I can completely sympathize with his desire to live with the animals in nature, his desire to help them, and his willingness to die for them or even at their hands--er, paws.

In the end, I think he was happy with his life and his death and would not have wanted to go out any other way, and I respect him for that. To be fully honest, the experiences he had (as we can see in the film) were of a sort that I and many people would wish for...and maybe die for. Having a fox for a friend, and touching and swimming with grizzly bears? Man...

In terms of the director's narration and "spin" on Treadwell, I was a bit turned off by some of Herzog's meta-commentary, and I disagreed to some extent with how he characterized nature as entirely cruel, as the cold antithesis to a somehow more civilized human world--only because his perspective puts it in a black-white, us-them duality, rather than recognizing the shared elements and the similarities and differences, and how the relationships are more complicated than just man vs. beast. It also dismisses the numerous examples of how nature is not at all "red in tooth and claw," and how cooperation and compassion are just as crucial for survival in the wild as a dog-eat-dog mentality.

In an age where anthropogenic climate change and habitat depletion are making it ever more perilous for animals in the wild, it is imperative that we adopt a mature, informed, and respectful attitude for them. If we treat them only as savage brutes or as stupid stuffed toys, we disconnect ourselves from them, reduce them to expendable "things," and risk losing them in the process through extinction. By respecting them fully, not stomping into their territory but accepting the fact that sometimes we do best by leaving them alone, we can allow them to live in their natural way and ensure that they continue to share the Earth with us, contributing to the rich biodiversity that makes all life thrive.

Herzog's Grizzly Man is a thought-provoking film, which will get anyone interested in animals, animal rights, and environmentalism thinking seriously about the philosophy behind their choices and the effects of their actions. Additionally, the film provides some astounding footage of animals in the wild...and human nature as well.