Filmmaker Timothy Treadwell chronicled his extraordinary life among the Alaskan Grizzly bears — animals he claimed were gentle giants. In fact, the bear documentarian was known to chant: “I am grizzly… I am grizzly,” not knowing that “grisly” would later be the word used to describe his final moments. Sadly, the tragic scene caught on tape and gave definitive proof of what really happened to Treadwell when he met his end in the wild.
California resident Timothy Treadwell’s fascination with grizzly bears was like no other, and it’s his passion for the not-so cuddly creatures that got him into environmentalism and documentary filmmaking in the first place. It all began when the blonde-haired outdoorsman started camping along Alaska’s Katmai Coast at Katmai National Park circa the summers of the 1980s.
He initially watched the grizzlies from afar while camping in the “Big Green” area of Hallo Bay; but something inside him just knew he had to find a way to get closer, to observe them in HD, so to speak. This is when Timothy started camping in the much-more rugged Kaflia Bay.
The area was thicker and woodier, making it the perfect spot to get up close and personal with some bears, which was a dream for Timothy. Because there was little open land, Timothy would follow grizzly trails and hide in the vegetation. As dangerous as this was, Timothy wasn’t done pushing his luck.
The area surrounding the Kaflia Bay became Timothy’s favorite place, as he’d get so up-close and personal with the giant mammals that he’d literally touch them and even play with the cubs. He made sure to film all of his astonishing interactions with the grizzlies, some of which weighed up to an alarming 1,000 pounds.
While it’s common knowledge that everything Timothy was doing was a hard no-no, he felt that his actions helped develop a mutual trust and respect with the Katmai National Park bears. He did this for 13 consecutive summers, and park rangers warned him that nothing good was to come of it.
Despite warnings that things would likely end ugly (and bloody) for Timothy, he didn’t see it that way. Park rangers eventually became irritated, as Timothy was disturbing the natural way of things in the park. In fact, the fed-up rangers gave him a citation for prohibited camping practices, which included possessing food inside his tent, AKA bear attractant.
The rangers named their new park rule the “Treadwell Rule.” Inconveniently, the rule declared that all campers must re-park their tents a minimum of one mile away every five days, this way the bears won’t get too comfy with humans hanging around. As you could imagine, quirky, determined Timothy completely ignored this rule.
Come September, grizzly bears start prepping for the winter months. By eating. This is when most bear-watching campers leave the site, as to not become a grizzly’s dinner. But on September 26, 2003, after fully packing up their camp in Kaflia Bay and heading to the airport, Timothy and his nature-loving girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, had a gut feeling to go back to Katmai National Park. It was a dangerous gut feeling.
See, there was a specific bear Timothy had missed that summer, a female bear he named Downey. He just had to see her. But considering there was a rainstorm ahead, which would bring more fish to the waterways, therefore attracting more bears, it was an extra bad time to go back to the Kaflia Bay.
Well, on September 29th, Timothy and Amie were back in the depths of the “Grizzly Maze,” trying their best to avoid the pesky park rangers. Timothy, who was always pushing boundaries with the grizzlies, even set up camp directly on one of the main bear trails, essentially forcing the bears to interact with him.
Regarding Timothy’s move to camp out along a bear trail, biologist Larry Van Daele said that “bears wishing to traverse the area would have had to either wade in the [nearby] lake or walk right next to the tent.” He went on to clarify that “a person could not have designed a more dangerous location to set up a camp.”
Though Timothy’s actions seemingly belonged to a deranged person, he knew the risks, and he knew that nothing he was doing was considered safe, but a part of him truly thought the bears were his friends. Timothy made himself believe that his beloved Alaskan grizzlies would never hurt him.
Though he once carried bear repellent spray and protected his camp with an electric fence, he let his guard down, ditching those layers of protection. Why? Well, Timothy said that it “Doesn’t seem fair to the bears. Why should they suffer for me?” Timothy exuded genuine love, respect, and utter devotion to nature and wildlife.
His friends, on the other hand, were quite concerned. To them he’d say “If it happens, it happens. God forbid, if a bear takes me, let him go.” But still, nothing was going to stop him from leaving his camp, not even the fact that he noticed the grizzlies were acting more aggressive and impulsive than what was typical.
Experts think this hostile behavior could’ve been due to a food shortage caused by droughts that year. The bears were desperate, and they were hangry. They were constantly out and about, searching for food, and Timothy was in awe. “But, let me just tell you, just between Amie, myself, and you, every fish ran, every bear was here. We made the best friggin’ choice of our lives,” he told his friend Willy Fulton.
Just one month prior, Timothy filmed a too-close interaction between himself and two large male grizzlies appropriately named Demon and Machine. It was clear that Timothy was constantly trying to take things one step further… until it was too late. “The Red Machine is from the old days, the old days of when bears came here and the sight, the smell of a person meant poacher,” he wrote.
“How can I communicate to him that I am friend and all the rest are foe?,” he continued. It was as if he was trying to fix nature, to undo the way grizzlies have lived for thousands of years. We all know the saying: curiosity killed the cat.
On October 6th, a week after they returned, Timothy and Amie were found dead. Based on compiled footage, it was clear that Timothy’s relationship with the grizzlies became a dangerous obsession, one that Amie had as well. “You haven’t lived until you’ve bathed in a river with bears,” Amie once said. To be frank, the ones who haven’t bathed in a river with bears are likely still living their best lives.
It was the 1000-pound Machine that killed the duo, likely on October 5th. He was thought to be the “25th Grizzly,” AKA a grizzly “that tolerates no man or bear, one that will [maul] without bias,” Timothy wrote in his book, Among Grizzlies. Timothy had left Amie in the tent so he could approach the Machine, who was roaming around alongside Kaflia Lake.
He attempted to video the encounter, but all that was found was six haunting minutes of disturbing audio. “Come out here; I’m being killed out here,” Timothy was heard yelling. Sadly, the audio contained brutal screaming as an enormous bear shredded the duo’s flesh, and it was highly sought-after.
Several filmmakers have tried to obtain said audio, but Katmai National Park rangers refused to share it with anyone in order to respect the lives of Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard. Machine was put down shortly after the fatal incident… and human remains were found inside his stomach.
Understandably, park rangers desperately wanted the public to know that this was a very rare occurrence, one that illustrates just how dangerous grizzlies can be. “I’m sure all along he knew that he was playing with fire and that probably was part of the appeal,” said the Alaska troopers’ public information officer Greg Wilkinson as reported by The Chicago Tribune.
In 2005, renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog released an incredible documentary about Timothy’s eccentric, nature-obsessed life, Grizzly Man. In a way, Timothy’s story brought more attention to his favorite animal, necessary attention. While fatal bear attacks aren’t all too common, they do occur, and there’s not always video evidence to prove it.
In a twist just as unsettling as Treadwell’s tragic death, authorities stumbled upon an unfortunate incident involving a North American black bear. They weren’t expecting to uncover a larger conspiracy, but it led them to discover the backstory of a taxidermied bear that’s displayed at a Lexington, Kentucky-based storefront.
The bear didn’t seem so remarkable at first. He was stuffed and given to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in the 1980s after being discovered in the forest — dead. For years, he remained in the center’s visitor center. When a wildfire threatened the rec area, the staff evacuated themselves and the center’s valuables.
Everything was safely stored in nearby Dalton, Tennessee. The bear and the rest of the goods sat in a storage unit for about a month until mysterious criminals stole the center’s artifacts and sold them to a pawn shop in Nashville. Some of the relics were recovered, but not the black bear.
While the bear swapped hands, none of the players involved stopped to question its prior history. If they had, they might not have wanted it at all. Nevertheless, when the bear arrived at the pawnshop, the owner quickly contacted, of all people, country music star Waylon Jennings. Waylon was a major taxidermy collector and bought the bear to add to his other figures.
The black bear’s next owner was Ron Thompson, a trip-planner for millionaires visiting Las Vegas and it remained in his mansion until Thompson’s death in 2009. After that his estate was auctioned by Nellis Auction House. Zhu T’ang, the owner of a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Reno, bought the bear for $200.
Zhu used the animal as a shop decoration until 2012 when he also died. After his passing, his wife sold the business but decided to keep the black bear. “He was always bringing home junk from auctions and estate sales and things like that,” she said. “The bear was one of his favorite things. He just loved it for some reason.”
“At first, he wanted to keep it in our living room, but I wouldn’t have it. It scared me. I made him take it to the store,” Mrs. T’ang said. The bear seemed like a regular taxdermied animal, besides a jagged scar running across the creature’s stomach. T’ang thought it was a botched taxidermy incision.
It wasn’t until she spoke with the KY for KY storeowners, who checked lead after lead to track her down, that T’ang learned the odd history behind the stuff black bear. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation created the scar when they examined this same bear in the 1980s.
For two months, a team from KY for KY followed the path of the black bear, before reaching the end, Mrs. T’ang. When they told her the statue’s entire story, she almost didn’t believe it. Eventually, she relented, and impressed by their tracking work, let KY for KY have the bear as long as they paid for shipping to Kentucky.
The store decided to name the bear Pablo and decorated him with a variety of hats as well. Though Pablo the statue had an interesting journey, Pablo the live bear was also a Kentucky legend — a legend who died early, like so many others. His demise was caused by a less-than-trustworthy man named Andrew Carter Thornton II.
Andrew happened to die the same day as Pablo, but a few hours earlier. His body was discovered on September 11, 1985 in someone’s driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee. Before his death, he was wearing an all-khaki outfit, black gloves, and a bullet-proof vest. He was carrying a few guns, night goggles, code books, and thousands in cash.
Later, police found a crashed Cessna 404 plane and realized Andrew was piloting it. It was no coincidence that Andrew was an Army paratrooper. He later became a lawyer, and then a corrupt Lexington-area narcotics officer, before getting arrested in 1981. He was quickly released and resorted to smuggling drugs in Kentucky.
Thornton joined “The Company,” a criminal outfit headed by brothers Jamiel and Jimmy Chagra. When their group was indicted, they inadvertently exposed corruption in the DEA, Kentucky law enforcement, and governor’s mansion. Andrew was working for the brothers when his smuggling mission went horribly awry. He was on a crash course with Pablo the bear.
In 1985, Andrew was flying hundreds of pounds of cocaine by plane, when the engine failed, and he panicked. Thornton pushed at least 40 pounds of the drug out of the plane, put the aircraft on autopilot, and rapidly strapped another 75 pounds of cocaine on himself. With the packages secure, Andrew jumped from the plane.
But something went wrong. Investigators weren’t sure if Andrew’s parachute malfunctioned or he failed to open it in time. His friends said he often waited as long as possible before opening his parachute. Regardless, Andrew, his weapons, and the smashed cocaine packages were splattered across a Tennessee driveway.
As this accident unfolded, another one was happening in the Chattahoochee National Forest, 50 miles away. The 75 pounds of cocaine that Andrew flung from the plane were discovered by a curious 175-pound black bear, later called “Pablo Escobear.” Pablo’s name was inspired by the drug lord, Pablo Escobar, and for good reason.
An anonymous hunter found the bear’s carcass, surrounded by numerous ripped cocaine parcels. “Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine,” the bear’s medical examiner said. “There isn’t a mammal on the planet that could survive that. Cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, stroke. You name it, that bear had it.”
Poor Pablo didn’t know he was consuming pound upon pound of cocaine. Without interference, the bear kept eating the drug, until he was literally filled with it. We don’t think he felt much pain before his death, at least. But there are some unanswered question about his coke binge.
While a 175-pound bear was capable of eating plenty of cocaine, investigators believed he wasn’t the only one who got into the drug. The hunter who found the bear told a few friends before the police could clear the site. They believe a few people may have taken a parcel for themselves.
Though the animal is long gone, Pablo’s legend lives on decades later. If you want to meet Pablo Escobear for yourself, take a road trip to Lexington, Kentucky. It’s just a good thing no curious hikers bumped into the drugged-up predator during his final hours.