Penguins and grizzly bears


Posted to on December 10, 2005


Penguins and grizzly bears are the anthropomorphized stars of two recent documentaries. In “March of the Penguins,” they are cuddly stand-ins for nuclear families. When compared to the violent video games, rap music and drug culture that are laying siege to suburban households, the brutal cold and wind that penguins endure seems relatively benign. Werner Herzog’s “The Grizzly Man” tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, who lived in the midst of grizzlies in Alaska until he was eaten by one of them. Herzog’s film is based heavily on Treadwell’s amateurish but compelling videos. He talks to the hulking animals, who he has given pet names to, as if they were poodles or--worse--his children. Although both documentaries are skillfully produced, they both leave out key elements that would help us understand humanity’s relationship to such animals and to nature as a whole--something we will try to fill in.


The most amazing thing about “March of the Penguins” is that it was filmed at all. Shot in Antarctica by French director Luc Jacquet, it tracks the breeding cycle of the Emperor penguin that had hitherto never been seen on film. Every year, the birds trek inland away from the water toward solid ground where the mating ritual takes place. After the female lays an egg, she rolls it into the father’s feet as it were a soccer ball. He and the other males, also caring after their own eggs, huddle together against the cold and wind, which reaches a hellish fury, while the mothers return to the water to feed. For both mother and father, the margin between survival and starvation is paper-thin. After the chick is born, they all return to the water while trying to protect the offspring against predators until it too is ready to mate.


In the production notes available on the film’s website (, Jacquet explains the miracle of Emperor penguin reproduction:


“Because the emperor penguin is a fabulous creature evolving in the open seas, capable of diving as deep as 1,400 feet for as long as 20 minutes. But in order to breed, for some unknown reason, this extraordinary creature pays an enormous price for all his majesty, and finds himself walking like a penitent for miles upon miles in the blizzards of Antarctica, far from the ocean, just to lay one egg. He does this in the most stable environment he can find, and then goes back and forth all winter between the colony where his life is hellish, and the sea where he finds his sustenance! There are only a few dozen places where he can lay his eggs, no more. So the emperor penguin lives his life on the edge. There is no life beyond him. We are almost in the realm of biotics. There are no living cells in Antarctica, and in this white desert, the emperor is the sentinel, the last living element on the planet – assuming we are still on the same planet. Although Antarctica is not yet space, it is almost no longer earth! We are on the border between reality and fantasy. Emperor penguins, desert nomads… nature creates mirages. All our references are gone, or simply reversed, even the seasons are reversed. If you haven’t experienced freezing 100-mile an hour (162 kph) winds, it is hard to imagine what it is like.”


Despite the obvious drama involved with such a monumental effort to propagate the species, the director felt the need to invest the creatures with human feelings, especially love. He even toyed with the idea of writing dialog for the penguins that would be spoken by actors, something wiser heads convinced him to discard.


His main achievement is to create a visual masterpiece using the austere backstage of glaciers and ice floes, against which the awkward but imposing Emperor penguins conduct their reproductive dance. This ballet in ice mostly speaks for itself, while narrator Morgan Freeman is used to impart the debatable anthropomorphic perspective.


“March of the Penguins” is sadly missing a perspective that is crucial today, especially in light of the Christian right’s well-publicized efforts to make the penguins stand-ins for mega-church congregants. That perspective is evolutionary science, which is the main explanation for penguin survival rather than family values. It must be said that the film makes a cursory effort to offer a Darwininan perspective, as Freeman explains that Antarctica was originally far to the North. When it floated south, the only animals that survived were those that could adapt to the new, subfreezing environment.


In his review of “March of the Penguins,” Roger Ebert tries to supply some of the background information on penguin evolution:


“This is a love story,” Freeman's narration assures us, reminding me for some reason of Tina Turner singing “What's Love Got to Do With It?” I think it is more accurately described as the story of an evolutionary success. The penguins instinctively know, because they have been hard-wired by evolutionary trial and error, that it is necessary to march so far inland because in spring, the ice shelf will start to melt toward them, and they need to stand where the ice will remain thick enough to support them.


As a species, they learned this because the penguins who paused too soon on their treks had eggs that fell into the sea. Those who walked farther produced another generation, and eventually every penguin was descended from a long line of ancestors who were willing to walk the extra mile.


Other than the shark, there is no other animal that comes across less cuddly than the grizzly bear. That did not stop Timothy Treadwell from spending thirteen years among them until October 2003, when he and his girlfriend became a meal.


Treadwell was 46 at the time of his death and had little to show for his years on earth. The closest he ever came to success was in an audition for the part of the bartender in “Friends” that Woody Harrelson landed. After Treadwell came in second, his hopes were dashed. He then plunged into a life of alcohol and drugs. Discovering grizzly bears turned things around. Every year he worked as a waiter in Malibu until he put together enough money for an expedition up to Katmai National Park in Alaska.


He founded an organization called Grizzly People, whose website ( is still functioning. Fortunately, they have more sense than poor Treadwell from the evidence of the words on their home page: “People should remain 100 yards from bears at all times.” Throughout Herzog’s documentary, we see that Treadwell is close enough to touch the nose of approaching bears. Watching these scenes, especially in light of knowing his eventual fate, is painful. Just as painful is to listen to his self-deceptions about how his beloved bears would never harm him. As somebody who still retained a kind of woozy 60s sensibility until the moment of his death, Treadwell is almost as much of a parody of the “peace and love” hippy as found in the most misanthropic pages of R. Crumb.


Herzog’s role as narrator and interviewer in the documentary is to provide a running antithesis to Timothy Treadwell. He tells us that he could never understand how Treadwell could form a bond with such animals since they always appeared as a cruel and indifferent predator to him--just like nature itself. This is ultimately what gives the film its dramatic tension, the contrast between the neo-Hobbesian Herzog and Treadwell the naďf


Despite their different psychologies and their attitudes toward nature, Herzog and Treadwell share something in common and that certainly must have inspired Herzog to take on this project. Despite his lack of professional training, Treadwell was a serious film-maker and had a compulsive attachment to filming the bears and making himself a sympathetic partisan for the bear cause. Developers and poachers were Treadwell's sworn enemies. Herzog shows him in repeated takes before the camera, as he tries to deliver his lines in the most convincing fashion.


Anybody who has tracked Herzog’s career, as I have, will immediately recognize the same kind of obsessions in his work. The most infamous example was “Fitzcarraldo,” a film about the 19th century rubber grower Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, who decided to bring grand opera to the Amazon interior against all odds. Needless to say, Fitzcarraldo and Treadwell--like Herzog--were men who would not be denied. Herzog insisted that the film would include a scene shot on location that depicted moving a 340-ton steam ship over a mountain. When this ship eventually navigated some very rough rapids, three crew members were seriously injured. This must have been in the back of his mind when he pointedly referred to the needless sacrifice of Treadwell’s girlfriend, who was far more devoted to him than to the cause of the grizzly bear.


Although it is doubtful that “The Grizzly Man” will ever serve as ammunition against efforts to preserve grizzly bear habitats, it is still regrettable that Herzog failed to engage with the very real threat to their survival and the survival of Alaskan wildlife in general. Timothy Treadwell might not have been the most effective spokesman for wildlife conservation, but he certainly understood correctly that they needed to be defended from commercial development, including the kind that devastated Katmai National Park, where Treadwell operated.


The Alaskan spring is late but frenzied. Alder saplings break free of tenured snow holds. Kodiak bears, the largest carnivores on earth, rouse themselves at Katmai National Park, 300 miles from the spill, and begin searching for shellfish. Bald eagles check nesting sites in spruce snags.


At Prince William Sound, the warm weather heralds a second year of anxious monitoring. Will the salmon fry make their way out to sea without ingesting oil through the food chain? Will the otters keep their insulating fur coats free of North Slope crude? Will beaches that used to be thick with mussels and clams ever see a return of the natural bounty?


Such questions were foreign to the Sound until a few minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989, when Capt. Joseph J. Hazelwood announced over the Coast Guard radio at Valdez, '”Evidently we're leaking some oil and we're going to be here for quite a while.'”


His ship, the Exxon Valdez, was gushing oil at the rate of 640,000 gallons an hour. The spill fouled 1,000 miles of beach, staining the virgin shores of two national parks and countless islands and inlets.


The spill took the worst toll on wildlife of any industrial accident in history, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. So far, less than a third of the oil has been recovered. Nature took care of some of the rest, which evaporated or was broken down by waves. Still, tar balls and “mousse'” and asphaltlike spatterings on rocks remain for the second round of oil-scrubbing, which Exxon plans to begin later this spring.


(NY Times, April 15, 1990)


Enormous pressures are being generated today to open up Alaska to oil-drilling, mining and the lumber industries. Beyond these threats, Alaska’s unique climate, which animals have adapted to for generations, is being threatened by global warming. Just as Antarctica was detached from the land mass to its north and drifted south, so does Alaska face a de facto journey southward. However, the fate of native flora and fauna might not be as fortunate as the Emperor penguin which was able to adapt to a new environment. For every winner in the cruel struggle for evolutionary survival, there are many more that fall by the wayside. This must not be allowed to happen.