A little understanding of wild animals can be a dangerous thing. Take the case of “eco-warrior” Timothy Treadwell, forever 46, who claimed to understand brown bears and what was best for them. Eco-warrior was what Treadwell dubbed himself. He also variously told people that he was a British foundling or an Australian who moved to California as a teenager and grew up a juvenile delinquent in a rough society. Although none of that happened to be remotely true, as shall be seen, it didn’t change the fact that Treadwell emerged from a period of serious drug and alcohol abuse with the radiant conviction that he was meant to go forth and live among brown bears.

As the story is told, Treadwell spent from June to October of each year alone in a tent on the Alaska peninsula without fire or any means of self-defense (forsaking even bear spray). He placed himself there as the self-anointed custodian of the brown bears, guarding them against not just poachers but licensed hunters as well. In the process, and to give him his due, he kept what were described as “meticulous diaries” documenting the genealogy, mating habits, and maternal activities of the bears he lived among.

MEET MR. CHOCOLATE Treadwell photographed and videotaped the bears extensively but also christened them such unforgivable things as Booble, Freckles, and Mr. Chocolate. His ultimate stunt was to crawl into the alders with giant boars and at distances of mere feet croon to them. Barney-like, “I love you.”

Away from the bears, prior to departing on his other annual crusade of saving baby harp seals, Treadwell armed himself with gripping tales and visual aids and invaded grammar schools to educate thousands of children with his view of brown bears. This prompted Louise Leakey, of the famous anthropologist family, to write to President Bush that Treadwell’s “captivating work” set a “commendable example” for the wee ones.

Then last October, one of the Freckleses or Mr. Chocolates had enough of Treadwell’s egregious goodness and understanding and mauled him to death in broad daylight at his camp along the bear trails of Katmai National Park and Preserve.

BEATS SALMON ANYTIME In life Treadwell had boasted that it would be an honor “to end up in bear scat.” It’s likely he got honored a bit more than he bargained for, though. Saying he was mauled to death barely captures the full flavor of the assault. When a bush pilot arriving to pick up Treadwell sighted his flattened tent and investigated, an old boar bear was perching on his partially buried remains. Treadwell had been largely eaten. Along with his body parts were those of his 37-year-old girlfriend.

It came as absolutely no surprise to those who knew Treadwell, and brown bears, that he would end up this way, or that the park rangers and state troopers called to the campsite would have to kill the bear hoarding the remains–as well as a second that was stalking them. What Treadwell didn’t know, and what qualified behaviorists apparently do, is that any wild animal exposed long enough to a human being loses all respect for that human being and attempts to dominate him, often with regrettable results (ask Roy of Siegfried and Roy).

Treadwell in his own mind was clearly above other human beings, though. Bear repellent was for the “average person.” He considered himself, in his own curious words, a sort of “supernatural alien” on “a mission of peace.” Whatever the wishes of brown bears were, he wanted “to be unconditional love and kindness” to them. He was utterly convinced that if he did not do his so-called work in the wild, animals would come to harm. Not for one second could such a man honestly believe he would ever be killed: He meant too much to the bears; it granted him immunity.

On September 14, 2003, Treadwell wrote to Colorado rancher and financial supporter Roland Dixon: “My transformation is complete–a fully accepted wild animal–brother to these bears. I run free among them–with absolute love and respect for all the animals. I am kind and viciously tough.”

Maybe not tough enough, though.

A FOOL ON A MISSION For good reason Treadwell was characterized as “charismatic” and a “showman,” with a “shifting persona.” As postmortem news reports revealed, he was born Timothy William Dexter and changed his name to Treadwell (“tread + well”–get it?). He was brought up thoroughly middle-class on Long Island and went to college on a swimming scholarship, dropping out after an injury. His subsequent brushes with the law were as an adult, not a juvenile.

His other home, besides the tent, was a rented condo in Malibu. His protection of baby seals came years after that fur industry collapsed and the clubbing ceased; and he was guarding brown bears in a national park, where hunting was illegal and poaching was rarely, if ever, reported.

And so what? Timothy Treadwell believed he was an eco-warrior who understood and shielded brown bears. Don Quixote believed he was a knight errant who fought giants that were really windmills. Where was the harm, except to themselves?

If it were possible, that should be asked of the two brown bears meaninglessly destroyed because of Treadwell’s fundamental misunderstanding. Or of the young woman he lured to a gruesome death. Then there are all those who will employ him as a hero-martyr of animal rights and antihunting. And finally, think of the thousands of children who will only know what Timothy Treadwell taught them about brown bears, and therefore will think of a magnificent species, Ursus arctos, as “Boobles.”

Treadwell’s worst lies were the ones he told himself. As a philosopher once said, if you believe you can do whatever you like, even the supreme good, then you’re irretrievably a villain. Treadwell wasn’t a villain. He was something far more destructive than that, as fools on a mission so often are.