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Dances With Bears

An innovative wildlife researcher embraces captive cubs, then maintains the relationships when they mature in the wild.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bill Greene
Globe Staff / September 14, 2003

After several hours in the woods with Yoda, a 170-pound adult female black bear, wildlife researcher Benjamin Kilham gets a sign that it's time to leave. Lying next to Kilham in the needles under a spruce tree, Yoda turns her head and gives him a "message bite," a gentle reminder of who's in charge in the woods surrounding Lyme, New Hampshire. The bite doesn't leave a mark, but its intention is clear. "You're tired and want us to leave, don't you?" says Kilham in a gentle voice. "I'll see you later, Yoda. This is a good place for you to sleep."

Formerly a product engineer at Colt Firearms in West Hartford, Connecticut, Kilham, 51, author of Among the Bears: Raising Orphan Cubs in the Wild, has spent the last 10 years raising -- and releasing into the New England woods -- 35 orphaned black bears. He received many of his cubs from wildlife authorities after the mothers were killed by automobiles or shot while disturbing bird feeders. Yoda and Squirty were bottle-fed as cubs inside his home in Lyme. They were then moved to a pen in the woods before being released when they were 18 months old. They became his primary study bears in the wild.

Every day, armed with a receiver to detect signals from their radio collars, Kilham heads into the woods to film and observe the two bears' behavior in the wild. Despite having borne and raised cubs of their own now, Yoda and Squirty continue to accept Kilham's presence, giving him a unique window into the world of the black bear, a realm largely unknown before his innovative work. "You got to be with them to learn from them," Kilham says.

The conventional method of rehabilitating wild bears is to minimize human contact. Kilham, on the other hand, favors a revolutionary intimacy: In effect, he acts as the bears' mother, teaching and nurturing the cubs, and providing affection and security before releasing them. Kilham's practices have sparked some controversy. Many wildlife specialists predicted that his approach would produce nuisance bears drawn to humans and craving contact with them. But only a couple of the 35 bears have failed to readjust to the wild.

During his interaction with his bears, Kilham has suffered several minor bites, some cuts and scratches, and hundreds of bruises, but no serious injury.

A writer, lecturer, and filmmaker, Kilham has made several important discoveries. George Schaller, a noted field biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, says, "He's a naturalist in the best old-fashioned tradition. He's gained insights into bear behavior which nobody else has been able to do."

Kilham filmed in one day a half-dozen wild bears amid an abundant acorn crop apparently communicating with one another. By rubbing and biting on a tree, they left their scent, marking their travels. He theorizes that when there is an abundance of food during a short time, black bears cooperate and share the bounty.

He also discovered an organ on the roof of the black bears' mouth -- now named the Kilham organ. The receptor allows female bears to teach their young which plants are edible. After the mother chews on edible vegetation, a cub will smell her breath and identify those plants that are good to eat. "The nose is the finder," says Kilham, "but the organ is the identifier." When he was raising Yoda and her brother Houdini, Kilham filled this maternal role by getting on all fours, chewing on appropriate plants, and sharing the scent through his breath.

Living intimately with nature is nothing new to Kilham. "Wildlife and nature for my family is what we talked about instead of sports," he says. "It was all about the birds and critters." His father, a virologist, taught microbiology and medical history at Dartmouth College. The family home in Lyme was a virtual MASH unit for injured, local animals. "Hawks and owls, skunks, woodchucks, foxes, crows, and ravens -- people would just bring them by, because my father knew something about wildlife."

When the family returned from his father's sabbatical year in Uganda when Ben was 2, they brought home a Nile crocodile, which lived in the downstairs bathtub. In Uganda, a leopard had the run of the Kilhams' house, and it once spent the night with Ben's infant sister, Phoebe. After his brother woke up screaming one night with the leopard sitting at the foot of his bed, their father shooed it into Phoebe's nursery so the family could get some sleep.

Last winter, on one of his visits to film Yoda with her cubs in their den, Ben Kilham dropped his gloves in the snow while filming. Yoda came out of her den and tried to take the gloves, but Kilham retrieved them first. She then raked a solitary leaf across the snow toward the den. "It was pretty apparent to me that she was trying to tell me she needed more bedding," says Kilham. He took off his hat and gave it to her, "and then I felt so bad I gave her the shirt off my back." On a visit to inspect her den this spring, he climbed in and pulled out his ripped fleece pullover and cap, which helped Yoda and her cubs stay warm last winter.

Recently, Yoda spent a rainy afternoon in the woods ripping and gnawing at an old stump, trying to get at ant colonies. "Ants are good," says Kilham, diligently recording the events on his videocamera. "They taste like Sweet Tarts, lemony. But don't eat them around the house; they may have pesticides in them."

"You know," he says, "these animals have the same drives and motives as we do. They're just out there making a living and raising their children. If we are going to live with them, then we should learn about them."

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