The Bear Essentials
Ben Kilham '74 prepares orphaned bears for life in the wild.

Watch this," Ben Kilham called out as we tromped through the New Hampshire woods one fine summer's day. He wandered off the path, hunted around for a few minutes, then got down on all fours. As soon as they saw him go down, two little bear cubs came barreling out of the bushes and rushed at him.

Houdini and Yoda climb on Ben Kilham - Photo by Robert Caputo
by Robert Caputo

Most people would be rather put off by this, but then most people don't have the relationship with bears that Kilham does. He lowered his head and began chomping on some Indian cucumber that had pushed up though the litter on the forest floor. The cubs stuck their noses in his mouth and took a good whiff. Then they hunted around for the same plant, and they began eating it, too.

They've never eaten Indian cucumber before," Kilham said. "They've walked right past it a hundred times without knowing it was food. They had to learn that it was food--somebody had to teach them."

Because these two black bear cubs are orphans, that somebody was Kilham. Most of us do everything we can to avoid running into bears when we're out in the woods. Not Kilham. He may be two-legged, smell different and not be nearly hairy enough to actually be a bear, but to Yoda and Houdini, those two black balls of energy and fur, Kilham is Mom. And they are his children.

Their special relationship started on a cold winter's day in March. John O'Brien '67, a local forester, was surveying the progress of a logging operation on Moose Mountain when he heard a strange noise.

"It was something I'd never heard before, kind of a cross between a hawk and a baby animal," O'Brien said later. "I didn't pay much attention at first, but it persisted, so I thought I'd better have a look. I worked my way into a thicket and got close enough to see two tiny little cubs wrapped up in each other's arms on the lip of a den. I thought I'd better leave because their mama must be around somewhere and ought to be coming back."

But she did not come back. Late in the day, worried about the cubs and the approaching cold of night, O'Brien called Kilham, who is widely known as "the bear man" around Lyme, N.H., where he lives with his wife, Debra, and sister, Phoebe '75. Kilham was quickly on the spot.

"From the lack of tracks and the state of the cubs, it was obvious that Mom had not been around for several days," Kilham explained. "The cubs were probably about five weeks old, but weighed less than four pounds. They should have weighed six or seven. They were hugging each other, trying to keep warm. I don't think they would have made it through another night."

Houdini, Yoda, and Kilham in a straw-filled den - Photo by Robert Caputo
Kilham gets orphaned black bear cubs Houdini and Yoda settled into new quarters. Their straw-filled den is inside a pen Kilham built on his property outside Lyme, N.H. Photo by Robert Caputo

Black bears are extremely good mothers, and only an imminent threat to their own lives will make them abandon their young. A logging crew had been working in the area near the den for a week. Because of the snow and thick undergrowth, the den was impossible to see, and a mechanical harvester had backed right up to it. The racket, diesel exhaust and looming tires had made the cubs' mother flee for her life. The crew had never heard or seen a thing, and if O'Brien hadn't happened to walk nearby that day, the cubs would have frozen to death.

"It's not common for bear cubs to be orphaned," Kilham said. "But it's not unknown, either. They're abandoned or a car or something kills their mother. There are probably 150 or so in the country each year--those are the ones that are found."

Kilham's first order of business was to get the two little cubs warm and fed. He wrapped them up and took them home, where he could look after them. Bottle training was not a problem--the little guys devoured the formula he made up for them and then snuggled contentedly into his blankets for much-needed sleep. The Kilham family's house overlooks the picturesque green in the center of Lyme, and it is no stranger to orphaned animals. Kilham's father taught microbiology and medical history at nearby Dartmouth College, and both he and his physician wife had a passion for helping crippled and abandoned animals.

"We had owls with injured feet, red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons, ravens, crows, raccoons, ferrets, a fox--there were always animals wandering around the house," Kilham told me. "We even had a young beaver that kept trying to dam up the toilet."

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