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.
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."
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."
Kilham had moved away from Lyme to pursue a career as a gunsmith with Abercrombie & Fitch, Colt and other manufacturers. When he returned in 1982 to set up shop as an independent gunsmith, it seemed natural to take up animal rehabilitation as an avocation. He obtained permits from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and worked with fishers, skunks, porcupines, raccoons and, in 1992, his first black bear, a yearling who was sick.
I didn't plan to study bears," said Kilham, who majored in wildlife management at UNH. "But working with Wobbly bear got me hooked. I'd always had the idea that the way to learn about animals was to start with a young one and watch it grow up, that you would learn more that way than by just watching adults. And bears have a long, 18-month dependency. Two things I didn't realize when I began were how little was known about black bears and how much these little guys would teach me."
It surprised me, too, that so little is known about an animal with which we live in such close contact. In our culture, we grow up with bears from the time we're given Teddy bears to keep us company in the crib. Smokey the Bear warns us about fires. Yogi and other animated bears entertain us. Winnie the Pooh and his countless cousins populate our bedtime stories.
We may love them when we're children, but we have not tolerated them very well as adults. Black bears once roamed throughout North America, but European settlers viewed them as pests and hunted them mercilessly. By the early 1900s, they had disappeared from large parts of their range, and bounties were still being paid on them into the 1950s. The New Hampshire population dipped to below 500 in the 1940s, when there were only175,000 black bears left in all of North America.
But bears are remarkably adaptable, and in the last 50 years, despite the fact that licensed hunters kill 40,000 bears annually, they have been making a comeback. There are now about 700,000 black bears in 32 states, Canada and Mexico; about 5,000 live in New Hampshire.
As the bear population increases, and as human settlement pushes farther into their habitat, encounters between bears and people become more common. The number of incidents on woodland trails and at back-yard bird feeders and garbage cans grows every year. And our ambivalent attitude persists: we like seeing the bears, but we don't particularly like it when they want to come into the house. Our fears, however, are entirely unwarranted. Since 1900, only 33 people have been killed by bears in North America, which means that a person is 4,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning. As with most wild animals, our fear is a result of ignorance.
"We know more about the lions, wildebeests, and elephants on the Serengeti Plains than we do about the bears that live in our back yards," Kilham said in astonishment. "When I got interested in bears, I read everything I could get my hands on, but there wasn't much. There were some population studies, but almost nothing on behavior. I couldn't believe it."
Kilham also discovered that most orphan bears, after they had been raised and released into the wild, did not fare very well. They seemed to be dying or becoming nuisances with a penchant for raiding garbage dumps and bird feeders.
"The usual way to raise orphans is to minimize contact--put a tarp over their cage so they can't see people and stick food in through a hole," Kilham said. "The idea is that they will not get used to people feeding them. It's ironic, though, because bears know the world primarily through smell, and they know very well who's on the other side of the tarp. The bears are kept in cages for 18 months, then driven into the woods and released. But it doesn't seem to be working very well."
Kilham decided to try a different approach. He learned from Wobbly and subsequent cubs he's raised that bears are sensitive, intelligent and emotional creatures, and it occurred to him that they need more than food--they need security and love. They need mom.
Kilham kept Yoda, a female, and Houdini, a male, in a spare bedroom of his house, bottle-feeding them and encouraging them to play with each other and him. The cubs soon came to treat him just as they would their mother, crawling into his lap to nurse, suckling his fingers and ears in signs of affection and climbing over him in play. Persistent scars on his face and hands attested to the keenness of their little claws. But a house is not a good place to keep growing bears, and when the weather warmed and the cubs had recovered their strength, Kilham took them to a large pen he'd built in some woods he owned outside of town.
Watching him prepare the pen for the cubs' arrival was like watching a mother preparing a nursery for a newborn baby. He made sure the wire walls were strong enough to keep the cubs from wandering off and coyotes or other predators from getting at them. He dragged big logs into the pen for them to climb, layered a wooden box with warm straw to sleep on, set out pails of water and even brought toys for them to play with.
Twice a day Kilham visited the cubs with baby bottles full of formula and apple juice. This invariably sent them into a frenzy as they clawed their way into his lap and settled down to nurse. As the cubs got older and able to handle other foods, Kilham supplemented the bottles with a dry dog food that is pressed into hard and soft bits of different colors. As if to demonstrate their individuality, Yoda always picked out the hard red and brown ones. Houdini preferred the soft yellow and orange ones. Once they were sated with food and drink, Kilham took them for long walks in the woods.
"Any animal with a long dependency probably has a lot to learn," he said as we walked with the cubs. "There must be a certain amount of knowledge they are born with, but other things they have to discover or learn--like the Indian cucumber. The only way they can do that is by being out here in the woods."
The success of his technique seemed pretty obvious. The little cubs had been trailing along behind us for a while, occasionally stopping to sniff the ground or the bushes. When we sat down, the cubs took to the woods, chasing each other, tearing apart rotting logs to look for ants and grubs, scampering up trees. They never went too far from us, but Kilham's presence seemed to give them the security they needed to set off, tentatively, on their own.
"Every time I come out here with the bears I learn something just by watching them," Kilham said. "I've noticed, for example, that the cubs hold plants in their mouths before they eat or discard them. They must have some kind of chemo-receptors that analyze the plants and let them know if they're edible. And when they first come out of hibernation, they search diligently for moose and deer scat. They seem to need the bacteria to get their systems going again. If you don't know this, you can feed them all you want, but it's not going to do much good."
The real test of his rehabilitation method, though, is not how healthy his cubs are or how freely they romp in the woods. What kind of adults will they turn out to be? Will they be able to survive as wild bears?
"A lot of other rehabilitators thought my cubs would become nuisance bears because I raised them in this friendly way. They would not be afraid of people and in fact would seek them out for food. But bears are smarter than that. It's not people they have gotten to know, it's me, as an individual."
To prove his point, Kilham took me to visit Squirty, a 3-year-old female who was living in the woods outside of Lyme. She and her brother and sister had been orphaned, and Kilham had raised them much as he was raising Yoda and Houdini. Squirty was now grown up, with two cubs of her own, and seemed to be thriving in the wild.
We drove several miles from Lyme, got on three-wheelers to negotiate an old logging road, then hiked quite a way into the woods. As we walked, Kilham pointed out what he called "bear trees" to me.
"This is one of the many things I've learned from Squirty and her siblings," he said. "Trees like this red pine are the equivalent of bear bulletin boards. If we had a bear's sense of smell, we would know which bears have been here and when. You can see the teeth marks from where they've been biting the tree and leaving their scents."
Kilham is convinced that bears are primarily olfactory animals and that they communicate with each other by leaving scent deposits in seemingly mutually agreed-upon places. Females can advertise their reproductive state, and males can announce to females that they are around and warn other males to stay away. They may even leave messages about the availability of food. Other naturalists have observed bears rubbing on trees, but because his bears tolerate Kilham's presence so calmly, he has been able to decipher the reason for the behavior. "Watching bears in the wild is extremely difficult unless you have a relationship with them," he explained. "Wild bears become nervous when people are around, so you're not likely to see much natural behavior. My guys just ignore me and go on about their business. Come on--she's just up here."
Approaching cute little cubs is one thing. Walking up to a fully-grown wild mother bear with cubs to protect is quite another. As we neared, Kilham called out to let Squirty know who was coming. I heard a rapid whooshing sound as she warned her cubs and then the scrape of little claws scampering up a tree to safety. I followed Kilham as he walked straight toward Squirty.
"You'd better stay here," he said as we drew close. I was only too happy to oblige.
Squirty eyed me suspiciously as she walked up to greet Kilham, whom she still seemed to regard as her mother. The two cubs peered down nervously from their perch. Ben sat next to Squirty and stroked her neck, saying softly, "He's all right, Squirty. He's with me. It's okay."
Squirty, however, wasn't so sure. She walked slowly toward me, her head down and teeth chomping. I looked at Kilham. "Hold still," he said.
When she was about 15 feet away, Squirty lunged at me and made a deep grumbling sound. I had just enough of my wits about me to know that I could never outrun a bear, but it was hard to heed Kilham's advice with 200 pounds of angry bear charging at me. Shaking slightly, I slowly backed up several feet. That seemed to be just what Squirty wanted. She turned, went back to Ben and snuggled into his lap.
The cubs, seeing that their mom was comfortable with Ben, soon climbed down and joined the pile. Squirty kept half an eye on me to make sure I didn't try to edge closer, but otherwise seemed relaxed. I didn't need any further proof that she could distinguish between Kilham and other human beings.
"I can hang out with them like that all day," Kilham said as we walked back to the three-wheelers. "I often do. It's how Squirty teaches me what it means to be a bear.
"There are houses with bird feeders and garbage cans all around here," he continued. "Squirty's been living on her own for two years, but she's never been near any of them. I don't think being raised by a surrogate mother has had any ill effects on her."
I returned to New Hampshire several times over the course of the next year. The cubs' progress was evident in their rapid growth and increasing independence. When Kilham had first taken them into the woods, they had followed him closely. By late fall they were leading the way and even disappearing for long stretches at a time. They had turned into fat balls of shiny fur. Houdini must have weighed 100 pounds. That winter, Kilham built a warm and cozy den for Yoda and Houdini, and he was there for them when they emerged in the spring.
By the following summer, Yoda and Houdini seemed to be perfectly independent and capable wild bears. Yoda established a territory near their winter den--females stay close to where they are raised--and Houdini began ranging far and wide, as male bears must. Life was hard for him now. He was not old enough to mate, and his wandering made him vulnerable to hunters. One day, after being attacked by an older bear, Houdini fled to a development where he had been fed before. This time he paid a high price for an easy meal. He was shot as he raided a bird feeder.
Houdini was only the second bear known to have been killed of the 34 Kilham has cared for. Most of his bears adapt naturally to the wild, and he continues to learn from them. By maintaining his relationship with Squirty, he was able to watch how she raised her cubs and apply what he learned to his care for Yoda and Houdini. They, in turn, taught him things that will make him an even better bear mom for the next set of orphans. And all of his bears add to our knowledge of this familiar but little-understood animal.
Despite his unconventional methods, biologists have come to admire Kilham's work. "I learned more about bear behavior in six hours with Ben and his bears than in the past 20 years," said Eric Orff '72, a senior wildlife biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and an expert on bears.
"This is definitely a two-way street," Kilham said on my last trip, as we watched Yoda disappear into the woods. "I help the cubs; they teach me. I've learned a lot about bears that was previously unknown, simply because they accept me as part of their world. I hope that what I learn will help us understand and protect them.
"But most of all," he said as Yoda turned to look back at us, " I just like being out here with them." ~
Robert Caputo is a freelance writer and photographer. Since 1980, he has regularly written about and photographed Africa, South America and Asia for National Geographic magazine. He is the author of Landscapes and People and Portraits, part of the National Geographic Photography Field Guide Series.
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