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The Book on Bears: Lyme’s Ben Kilham Writes a Second Volume

  • Ben Kilham at his home in Lyme, N.H., on Dec. 12, 2013, he has a new book, Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Ben Kilham at his home in Lyme, N.H., on Dec. 12, 2013, he has a new book, Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • The cover of Ben Kilham's new book about bears.

    The cover of Ben Kilham's new book about bears. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ben Kilham at his home in Lyme, N.H., on Dec. 12, 2013, he has a new book, Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • The cover of Ben Kilham's new book about bears.

When Ben Kilham started observing black bears, nearly 20 years ago, he realized they were different from any animal he’d experienced in a nature-filled life. But he couldn’t find any scientific literature that supported what he was seeing.

He couldn’t add to that literature, considering his lack of a doctorate. So, after years of observing, he put together his own book.

“As I started talking about it, that’s when people thought I was nuts,” he said.

Kilham’s first book, Among the Bears: Raising Orphaned Cubs in the Wild, came out about a decade ago. It focused on his field notes and tells the day-to-day stories of the orphaned bear cubs for whom he acted as a surrogate mother. Some people accepted what he had found, he said. But much of the scientific community didn’t take it seriously, as it didn’t follow the rigorous scientific method.

Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition, which was released in late October, moves beyond observation to form conclusions about black bear behavior.

His conclusions, in part, come to this: Black bears are highly social animals, contrary to what many had thought, with systems such as food sharing in place between them. Their communication is more highly developed than many people realize.

“They’ve punished me when I’ve stepped out of line — often, apparently — and they’ve been conciliatory when I’ve corrected my behavior, as a means of repairing any fallout from the punishment,” Kilham writes, noting the gestures and false charges — aggressive movements bears use as a warning — he’s experienced when interacting with the bears.

The bears can also be altruistic, Kilham said. Sitting in the living room of his Lyme home recently, he told the story (which appears in the book) about going into the woods to check on the cubs of one of his early rehabilitated bears. He startled them, and they ran up a tree, moaning. A wild bear then came by, slapped the tree, and false charged Kilham, “protecting my cubs from me,” he said. “That’s pure helping altruism. Where did it come from?”

Anecdotes like that are peppered through the nearly 200-page book, all of which speak to some aspect of how the black bears on Kilham’s 80 acres live and communicate.

The bears came his way accidently, in the beginning. Following a childhood rife with unusual animal interactions — Kilham’s father was a virologist who once brought a half-grown leopard home after a sabbatical to Africa — he decided he wanted to study carnivores, and became familiar with bear rehabilitation. Later, through a Vermont state bear study, Kilham ended up with a pair of orphaned cubs.

He acted as their mother. As they grew and reproduced, he followed their movements and behavior.

“These bears were extraordinary,” he said.

Kilham wouldn’t necessarily call himself a naturalist, though he knows it’s the label people bestow on him. But the label’s there, and Kilham does agree that his work acting as a surrogate mother for orphaned black bear cubs, raising them and observing their behavior, does have similarities to the work of Charles Darwin or Jane Goodall.

However, his reliance on firsthand observation is a method life forced on him. Kilham is dyslexic, which gave him immense trouble in school. His reading proficiency lags, even as his IQ was found to be in the top 1 percent, he says. He managed to earn a degree in wildlife biology from the University of New Hampshire, though he did poorly at math and statistics. He didn’t understand why scientists did things the way they did.

That means the rigors of the scientific method. Kilham said he has always seen the world in pictures, rather than words. Not only does it follow that his scientific work would be observational, but in a circular sort of way, it comes back around to the detailed descriptions of the bears in nature in Out on a Limb.

“Those I write, and write in great detail, because I observe in great detail,” he said.

For example, a passage in which Kilham describes a moment when one of his initial surrogate bears took control of his photography gear:

“Squirty made her way back to the den with the pack, and I winced every time I heard the metallic ring of my cameras as the pack banged against the rock,” he writes. “It was a cloudless spring day, and the temperature was about sixty degrees. There were still patches of snow around, and as it melted it dripped loudly on the ledge above me. The shadow of a large bird passed across the stone.”

His first book was written with a co-author, but this time he relied on “a good editor” to help make the individual anecdotes and ideas flow together into a cohesive whole. Out on a Limb is published by Chelsea Green of White River Junction.

Kilham has begun work on his doctorate, through Drexel University, under the tutelage of Jim Spotila, with whom Kilham traveled to China to observe the behavior of panda bears. His recorded data on black bears will serve as his thesis. He expects to complete it by the end of next year, finally moving him into academia, if for no other reason than to publish in scientific journals for the first time.

But he still sees the world in pictures and patterns, whether they’re visible or not. After he received his undergraduate degree, Kilham learned gunsmithing. With guns, as with, say, a lawn mower engine, if the individual components are all in front of you on the floor, they can be reassembled into a larger whole. The parts have interrelationships. They fit together.

The same goes for black bears, Kilham said. Over the years he has learned that the bears have systems, made up of behavioral parts, that all work as one, forming the big picture.

“It only goes together in one way, and it has to work in the end,” Kilham said.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.