‘They Play and Play and Play’: Bear Cubs at Lyme Sanctuary Get Ready for Spring Release
Gorham, named for the town in New Hampshire where he was found, peeks out of his box at the home of bear rehabilitator Ben Kilham in Lyme yesterday morning. Caretaker Phoebe Kilham, of Thetford Center, said it was the first time she had seen him awake since he went into hibernation last fall. The Kilhams have been caring for 27 orphaned cubs over the winter. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Phoebe Kilham of Thetford Center, stands in one side of the sheltered area of the bear enclosure at her brother Ben Kilham’s home in Lyme yesterday. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Bear researcher Ben Kilham and his sister, Phoebe Kilham of Thetford Center, Vt., who feeds and cares for the bears, walk up to the building housing several especially small cubs in Lyme. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Bear researcher Ben Kilham has been studying bears for 20 years. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Lyme — At first, all that was visible inside the rectangular hole in the insulated, wooden box was darkness. Ever so slowly, a nose appeared. A brown snout then emerged, followed by a pair of unblinking, dark eyes and a furry, rounded ear.
“Gorham’s awake!” exclaimed Phoebe Kilham, a Thetford Center resident who was leading a pair of visitors through a chain-link fence enclosure yesterday at her brother Ben’s house.
Gorham is an orphaned bear cub emerging from hibernation and being cared for by the Kilhams on an 8-acre sprawling property belonging to Ben and his wife, Debbie. Located on an unpaved road above the Dartmouth Skiway and near Holt’s Ledge, it’s where the three ordinarily tend to four or five orphaned cubs per winter.
This winter, however, there are 27 cubs on the grounds because natural food sources, which were plentiful in 2011, became scarce last year due to unseasonable temperatures. That prompted bears to pursue alternative fare such as at bird feeders, chicken coops, trash receptacles, compost piles, beehives and cornfields.
Upset by the foraging, some people respond with gunfire, killing sows and abandoning the cubs. Sixteen of the bears currently under Kilham’s care came to him this way and when combined with factors such as illness, collisions with motor vehicles and legalized hunting, it created a record number of orphaned cubs.
“People step out of their houses and just blast the mother and all of a sudden, you have a whole tree full of crying cubs,’’ said Ben Kilham, who estimates he has sheltered roughly 85 cubs during the last 20 years. “I don’t expect to get this many again, but we’d like to get the message out that we don’t have to have this many, either.
“The best way to raise cubs is to let their mother do it. So if you see a bear in your yard, take a minute and look for cubs and then let people with resources help you.”
The state of New Hampshire has a program to assist landowners with installing electric fencing to keep bears from crops and other food sources. However, Andy Timmins, a bear project leader for the Fish and Game Department, said it’s not fullytaken advantage of.
“We bend over backwards to help people with that problem and we’d like to see a little more tolerance out there among the public towards wildlife that might be attracted,’’ he told the Associated Press in February. “It’s an easy fix.”
The Kilhams have a more difficult challenge. Their previous high for winter care was seven cubs, so they weren’t sure what to expect when that number nearly tripled. Twenty orphans were in their care by mid-summer, while another seven showed up malnourished and undersized in the fall.
The earlier arrivals have roamed the 8-acre forested enclosure, which is rimmed by an electric fence. The late comers are housed in an adjacent building resembling a chicken coop and with an attached veranda featuring an 18-foot roof. The Kilhams were concerned the smaller cubs would have been pushed aside for food by the bigger cubs if they been released into the larger area.
Only six of the 27 cubs hibernated through the winter. That meant the Kilhams were not only busier than normal with winter bear care, but were in extra need of funding to pay for food. Ben Kilham said the 18-month cost of caring for a cub can run as high as $1,000 and that a $2,500 grant he received with help from the Fish and Game Department earlier this winter ran out quickly.
Happily for Kilham, his plight was featured by various media outlets and donations poured in along with more than 200 letters from as far away as California and Alabama. The Times of London and a journalist at the United Nations in New York City were among those seeking interviews. Lyme School staged a bake sale and sent its proceeds up the hill.
Enough money was received from the publicity that the Kilhams, who receive no aid from the state and traditionally pay for their efforts out of Debbie’s salary, will be able to cover their feeding costs for the season and are even weighing the installation of running water in the smaller enclosure.
Meanwhile, what Ben Kilham describes as a “slumber party” atmosphere reigns among the cubs, with the activities of some keeping the others awake. His sister said the cubs are often rambunctious when they’re not nestled in one of several man-made dens, where they retreat when the weather turns nasty.
“They play and play and play,’’ Phoebe Kilham said. “Sometimes we call them for food and they’re rolling and wrestling and climbing on each other on their way in. This group’s dynamic is the best I’ve ever seen and they’ve probably played more than any bear cubs ever.
“Everybody seems to have a friend and no one feels alone. When they were very young, one would get separated and cry and some of the others would break off and run back to them.”
The Kilhams said they don’t usually interact with the cubs more than twice a when feeding and Ben Kilham emphasized his belief that bears raised by humans can assimilate well in the wild as long as they’ve been given a protective environment to learn skills such as foraging and intra-species communication.
“They’re intentional and emotional communicators,’’ Ben Kilham said. “These ones won’t be at a disadvantage and will interact with other wild bears and learn from them very rapidly.
“I would guess these bears will be better adapted to return to the wild than any cubs we’ve raised so far, because they’ve had so much social experience. Bears are not solitary and they communicate with (previously unknown) bears all the time. They share and make the most of food sources in a form of reciprocal altruism.”
The releases are expected to be staged in groups of two or three in late May and June, when the bears’ weight will range from 60 to 100 pounds and when food sources are plentiful. Most of the releases occur in western and northern New Hampshire, on a mix of public and private land and where interactions with humans are likely to be fewer than in more-populated areas.
A challenge arises when it comes time to start trapping bears inside the larger enclosure, because the barrel-shaped device baited for their capture sometimes spooks the rest of the group, making it progressively harder to entice others inside.
“It takes close to a month to catch everyone,’’ Ben Kilham said. “The last guys are pretty smart, so we cut their regular food back and we don’t always set the trap, so they get used to going into it without the door coming down.”
In the past, Kilham-tended bears fitted with global-positioning collars have roamed as far as Sherbrooke, Quebec, roughly 130 miles north. Wherever the yearlings travel, Ben Kilham hopes they can live in their natural habitat and find enough food so they’re not drawn to forage on farms and in back yards.
“People talk about nuisance bears,’’ Ben Kilham said with a grimace. “But the ultimate solution to bear-human contact is to have humans clean up the attractions that draw them.”
Tris Wykes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-7227