Film Notes: Lyme Bear Expert Helps Reintroduce Pandas to the Wild

  • Lyme bear researcher and rehabilitator Ben Kilham has been helping to reintroduce pandas into the wild in China. A new IMAX film documents Kilham's work with pandas. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Lyme bear rehabilitator Ben Kilham has been helping to reintroduce pandas into the wild in China since 2012. A new IMAX film documents his work with pandas. (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2018

Ben Kilham seldom leaves his extended family of black bears in and around Lyme for more than a night or two.

Usually, it takes something on the order of two-week visits to the bamboo forests of China to help researchers rehabilitate pandas for release into the wild to pry him out of his corner of the Upper Valley.

But this weekend, the naturalist and author will make another exception: He’s flying to California today to attend the premiere of the IMAX film Pandas, the upcoming documentary that shows Kilham’s work with those researchers, through the Global Cause Foundation, over the last decade.

“They say it’s a casual affair,” Kilham said during a telephone conversation this week. “My wife was trying to get me into a tuxedo for the red carpet, but I said, ‘We’d better go on the web and see what they wore in past years for things like this,’ and it turns out the wardrobe was pretty low-key.”

Kilham does expect to dress a little more formally than he has over the last quarter century, while acting as a surrogate mama bear in the course of rehabilitating more than 150 orphaned black bear cubs. Word of his work spread quickly, and during a conference in China in 2008, Kilham met researchers from the Chengdu Research Base and started comparing notes. Four years later, some of the researchers visited Lyme to see the enclosure where he cares for and studies black bears before releasing those deemed ready for the wild.

In addition to documenting that visit, the IMAX movie shows several of Kilham’s trips to Chengdu, where China is trying to reverse the loss of mountainous, bamboo-forested habitat, on which pandas depend.

“I had some sense that the work I did with black bears might have an impact on some other species,” Kilham said. “It’s been nice to be able to apply things I’ve learned and to project what the results might be.”

Kilham said that fewer than 2,000 wild pandas currently occupy some 62 reserves, which China is aiming to knit together into a national park through the establishment of wildlife corridors.

“The number in the wild right now is not sustainable,” Kilham said, which is why the Chengdu researchers are working to prepare some 570 captive-bred cubs for introduction into the breeding population. While Kilham said he never saw any wild pandas during his previous visits, the two American post-doctoral students with whom he is seen working in the film did spy a wild male chase a rehabilitated female up a tree.

Among the revelations in the film is the fact that pandas don’t live by bamboo alone.

“They’re at the top of the food chain in their habitat, and they do eat other animals,” Kilham said. “Here we found out rather quickly that some of our cubs were able to catch wild pheasants as well as find ants.”

Kilham said that while he was recording voiceovers for the movie in December, he and his wife, Debbie, saw some of the “great footage” that the IMAX cameramen captured in China over the years.

“I haven’t seen the final-final cut yet,” he said. “We got the sense of seeing a 3D version on the screen, but we’re really looking forward to the finished product.”

Once they do, they won’t linger in the California sun for any sight-seeing.

“We’re coming back on Sunday,” Kilham said. “My sister Phoebe, who does most of the day-to-day care, will be looking after the bears, as she has since we started.

“It takes more than one person to do it all.”

Pandas, will be screened in the Simons IMAX Theatre at New England Aquarium in Boston starting in April. The schedule of screenings in New England will be posted at a later date at imax.com/movies/pandas-journey-home.

Looking Back

The Library Arts Center in Newport continues its series of black-and-white movies tonight at 7, with a screening of Billy Wilder’s classic 1950s farce Some Like It Hot. The caper features Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis hiding from gangsters by dressing as women and joining a touring group of showgirls on a train, among them Marilyn Monroe. Admission and popcorn are free.

The series concludes next Friday with the 1950s thriller Strangers on a Train. To learn more about the series and about other film screenings at the center, visit libraryartscenter.org/film.

Fittingly, the Woodstock Vermont Film Festival is screening Once twice on Saturday afternoon at Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock.

The 2007 fable, which yielded the Oscar-winning original song Falling Slowly, stars Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard as a Dublin busker whose faltering music career catches fire after he meets, falls for and collaborates with a young Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) who plays the piano like a maestro and sings like an angel.

As always, and especially on this St. Patrick’s Day, it’s a good idea to call the museum at 802-457-2355 to reserve tickets ($6 to $11) for the screenings at 3 and at 5.

To learn more about the festival series, visit billingsfarm.org/filmfest. On March 24, the museum will screen Pop Aye, the 2017 feature from Thailand in which a disenchanted architect finds his long-lost elephant on the streets of Bangkok and leads it on a pilgrimage across Thailand to find the farm where they grew up together.

On the House

The Mascoma Film Society will screen three admission-free movies in the auditorium at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan over the next two weeks, starting Wednesday night at 6:30 with the 2017 costume drama Victoria + Abdul. It features Dame Judy Dench playing England’s Queen Victoria for the second time in two decades, and, as in 1997’s Mrs. Brown, she develops an unlikely yet believeable relationship with a manservant — this time a Muslim man from India.

While I still prefer Mrs. Brown, mostly because of Scottish comedian Billy Connolly’s deadpan performance as John Brown, Dench keeps it real with a mixture of sympathy and mischief, and Abdul’s backstory provides a historical foreshadowing of the Muslim/Hindu schism that would divide India a century later.

The Mascoma series resumes next Friday night at 6:30, with a screening of It Might Get Loud, the 2008 documentary featuring rock guitar gods Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White.

And on March 28 at 6:30 p.m., the film society shares the 2006 French comedy Lost in Paris, which follows the misadventures of a young country woman who learns about the big city, including its homeless population, while caring for an aging aunt.

While admission is free to all film society screenings, donations are welcome. To learn more about coming films, visit mascomafilmsociety.org.

The Cine Salon series resumes at Hanover’s Howe Library on Monday night, with a free screening of clips from seven “distant montages” from the peripatetic career of Armenian documentarian Artavazd Pelechian. The film starts at 7 in the library’s Mayer Room.

To learn more about the series, which is on the theme of “Inhabitants” and runs through April 16, visit howelibrary.org.


Norwich-based director Signe Taylor brings her documentary It’s Criminal: A Tale of Prison and Privilege to the Library Arts Center in Newport on March 28 at 7 p.m. The movie follows a class of Dartmouth students in an experiential-learning course who help woman inmates of the Sullivan County jail in Unity to write a play about their experience with the criminal-justice system.

Joining Taylor for the post-screening discussion will be Ivy Schweitzer and Pati Hernandez, teachers of the Dartmouth students, as well as former inmates who participated in the play’s creation. Admission is by donation.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.


The forthcoming film about Lyme naturalist Ben Kilham's work reintroducing pandas to the wild in China is titled Pandas and was produced by IMAX. The title and the producer of the film were incorrect in an earlier version of this story.