The Man Who Watches Bears | Here in New England
The bears will soon be here. Ben Kilham is confident of that.
It’s a mild evening in early August, just pushing past 6:00, and Kilham, a bear biologist in Lyme, New Hampshire, is ready to work. In a clearing deep in the woods that’s flush with clover and a few old apple trees, he sits patiently in his truck, scanning the woods for his visitors. He flicks on his satellite receiver, listening for any signal that might indicate a nearby bear. He hears only static. Kilham is unfazed. “They know the time,” he says. “And they know what time I’m here.”
That they do. Co-owner of New Hampshire’s only licensed bear-rehabilitation facility, Kilham is the state’s go-to guy whenever game wardens are alerted to an injured or orphaned bear who’s too young or unhealthy to survive on its own. On an enclosed eight-acre chunk of forestland near his house, Kilham, with the help of his sister, Phoebe, has rehabbed some 90 to 100 cubs over the course of his career, caring for them and feeding them until they’re 18 months old. Then he introduces them back into the wild.
But Kilham’s work extends far beyond parental duties. He’s eschewed traditional limits on human contact with his bears and in the process has forged a relationship with these animals that’s almost unique among wildlife biologists. His discoveries have yielded new insight into bears’ social lives and intelligence. His findings have become the subject of several National Geographic documentaries, put him on network morning shows, and made him the co-author of the 2002 book Among the Bears, which tells the story of his early work raising orphaned cubs.
Much of what he’s learned has taken place in this clearing, which Kilham visits almost every evening for a few hours between May and November. “Most nights nothing happens; then some nights the most amazing things happen,” he says. “And you don’t get to see the most amazing things happen unless you put your time in.”
But Kilham’s work is notable, too, for what he’s not. He works for no university, possesses no advanced degree. For all of his 59 years, Kilham, who is severely dyslexic, has had to circumvent convention and create his own methods for understanding the world around him–which is why his wildlife work isn’t just about bears. Kilham’s findings and the roadblocks he’s encountered and overcome along the way say something about his own species as well.
Kilham has packed his usual tools of the trade: camera with a long telephoto lens, iPad, notebook, several small bags of Oreos, and two big white buckets filled with corn. He’s tapping notes on the iPad when an adolescent male bear, around 20 months old, and one Kilham is only slightly familiar with, emerges from the woods.
“How are you?” he says, leaning out of the truck, in a gentle voice. “You don’t have Mama around, do you? If she was, you’d be up a tree, wouldn’t you?”
Kilham climbs out of his truck, grabs a bucket of corn with both hands, and pours out the kernels near a hawthorn bush, maybe 20 feet from where the bear is standing. He takes a few steps back and points to the food. The bear locks his eyes on Kilham, and then in an effort to show a little intimidation, hops forward with force, an act bear biologists call a “false charge.” Kilham doesn’t flinch.
“You’re a silly goose,” he says.
It’s only after Kilham is back in the truck that the bear makes his way to the corn. For the next several minutes he settles into the snack, relaxed. He’s got food, and the clearing to himself. Then, suddenly, he stands on his hind legs, sniffing the air. He beats it toward a nearby cherry tree and climbs up a safe distance. More bears are on their way.
Nobody knows the woods around Lyme better than Ben Kilham.
“Ben’s perception of dark and my perception of dark are really very different,” says Kilham’s wife, Debbie. “My perception might be that at 4:00 it’s already dusk. His dark is pitch-black. He’s just so comfortable in the woods that he can come out in the dark.”
Built like a bear himself, with wide shoulders and a powerful frame, Kilham has called this small New Hampshire town near the Vermont border home for most of his life. He learned to love the forest with his dad, Lawrence, a virologist and accomplished ornithologist who taught at Dartmouth Medical School and shared with his son a passionate interest in wildlife.
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