Here in New England: The Man Who Watches Bears
“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.
Lawrence Kilham, and his wife, Jane, a physician, fostered a spirit of independent thinking among their five children. Books and animals ruled the family home, a rambling Federal in downtown Lyme that served as a den for injured and orphaned foxes, owls, skunks, and woodchucks. Once, during a year’s sabbatical in Uganda, Lawrence introduced the family to the newest member of the clan: a half-grown leopard. “We considered them pets,” Kilham remembers. “We’d talk natural history the way most families talk sports. It was just an everyday event for us.”
Following his dad into the woods became a central part of Kilham’s relationship with his quiet father, and the natural world opened to him like a book. He could read what the deer had been feeding on, or when a pack of coyotes had passed through. With its clear natural laws, the outdoors resonated with Kilham in a way other settings couldn’t.
Unlike his siblings, Kilham was a terrible student. Nobody understood his dyslexia then; teachers called him lazy and pushed him to try harder. Still, staying awake before exams by blasting the sound on his television, he scratched out a wildlife degree in 1974 from the University of New Hampshire. His poor academic record killed his dream of graduate school.
So Kilham found what he could do: gunsmithing. The work catered to his strengths in mechanics and design. He eventually landed at Colt Firearms in West Hartford, Connecticut, but despite his skill–at one time he held two U.S. patents–his inability to secure a master’s degree undermined his chance of promotion.
“I was always wondering why I couldn’t be a professional engineer when I was perfectly capable of doing the work,” he says. When the economy soured in 1982, Kilham lost his job, and he and Debbie restarted their lives in New Hampshire.