The Man Who Watches Bears | Here in New England
Back in his hometown, Kilham built and repaired firearms for customers out of his shop on a lot where eventually he built his house. And that’s how it might have continued for him, were it not for two Dartmouth professors for whom he’d done some work. They’d noticed the ease with which building things came to Kilham and told him about Dartmouth’s Thayer School program for students with learning disabilities. He could earn a master’s in engineering. “Take the entrance exam,” they said. “See what happens.”
In 1992, Kilham saw what happened. After a six-hour test, he emerged with a score that placed him in the top 1 percent of candidates. “It gave me the confidence to just say, Jeez, if I’m that smart, why don’t I just use my intelligence and forget everything else?” Kilham recalls. “I made a pact with myself to do things my way and damn the torpedoes. It wasn’t important to me to conform and do a poor job of conforming when I could do a good job doing things my way.”
By the time of the exam, Kilham had already become interested in bear biology and behavior. Now, though, after long harboring the dream of focusing on a single animal, he left Thayer and gave himself permission to make wildlife study his real vocation. But even Kilham wasn’t convinced he’d learn a whole lot. Much of the big work, he reasoned, had already been done. Then, two years later, he cared for a pair of bear cubs that had been abandoned in Vermont. And two years after that, “Squirty” came into his life and changed everything for him once again.
Back at the clearing, it’s nearing 7:00, and the bears are out in full force. In addition to the young male, his sister, Josie, and their mother, SQ2, have shown up. But it’s the arrival of a large female, who bounds out from the eastern flank of the woods, that causes a commotion. The cubs scamper up separate trees, while SQ2 seeks distance as well. The newcomer plops down on the ground, 20 feet from the truck. “That’s Squirty,” Kilham says, stepping back outside with a packet of Oreos in his hand.
Of all the bears that have come into Kilham’s life, Squirty has been the most important. In February 1996, she came into his care a runt of a thing, seven weeks old, weighing just three pounds. Her mother had abandoned her three cubs after their den up north had been disturbed by a logging operation.
Kilham became their surrogate parent. Near his bed he created a makeshift den from a large basket. He bottle-fed the cubs and then slowly introduced them to the world outside his home. On their walks into the woods, he got down on his hands and knees, showing them what foods to eat.
As the cubs grew, Kilham watched. He saw that they relied on fresh deer scat to aid their digestion, used the tips of their tongues to identify new items, and went into a stiff-legged walk to leave marking points in the land for other bears to pick up.
After Kilham released the threesome into the woods, Squirty stayed close by. Today, she’s the matriarch of a clan of female bears that comprises daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters. But it’s a social hierarchy that also includes Kilham, whom Squirty largely treats as a bear. When Kilham put a GPS collar on Squirty, he did so without sedating her. She exacts punishment, including “message bites,” when he’s overdone his stay, but she also allows him access to her cubs. “It’s the price for things like this,” he says later, holding up a packet of Oreos.
Outside in the clearing, Kilham approaches his old friend, who stands on her hind legs and plants her front paws on his shoulders. Kilham holds steady, opens the packet of cookies, and feeds her by hand. “That’s all,” Kilham tells her when she’s finished her treat, as he raises both hands to indicate that he’s out of cookies. Squirty gets down on all fours and rumbles over to a pile of corn Kilham has poured out in advance of her visit. Back in the truck, he says, “I’ve learned stuff from her that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.”
Kilham’s observations have revealed a level of collaboration among bears, females mostly, that had largely been missed. When Squirty’s daughter, SQ2, for example, was unable to raise one of her own daughters a few years back, Squirty adopted her granddaughter. And Kilham also discovered that Squirty was sharing her prized beechnuts with bears from outside her territory. He has even shed light on bear anatomy: He discovered a receptor–now called the Kilham organ–on the roof of black bears’ mouths that enables a mother to teach her young which plants are suitable for eating. She chews on edible vegetation, and her cub smells her breath to identify which plants are good to eat.