The Man Who Watches Bears | Here in New England
Kilham has filled notebooks and hard drives with his research, shot some 70,000 images, and recorded hundreds of hours of video. All of it he’s done on a shoestring. Outside of speaking engagements about his work, he earns nothing from his research; Debbie, a benefits consultant, is the breadwinner. Because Kilham isn’t credentialed with degrees, he isn’t eligible for the kinds of university grants to which many wildlife biologists have access.Because Kilham’s work is outside the purview of modern academia, he’s free from the pressure to publish, but because he can’t, on his own, write a scientific paper about his research, there’s been a slow embrace of his findings. At his first International Association for Bear Research and Managment (IBA) conference in 2001, fellow wildlife biologists criticized his work.
“Several scientists told me, ‘We like what you’re finding, but we don’t like your methods,'” Kilham says. “But I can’t get a Ph.D. I’m not suddenly going to be good at calculus. My access to science is through my methods, which is closely observing animals.”
Recently, there’s been more acceptance of his work. At last summer’s IBA conference in Ottawa, Kilham was one of the featured speakers. He’s made two of a projected several trips to China to guide wildlife experts who are reintroducing pandas to the wild. He lectures regularly at Dartmouth and at the University of Massachusetts. Later this year he’ll publish his second book, Out on a Limb, which dissects his recent research and his experiences in overcoming dyslexia: That is to say, although Kilham has learned a lot about bears during these past two decades, he’s also learned quite a bit about himself, too.
“You’re born the way you’re born, with certain abilities and disabilities,” he says. “Some just carry bigger labels than others. It’s hard to explain what I do if I don’t explain my difficulties in school and why I don’t have a Ph.D., why I’m not following the leader, and why I’m a bit of a rebel or a maverick.”
Daylight is fading fast. It’s now past 8:00, and Squirty has left the clearing. Two young males, brothers, have taken control of the area, playfully chasing each other around. “And it keeps going like this all night long,” Kilham says, putting a pair of binoculars up to his face. “Sure beats watching TV.”
He watches for a few more minutes. There’s a certain slow, peaceful rhythm to the scene. He stays at the clearing until the last ray of sunlight has blinked away. “At some point you’ve got to head for home,” Kilham says, setting down his binoculars. “It gets too dark to see.” With that, Kilham fires up his truck and leaves the clearing, heading for the world to which he must return.
More information at: benkilham.com. Note that it can be dangerous to approach a bear or feed it. A bear’s behavior may be unpredictable; it may become suddenly angry or aggressive. Kilham stresses that bears should never be fed near homes.