By Nicole Rivard
Black bear rehabilitator Ben Kilham has a saying: “There are no nuisance black bears. Only nuisance humans.”
All joking aside, interactions with black bears are almost entirely the result of human actions. But despite advice to the contrary, people still leave food attractants out or fail to secure chicken coops. .
Kilham, founder of the non-profit Kilham Black Bear Rehabilitation Center in Lyme, New Hampshire, says his largest source of orphan cubs is unprotected chicken coops, where female bears in search of high-quality foods to produce milk for their cubs meet their demise facing a homeowner with a gun.
It’s particularly frustrating for Kilham, since chickens can easily be protected with electric fences. “I’ve been working on these problems for 30 years, and it seems like you don’t get anywhere,” Kilham said. “I’ve had people who tell me they are worried about their children being attacked by a bear. Well then why do they have chickens that are attracting bears? Or people tell me they are worried about their 80-year-old mother being attacked, but they refuse to take down their birdfeeders, which are baiting the bears.”
An uptick in families who have turned to raising backyard chickens during the pandemic means bears are in danger now more than ever. Loose chickens are what allegedly led to the death in May of a mother bear in Newtown, Conn. Media reported that an off-duty police officer gunned down the black bear, known as Bobbi by residents, to protect his poultry. At press time the incident was still under investigation.
In the meantime, Friends of Animals and other members of the CT Coalition to Protect Black Bears pressed the Connecticut Dept. of Energy and Environmental to get Bobbi’s cubs to Kilham because at less than six months old they were too young to survive on their own in the wild. Black bear mothers give birth in January and stay with their cubs for about 18 months.
“They are doing just fine. We now have 24 cubs of the year, so the Connecticut cubs have lots of friends. Bear cubs play with each other all day long,” Kilham told Friends of Animals in June, explaining that when cubs arrive at the facility, they are initially placed in indoor pens.
He said they will all be moved to 11 acres of woods enclosed by an electric fence as soon as he releases back into the wild the nine yearlings who are currently in the enclosure. He also has an 8-acre forested enclosure with several large white pines, a stand of oaks, a wetland and two small ponds so the cubs can feed on many of their natural foods.
Despite how insurmountable getting through to the public can feel, Kilham stays motivated to do his lifesaving work and never gives up on raising awareness about black bears, who are often feared and hunted.
“I know what bears are like and I understand that they are as good as dead when they are orphaned. As a rehabilitator, you are giving them a second chance,” Kilham said. “All the life they get after I release them is a plus. And many of them live for a great long time.”
He gives the example of Squirty. On Feb. 17, 1996, he got a call from New Hampshire Fish and Game that a den had been disturbed by a logging operation. Soon the field team arrived with two females, Squirty and Curls, and a male, Boy, weighing about four pounds each.
“After I released Squirty on one of my pieces of property, she became the dominant female. She’s still living in the wild and is now 26 years old. She has had 23 cubs.”
A family affair
Kilham has raised and released nearly 400 cubs in the last 30 years with help from his wife Debbie, his sister Phoebe, and now his nephew Ethan, who has taken over the surrogate mother role.
Kilham developed his surrogate mother approach to raising cubs using logic and knowledge about how wild cubs grow up. His method involves teaching and nurturing the cubs and providing affection and security before releasing them.
It involves taking the bottle-fed cubs who come in from den disturbances for walks in the woods. Since they’ve have had no experiences with their mothers, they need to learn to climb trees and be shown what foods to eat, among other things.
“Cubs won’t go anywhere alone without the protective eyes and ears of either their mother or somebody else with them,” he said.
Kilham also observes some of the bears in the wild after they’ve been released. Since the early days, he has shared his bear behavior observations with tens of thousands of people through his lectures and earned his PhD in environmental science from Drexel University. In addition he’s been featured in several National Geographic documentaries and published two books. He’s become so revered that China asked for his help with the giant panda, a collaboration that inspired the documentary “Pandas.”
The irony is, Kilham never imagined anyone would pay much attention to him or that he could convert his extensive journals of his observations of black bears in the wild into books. He has dyslexia, so school proved difficult for him. For a long time his condition prevented him long from pursuing graduate studies in wildlife.
But he was born with a deep-seated fascination of the natural world, much like black bears are born with a genome that allows them to respond to their environment. Kilham’s dad Lawrence was a medical doctor, research virologist and accomplished ornithologist. His book, The American Crow and the Common Raven, has been called “a gem for both American birders and serious ornithologists.”
“My dad studied birds by observing them day after day. I just did the same kind of work he did, only with black bears,” Kilham said. “The first cubs I took in I documented everything. I wanted to answer the question: Why do they spend 18 months with their mother?”
Kilham’s practices have sparked controversy as some wildlife specialists worry his surrogate mother approach will result in bears who are drawn to humans, however he points out bears don’t just trust broadly; they trust specific individuals. However, his success speaks for itself. Initially he was taking in three to five cubs a year. Now he’s averaging 25-40 a year.
“It is the confidence that Fish and Game has in the work that we are doing. When our bears are released they don’t end up being so-called ‘conflict’ bears,” Kilham said, adding that he keeps track because the bears are tagged before they are released. “If you have a residential bear getting into bird feeders and around houses, its offspring will follow suit. They’re very territorial. The cubs we release don’t have access to those areas because of the territorial nature of the bears that control those areas.
“People have been questioning my method my whole life, but it’s based on the observations I’ve made and research. The reality is bears want to be bears. Only people think bears want to be like them,” Kilham added.
Raising bear cubs is expensive—it costs at least $1,500 to raise one bear cub. To make a donation to the Kilham Bear Center’s lifesaving work or to purchase Ben’s books, visit kilhambearcenter.org.