Bear rehabilitator raising more cubs as conflicts with humans continue
A black bear cub named Andy sits on one of the logs in an enclosure at Ben Kilham's bear rehabilitation center in Lyme on Thursday, July 10, 2014. Andy, who's namesake is Andrew Timmins, a wildlife biologist with the state's Fish and Game department, was found in Dalton. Kilham receives bears from all over New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. He's seen a higher number of bear cubs in recent years due to bear/human conflict.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Ben Kilham stands for a portrait in the enclosure where he keeps very young bear cubs at his bear rehabilitation center in Lyme on Thursday, July 12, 2014. Kilham receives bears from all over New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. He's seen a higher number of bear cubs in recent years due to bear/human conflict.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Ben Kilham's affinity for bears shows itself through playful details in his home in Lyme, like a welcome sign and several paintings. However, Kilham, who runs a bear rehabilitation center, is clear on the fact that he sees them as wild animals. Kilham receives bears from all over New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. He's seen a higher number of bear cubs in recent years due to bear/human conflict.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Andy paces atop a log perched 15 feet in the air; the black bear cub is raising a fuss. He lets out a low moan and swats his small paws at the wood, in a false charge.
Sawdust rains down on bear biologist Ben Kilham, who stands calmly below in the 24-by-40 foot enclosure. “It’s okay little guy. You’re a pretty guy, yes you are,” he repeats in a soft, crooning voice, his eyes focused on the 10-pound cub.
“He is just telling us to go home,” the 6-foot-4 Kilham says with a chuckle, reverting back to his natural voice. “When the bear is 300 pounds, it’s a little more impressive.”
Kilham, 61, would know. Behind his home in Lyme, he operates the state’s only licensed bear rehabilitation facility with his sister Phoebe. For more than 20 years, the pair has been raising New Hampshire’s orphaned black bear cubs.
Through that work, Kilham has discovered the ins and outs of black bear life. He studies the bear cubs’ behaviors, in some cases following the orphans into adulthood where he watches and interacts with them in the wild. What he has learned, he has documented in two books and a television series with National Geographic and Discovery. He is also pursuing his Ph.D., which focuses on the social behavior of bears.
“My hope is that people and bears can cohabitate and live together, that people can understand and not be fearful of bears,” he said.
Right now in Lyme, Kilham has his hands full. Andy is one of the 14 cubs Kilham already has received this year. On average, he takes in two to three bears annually. In past years though, that number has spiked. In 2012, Kilham received a record 30 cubs, which really stretched the limits of the 8-acre enclosure behind his house. “It did a lot of damage to the trees . . . fortunately those things grow back,” he said with a laugh. But last year, Kilham got only one cub.
The number of cubs needing help from Kilham each year varies for many reasons: sometimes orphans are abandoned
by a new mother who may not produce enough milk or there isn’t enough food supply. Other moms can be killed in automobile accidents, shot by hunters or driven away from a den during logging situations. Kilham, along with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, has noticed a serious uptick in the number of bears shot and killed after getting into backyard chicken coops.
“That has had the biggest impact on us, without any questions,” he said. During the “year of 30,” as he calls it, 15 cubs he received were orphaned after the moms were shot at chicken coops. Fish and Game brought him nine in one week, he said. “Unprotected chicken coops are crazy – we live in bear country,” he said. “An electric fence can solve that problem.”
The cub Andy, named for Fish and Game bear biologist Andrew Timmins, was found abandoned in Dalton, running around town near the baseball field. Two other cubs at the facility – who stayed tucked in a box out of the way of Andy – were orphaned when their mother was shot after a chicken coop conflict in Tamworth. A fourth cub in the enclosure, named Alex, was injured when he was brought in, but it was unclear what happened to his mother.
When new cubs come in, like these recent four, Kilham has a system. The enclosures are built in different sections. The smallest section includes den boxes where Kilham puts the bears when they first come in to figure out their needs. Then, the bears move to a bigger cage – where Andy is living – that is equipped with 16-foot-high ceilings and climbing structures. When the cubs are big enough, they are released into the 8-acre enclosure where they play, roam, learn and interact with the other bears.
It costs about $1,500 to raise each cub, and it’s a cost not covered by the state. Kilham and Phoebe raise the money themselves. They release the bears when they are 18 months old, which is when cubs typically leave their mothers in the wild.
Each bear cub is tagged, and some even wear GPS tracking collars, before it’s released, Kilham said. With that identification, he can keep track of the bears that pass through his rehabilitation center.
Some stick around the area to establish their own home ranges, or territories, and a few are shot during New Hampshire’s hunting season that runs from September to November.
Bears are a managed species in the state, and each year during the season about 550 are hunted to keep the state’s population at 5,000, Timmins said. Even though some of the cubs could be shot during the hunting season, Timmins said, it’s still important to rehabilitate them. “Most of these cubs are not orphaned to natural causes, it’s because of mankind,” he said. “It’s all about trying to minimize the impacts due to human-related causes.”
“As humans we feel like we have a moral obligation to help. And that’s why we do it,” Kilham said.
‘Permit in hand’
Kilham had always been interested in animal behavior. His father was a virologist at Dartmouth Medical School, and in his spare time he studied birds. Back then, formal animal rehabilitation didn’t exist, but Kilham’s father had a blanket animal license. And frequently, conservation officers turned to him for help.
“They were always bringing stuff to him because they didn’t have anywhere else to take them,” Kilham said. The family home in Lyme had some cages, but many of the animals just roamed loose in the yard. “We interacted with them all the time – skunks, porcupines, fox, woodchucks, all kinds of things” he said.
Kilham developed an interest in big carnivores and along with Phoebe, became a licensed animal rehabilitator. In the fall of 1992, bears became his focus somewhat by accident.
At that time, no official rehabilitation programs existed in the state for black bears. But when a conservation officer found an 11-month-old black bear cub he thought had been hit by a car, he brought it to Kilham in violation of state policy. Kilham agreed to take it, but without a permit, the bear was quickly confiscated. Eventually Fish and Game, without other options, returned it to Kilham weeks before the cub was euthanized because it suffered from a rare disease.
But that first step opened the floodgates, and word spread that Kilham and his sister would take cubs. Before Kilham euthanized that cub, Vermont officials called him up asking whether he would take two of their orphan cubs. He agreed, but only if he could get authorization from New Hampshire.
“The next morning I had a permit in hand, and that started the whole thing,” he said.
Since then, Kilham has rehabilitated more than 100 black bear cubs. The majority come from New Hampshire, but he also accepts cubs from Vermont and Massachusetts – states that don’t have their own rehabilitation centers. Over the years, the operation has grown. It began in Lyme, where Kilham lives now, but back then there was no house, no enclosure and limited cages.
During the first year, Kilham broke standard rehabilitation rules and would walk with the cubs though the forest, like a mother bear would. “Wherever I went they would go, and without me they wouldn’t go anywhere,” Kilham said.
Up close and personal
Those walks gave both the bears and Kilham an opportunity to learn. In that first year, he found out “tons of stuff that had never been observed before.” He discovered an accessory organ bears use for smell and identification by watching the cubs lick and mouth plants to understand them.
In some cases, Kilham continued walking with the bears long after their release. One female cub he raised since she was 7 weeks old, Squirty, still meets with him in the wild. Now she is 18 years old and has her own home range close to his house, and countless daughters and granddaughters.
After her release, Kilham walked with her in the forest, went to her winter den and filmed her first cubs, and watched her social interactions with other bears. Just through spending time with her, he learned bears are not nearly as solitary as we thought, he said. Squirty is a matriarch who controls a home range and lets her daughters share it. She pushes out most of the males, but will cooperate with bordering female bears who aren’t part of the family.
“They have complex communication,” he said. That includes smelling each others’ breath as a greeting, making low moans out of nervousness or swatting the ground in a false charge.
Kilham has become part of Squirty’s family, and that means sometimes he has learned about bear behavior the hard way, he said. He points to a scar on his left bicep.
Kilham got that when he was filming Squirty in the woods. She had a bear up in a tree, and as he tried to get closer, he snapped a twig on the ground. The other bear fled with Squirty in pursuit. When she returned, she made a soft repetitive moan, which means everything is okay, he said. Then she came and sniffed his breath, a greeting. Suddenly, she pinned her ears and bit him on the arm, then dropped down and made more noises of reconciliation.
He had broken one of the biggest rules: interfering when she is having a social interaction with another bear.
“She said, ‘I’m sorry but that was necessary,’ ” he said. “That behavior is parallel to human’s behavior.”
And, Kilham learned over the years to stop being so aggressive with the filming, he said. On top of his studies, Kilham gives lectures to educate the public about behavior he has learned.
The perception of bears is getting better, he said, but that education is not always easy. “At times it’s frustrating,” he said.
The goal, his perfect situation, would be that he has no cubs. “A mother bear can raise a cub a heck of a lot better and a heck of a lot cheaper than we can,” he said, “and with more success at keeping her offspring alive in the future.”
For more information about Kilham’s research and how to support his efforts, go to benkilham.com.
(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at email@example.com.)