Take a look inside the state’s only bear cub rehabilitation center

  • Ben Kilham operates the state’s only licensed bear rehabilitation facility with his sister Phoebe Kilham in Lyme, N.H. Kilham greets Bolton, named for the town in Vermont that he was found. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ben Kilham operates the state’s only licensed bear rehabilitation facility with his sister Phoebe Kilham in Lyme, N.H. Kilham greets Bolton, named for the town in Vermont that he was found. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of the three bears rescued recently when its mother was hit by a car and killed. The mother bear crawled off the road ensuring that her cubs would not have the same fate as her. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ben Kilham operates the state’s only licensed bear rehabilitation facility with his sister Phoebe Kilham. Kilham greets a bear in the large facility in back of his house. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of the bears at Ben Kilham's licensed bear rehabilitation facility. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of the bears at Ben Kilham's licensed bear rehabilitation facility. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/2/2016 11:47:43 PM

The 10-pound black bear cub pawed at Ben Kilham’s silver watch as he knelt down to give him a gentle pat on the head.

“You’re a pretty boy, Bolton. You’re a pretty boy,” Kilham cooed. The bear rehabilitator unclasped the watch from his wrist and set it in the palm of his hand for the cub to smell.

“They love watches,” he said. “Something about the scent.”

Bolton is a 7-month-old black bear cub from Bolton, Vt., who was struck by a car in May. Two months ago, he was underweight and suffering from a concussion sustained in the crash.

Now, Kilham is nursing him back to health at his home in Lyme, where he operates the state’s only licensed bear rehabilitation facility with his sister, Phoebe Kilham. Every season, the two take in New England’s orphaned black bear cubs and care for them until they are 18 months old, the typical age black bear cubs are separated from their mothers in the wild.

Kilham currently has 14 7-month-old black bear cubs from New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts living behind his house in a 24-by-40-foot enclosure designed with 15-foot climbing trees, a hammock and a green slide.

He said this year, the cubs have been coming in at a faster rate than usual. The most recent additions were three cubs brought in from North Woodstock on July 3, after their mother was killed in an automobile accident.

Bear cubs are born in January, but mother bears, or sows, are often killed in the warmer months when they venture into yards in search of chicken coops or bird feeders, or encounter cars on the road.

This year, Kilham is only rehabilitating one cub whose mother was killed in pursuit of chicken coops, but in 2013, 16 of the 30 bears he rescued were orphaned by yard-shootings.

When their mothers are killed, some cubs are found by conscientious wardens who bring them to Kilham to look after.

Others are not so lucky. More often than not, black bear cubs that lose their mothers are left alone in the wild to fend for themselves, and while some survive the fall, they often have trouble putting on the fat they needed to survive the winter and die.

‘Bear whisperer’

When Kilham started studying black bears more than 20 years ago, there was next to nothing known about the animal’s behavior. Science had long labeled bears as solitary creatures, whose behavior was dictated solely by instinct, not by memory or emotion.

Kilham, then an outsider to the scientific community, would eventually prove these ideas wrong.

Kilham was a gunsmith by trade when he happened upon an injured orphaned cub in 1992, and cared for it in his Lyme home. Vermont biologist Forrest Hammond was impressed by his work and offered to secure Kilham an official New Hampshire Fish and Game Rehabilitation Permit.

Over time, Kilham made a name for himself as “bear whisperer” of sorts. When conservation officers found a black bear cub in need of care, they would give Kilham a call.

For the cubs, Kilham would act as the surrogate mother, taking them on long walks in the eight acres of enclosed land surrounding his home.

“We could go for nine hours at a time, just roaming in the hills,” he said.

Before Kilham’s work, research involving such close contact with bears was unheard of. This was something Kilham said gave him a leg up in his research.

“At the time, no one was studying behavior. The people who studied black bears, or any bears, were management people, and they were interested in populations, home ranges, all that traditional stuff,” he said. “And here I was, breaking all the rules by having close contact with bears, and learning a lot because of it.”

Kilham said some of his observations showed cognitive ability that wasn’t thought to exist in animals. He took detailed field notes and started recording his findings on video.

“What I was seeing was so out of what was known at the time. I thought everyone would think I was crazy if I didn’t get it on camera,” he said.

When Kilham first started taking cubs on long walks, he transported them in dog crates. On one occasion, a cub refused to return to its crate at the end of the day. The cub instead became angry and lunged at Kilham, who pushed it away with his foot.

What came next surprised him.

On the walk back to Kilham’s home, the bear that had challenged him did not play and run like his sister. Instead, he followed behind Kilham slowly, letting out a soft repetitive moan.

“He spent the entire trip back trying to make up with me,” Kilham remembered. “He was trying to reconnect.”

This behavior caught Kilham’s attention.

“I was thinking, why is he interested in reconciling? And where did it come from? I realized that anything that these bears did, even if it was a single behavior, was important,” he said.

Kilham soon found that his close contact with the bears made them view him as family-like figure, a member of their sloth, or bear pack.

Like humans, Kilham said bears typically show more aggression to their relatives than to those whom they are not related. Kilham said there are astonishing parallels between bear and human behavior.

“We’re harsh on our family members to varying degrees because they’re our closest cooperators and we have to communicate with them,” he said. “Unfortunately, how we communicate is not always pretty. But we get away with it because we always can reconcile.”

Keeping up

Kilham does not receive state funding for his work. Up until six years ago, when he received access to the Bear Hill Conservancy Trust, his wife Debbie’s accounting salary was his only source of financing.

Running a bear rehabilitation center can be expensive. The cost of food, bedding, and medicine for each cub is about $1,500, and tracking collars costs $2,500 each.

Over the past 20 years, Kilham and his sister have rehabilitated 149 bear cubs. That’s about $223,500 just to cover the cost of caring for the bears alone.

Rehabilitation also takes time and effort. When the bears are young, they require constant attention, Kilham said. In the first few months, they must be bottle-fed four times a day.

People often ask Kilham if spending the early months of life being cared for by humans can affect the cubs’ behavior, but he said there’s not a lot of difference between what the bears experience at his center and in the wild.

Kilham’s bear cubs socialize with other bears, roam around his forested enclosure, and eat natural vegetation like nuts, apples and berries – just like bears in the wild.

“I get asked a lot in my lectures, ‘If you raise these cubs, don’t they want to be human?’ And my answer is, bears want to be bears. It’s only people who think all other animals want to be like them.”

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3305 or lwillingham@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)




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