Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Levin: The Bear Man

(Host) A number of years ago, naturalist and commentator Ted Levin was passing through Miami International Airport, when he encountered an unexpected reminder of home.

(Levin) I was headed home to Vermont when a chatty skycap asked me if I knew Ben Kilham, from Lyme, New Hampshire. I told him I did. Then, from the kiosk the skycap pulled out a well-worn copy of Kilham's book Among the Bears, and said, I want to raise orphan bear cubs too and set them free.

I must admit the congestion in front of the American Airlines desk made the back woods of Lyme seem pretty good to me, too.

I visited Kilham again recently, after a long, slow drive into the hinterlands beyond the Dartmouth Skiway. At the time, he was caring for twenty-seven orphaned cubs - twenty in an eight-acre enclosure and seven in a bear barn. The cubs in the enclosure arrived nearly a year ago andhad to be bottle-fed. Those in the bear barn arrived this past October and are still getting used to life as orphans.

To help them adjust, a playful Massachusetts cub named Slothy serves as an ursine ambassador. She gets the traumatized cubs to relax, Kilham told me, as we sat at the dining room table, observing a fidgety cub by bear-cam, one of six surveillance cameras that feed images to his i-pad.

Over the years, Kilham has discovered that black bears are not solitary mammals, loners that divvy up the woodland resources and cautiously avoid each other. To the contrary, he says they're quite social. They only appear solitary relative to the food supply. If food is abundant, bears follow a quite elaborate social system.

Bears may have expressive faces, but like dogs, they read the world mostly with their noses. They leave olfactory messages throughout the forest. They also scratch the soft bark of red pines, turn over rocks, and rub tufts of fur onto tree trunks, all of which has meaning to other bears. It's been common practice for bear rehabilitators to try to minimize human contact with orphaned cubs, but not Ben Kilham.

The idea that even if a bear doesn't see you, you are always making contact, is the essence of Kilham's rehabilitation. He bonds with the cubs.

He walks them in the woods, leads them to appropriate food sources, and essentially becomes their substitute mother. To get to know him, the tiniest cubs stick their tongues in his mouth.

I wondered if they would be attracted to people when he released them, but Kilham doesn't think so. No, he says. You're not going to walk up and hug a stranger... You're not going to get the same signals from the stranger you'd get from a close friend.

Recently, China asked Kilham to teach their scientists how to prepare captive-bred panda cubs for release into the wild. When I asked him if pandas are harder to work with than black bears, Kilham replied that a bear is a bear.

And Ben Kilham ought to know.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
Latest Stories