A lonesome dirt road slices through the dense forest in Lyme, New Hampshire. This is bear country, and my husband and I are here to visit the bear whisperer. We drive up to Ben Kilham's house and he greets us at the door. The tall, rugged man fits the image of one who works with bears.
Ben Kilham is New Hampshire's only licensed bear rehabilitator, and an expert on black bear behavior. He has been taking in orphaned cubs for 20 years. With help from his sister Phoebe and his wife Debbie, he raises them until they're old enough to fend for themselves. While they are growing, he observes and documents their behavior, but keeps human contact at a minimum so the bears retain their wild nature.
He accepts all orphaned cubs delivered by Fish & Game officials and others. The tiniest cubs are fed a baby formula of lamb's milk replacement and dog food. Older cubs eat a diet of dog food, crushed corn and apples. Veterinary bills are commonplace, including medication to ward off mange mites the cubs get from living in close proximity to each other.
"It costs about $1,000 to raise one bear cub to the age of 18 months, when it can be released," Kilham said, "and I receive no formal funding."
In the two decades he has been rehabilitating the animals, he has raised about 100 cubs. Away from the house and most human activity, sits a pen for the smallest orphans. Further off, stretches an eight-acre forested, fenced-in area for larger cubs. Just inside the gate stands a dome-shaped den Kilham built of tree limbs and small trees. Most years, he raises three to five bears, but in 2012 he raised 30.
"There were so many cubs, they kept each other awake all winter, eating. Only eight of the 30 hibernated, so it was like one long pajama party," he laughed.
"In 2011, there was an abundance of food, so even young adult bears bred. Cubs are born in January, but in 2012, food was scarce, so many adult bears ended up at restaurant dumpsters and back yards in search of food. Some inexperienced mothers abandoned their cubs, but half of the cubs I received were orphaned because their mothers were shot at bee hives or chicken coops. It's too bad, because all the owners had to do was put electric fencing around those hives and coops, and the bears wouldn't bother them," Kilham said.
When his plight of feeding 30 bears at a cost of $2,500 each month was publicized on television, enough donations came in to cover the expense. Then, in the summer of 2013, one at a time, the bears were sedated, moved and released to different areas of the state, mostly to northern forests.
Ben Kilham has only one small cub born in 2013, but expects to acquire a few more in the fall during bear hunting season.
When asked how he communicates with and teaches the bears to survive on their own, he explained, "I don't have to teach them what to eat, it's instinctive. I walk them through the woods and give them the opportunity to learn, I expose them to the outside world. It's more passive teaching."
"People should not encourage bears to come near houses by leaving food or garbage around to attract them," he said. "It never ends up well for the bears. The best thing people can do with their garbage is compost it."
Ben Kilham's studies have made him a world-renowned bear expert who has proven some old theories about the animals are wrong. He has even advised scientists in China and Russia on bear behavior. He is the author of two books: Among the Bears... Raising Orphaned Cubs in the Wild
, will be re-released in late 2013, and his most recent book, Out On A Limb
, delves into bear behavior and is due out in October of 2013. Proceeds from these books help fund his research.
More information about Ben Kilham, his books and bear research can be found on his website: www.benkilham.com