It has been two years since Benjamin Kilham’s little girl moved out, but like any parent, he still worries about how she is doing. So every day, Kilham leaves his home in Lyme, N.H., and drives seven miles toward Smarts’ Mountain to check in on her and drop off a Ziploc bag of steamed corn for her to rip open and eat. Kilham’s baby—her name is Yoda—is a 3½-year-old, 180-lb. black bear he raised from birth. “I am,” says Kilham proudly, “her mother.”
And Yoda isn’t his only child. In the past nine years Kilham, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and student of bear behavior, has mothered seven orphaned or abandoned black bear cubs. Such cubs are usually raised with minimal human contact. Kilham, however, keeps his charges in cages and in a converted aviary on his property, romps with them, takes them on walks to familiarize them with the ways of the wild and even chews vegetation to show them what to eat. Then, when they’re 18 months old, the age they usually would strike out on their own, he releases them into the woods.
Although the black bear is relatively harmless—accounting for only about 40 human deaths in the entire 20th century—Kilham’s novel approach troubles some wildlife experts. “You don’t want to get bears habituated to people,” cautions Michael Vaughan, a professor of wildlife science at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. “While the bears act friendly to [Kilham], you don’t know how they’ll react to another person.”
Kilham, however, insists that his homeschooled bears “won’t act any different than a wild bear.” And, says George Schaller, a wildlife biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, “he’s providing some marvelous insights, not only into how cubs learn but how they have a culture.”
Among Kilham’s observations: Black bears can be much more complicated than many, including wildlife biologists, believe. “I’ve discovered,” he says, “that bears have a personality. We get bears that snort and chomp and others that are perfectly friendly.”
Kilham, 49, who recounts (with the help of nature writer Ed Gray) his adventures in Among the Bears, published in March, is quick to point out that his bears aren’t just cuddly-looking playmates. There are solid scientific reasons for his approach. “I wanted to study the behavior of a juvenile animal,” he says, “and bears have a long juvenile period of 18 months. By documenting their reactions to their environment, I can discover things about their behavior.”
One of five children raised by Lawrence, who taught at Dartmouth medical school, and Jane, a general practitioner who died in 1992, Kilham had a Dr. Dolittle-like childhood, with animals—everything from foxes to woodchucks and even skunks—living in the five-bedroom family home (Kilham père was an amateur wildlife biologist). “We thought everybody grew up this way,” says Kilham.
But Kilham’s childhood dream of working with creatures great and small almost didn’t come to pass. Severely dyslexic, he struggled to get his wildlife biology degree at the University of New Hampshire, then failed to pass graduate school entrance exams. “I felt I was stupid,” he says.
Instead, Kilham embarked on a nearly 20-year detour, working as a product engineer for Colt Firearms in Hartford, Conn., where in 1982 he met his wife, Debbie, 47, a pension consultant. They wed four years later and moved back to Lyme to Kilham’s childhood home.
After getting his state wildlife rehabilitation license in 1988, Kilham, then making his living as a gunsmith, spent several years caring for injured foxes and owls before taking in his first cubs, Little Boy and Little Girl, in 1993. “They were so small and helpless,” says Debbie Kilham. “It was love at first sight. Still, it was a little scary.”
Kilham shared her ambivalence. He knew that the rehabilitation of black bears, the most common type in the continental United States, often failed because the animals became too close to people. Still, after reading the scant literature on the subject, he pushed ahead, learning on the job. On one occasion, he says, “Little Boy’s temperament got really bad. It dawned on me that Little Girl had stopped letting him suckle on her ear. So I offered my ear to this ornery little cub. He suckled on it for about 10 seconds and he was as happy as a clam after that.” Apart from the occasional playful nip or scratch, Kilham is unscathed. “Here I am, 10 years later,” he says, “and they haven’t eaten me yet.”
Kilham’s fondness for his cubs doesn’t diminish after they reenter the wild. He monitors some of them with radio collars and motion-sensitive cameras, and he visits some, like Yoda, every day. Returning to nature, however, doesn’t guarantee a happy ending for a bear. Both Little Boy and Little Girl were shot and killed within months of their release. “Many wild bears die under the same conditions,” Kilham says. “It’s hard to take.”
Still, Kilham—now caring for his cubs full-time while relying on lecture fees, book royalties and donations to fund his work—can discern at least one advantage to having these babies grow up and move on. At least, he says, “I don’t have to send them to Harvard.”
Tom Duffy in Lyme