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Mother Bear Man
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By Robert Caputo

Using foraging lessons and forest romps, gentle Ben Kilham teaches orphaned cubs how to be wild.

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“Watch this,” Ben Kilham called out as we tromped through the New Hampshire woods one fine summer’s day. Ben wandered off the path, hunted around for a few minutes, then got down on all fours. Almost immediately two black bear cubs came barreling out of the bushes toward him. Most people would be rather put off by this, but then few have the relationship with bears Ben does. He lowered his head and began chomping on Indian cucumber pushing up through the litter on the forest floor. The cubs stuck their noses in his mouth, took a good whiff, hunted around for the same plant, and then began eating it too.

“They’ve never eaten Indian cucumber before,” Ben said. “They’ve walked right past it a hundred times without knowing it was food. Somebody had to teach them to eat it.”

Because these cubs are orphans, that somebody was Ben. He has been working with orphaned, sick, and injured black bear cubs for nine years, and his unique way of rehabilitating them has led the folks around Lyme to call him the Bear Man.

Most of us do everything we can to avoid running into bears when we’re in the woods. Not Ben. He may be two-legged and smell different, but to Yoda and Houdini, the two cubs, Ben is Mom. And they are his children.

Their special relationship started one cold day that March. John O ’ Brien, a local forester, was surveying the progress of a logging operation on Moose Mountain when he heard a strange noise.

“It was something I’d never heard before, kind of a cross between a hawk and a baby animal,” John said later. “I worked my way into a thicket and got close enough to see two tiny cubs wrapped up in each other’s arms on the lip of a den. I thought I’d better leave because mama must be around somewhere and ought to be coming back.”

But when the cubs’ mother still had not returned late in the day, John, worried about the approaching severe cold of night, called Ben.

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Catch footage of Ben Kilham’s special relationship with wild orphan cubs.

How much human contact should orphaned wildlife be exposed to before they are released in the wild? What is the best way to deal with their rehabilitation? Join the discussion.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Hibernating black bears spend up to one hundred days without eating, drinking, urinating, defecating, or exercising. At the end of their slumber they walk out of their dens healthy, hydrated, and with almost all their strength intact. They do not seem to suffer from degenerative bone loss or muscle cramping despite months spent in small quarters. Even with their cholesterol levels more than twice what they are in summer, there is no hardening of the arteries or development of gallstones. How do they accomplish these physiological feats?

Biologists are still trying to unravel these secrets. What they do know is that the breakdown of organ and muscle tissues supplies bears with protein, while the breakdown of fat tissues supplies them with water and up to 4,000 calories a day. Researchers have also found that during hibernation the amount of urine entering the kidneys decreases by 95 percent. And more than 90 percent of bears’ urea, a major component of urine made during the breakdown of tissue, is recycled by their unique digestive system into protein, helping to maintain muscle mass.

Understanding these mysteries could provide major benefits to humans. Discovering how bears prevent urine from entering the kidneys could help treat patients suffering from chronic kidney failure. The debilitating effects of muscle atrophy in bedridden patients could be alleviated if scientists learned how bears sleep for months without losing muscle; NASA could also use this information to help astronauts who lose strength during long stretches of time spent in weightlessness. And doctors may be able to preserve organs for transplant if those organs could effectively go into hibernation.

—Cate Lineberry

North American Bear Center
Discover how many black bears live in your state, and hear the sounds of a mother bear and her cubs.

The American Bear Association
Learn more about black bears including how to prevent encounters and what to do if you happen to meet a bear.
Get information on all eight species of bears, and learn how ancient cultures featured bears in their mythology.


Bauer, Erwin. Bears: Behavior, Ecology, Conservation. Voyageur Press, 1997.

Craighead, Lance. Bears of the World. Voyageur Press, 2000.

Fair, Jeff. The Great American Bear. NorthWord Press, 1990.

Furtman, Michael. Black Bear Country. NorthWord Press, 1998.

Kilham, Benjamin. Among the Bears. Henry Holt & Company, 2002.


Daily, Laura, and Pelton, Spencer. “My Life With Bears,” National Geographic World (November 1999), 6-9.

Conway, James and Kenna, Michael. “Eastern Wildlife—Bittersweet Success,” National Geographic (February 1992), 66-89.

Bankson, Ross. “The Bear Essentials,” National Geographic World (July 1992), 2-7.

Buxton, Jane Heath. Baby Bears and How They Grow. National Geographic Books, 1986.

Craighead, Frank, Jr., and John. “Studying Wildlife by Satellite,” National Geographic (January 1973), 120-123.

Kinney, Paul B. “Once in a Lifetime: Black Bears Rarely Have Quadruplets, But Goofy Did—and the Camera Caught Her Nursing Her Remarkable Family, ” National Geographic (August 1941), 249-258.


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