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Mother Bear Man
By Robert Caputo
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.
"From the lack of tracks and the state of the cubs, it was obvious that Mom hadn't been around for several days," Ben explained. "The cubs were probably about nine weeks old but weighed less than four pounds each. They should have weighed six or seven. They were hugging each other, desperately trying to keep warm. I don't think they would have made it through another night. We had no choice but to take them."
Black bears are extremely good mothers, and only an imminent threat to their own lives will make them abandon their young. A logging crew had been working near the den for a week, clearing ice-damaged trees that would pose a fire hazard later in the year. Because of the snow and thick undergrowth the den was impossible to see, and a mechanical harvester had backed right up to it. The racket, diesel exhaust, and looming tires had probably made mama bear flee. The crew had never heard or seen a thing. If John hadn't walked nearby that day, the cubs would have frozen to death.
"It's impossible to say how many black bear cubs are orphaned in the United States," Ben said. "About 150 are found each year in 30 or so states."
Ben wrapped the cubs in a blanket and took them to his house, where he, his wife, and his sister could look after them. The little bears devoured formula from baby bottles and then snuggled contentedly in a spare bedroom for much needed sleep.
The Kilham family house overlooks the picturesque green in the center of Lyme, and it's no stranger to orphaned animals. Ben's father taught microbiology and medical history at nearby Dartmouth College, and the family developed a passion for helping injured and orphaned animals.
"We had owls, red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons, ravens, crows, raccoons, ferrets, a fox. There were always animals wandering around the house," Ben told me. "We even had a young beaver that kept trying to dam up the toilet."
When Ben returned to his hometown in 1982 after a career with Colt and other gun manufacturers, he set up shop as a gunsmith. His family background, however, soon led him to take up animal rehabilitation. He obtained permits from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and worked with fishers, skunks, porcupines, raccoons, and in 1992 his first black bear, a sick yearling he named Wobbly.
"I didn't plan to study bears," Ben explained, "but working with Wobbly got me hooked. I'd always had the idea that the way to learn about animals was to start with a young one and watch it grow, that you would learn more that way than just by watching adults. Two things I didn't realize when I began were how little was known about black bear behavior and how much these little guys would teach me."
It surprised me too that so little is known about an animal with which we live in such proximity. We grow up with bears: Teddy bears keep us company in the crib; Smokey Bear warns us about fires; Winnie the Pooh and his countless cousins populate our bedtime stories.
We may love bears when we're children, but we haven't tolerated them very well as adults. Ursus americanus once roamed throughout North America, living in every habitat from the swamps of Louisiana and Florida to the chaparral of the Southwest and the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest. But European colonizers viewed bears as pests and hunted them mercilessly. In modern times the hunting continued, and bounties for killing bears were paid into the 1960s. The New Hampshire population dipped to below 500 in the 1940s, when there were only 175,000 black bears in all of North America.
But black bears are remarkably adaptable. Although licensed hunters kill 40,000 bears annually, they have made a comeback in the past 50 years. New Hampshire's population now accounts for about 5,000 of the 700,000 black bears living in 32 states, Canada, and Mexico.
As the number of bears increases and human settlement pushes farther into their habitat, encounters between bears and people become more common. The number of incidents on woodland trails and at bird feeders and garbage cans grows. And our ambivalent attitude persists: We like seeing bears in the woods, but we don't like it when they want to come into the house.
Our fears, however, are unwarranted: Since 1900, 43 people have been killed by black bears in North America (a person is far more likely to be struck by lightning). As with most wild animals, our fear is a result of ignorance.
"We know more about the behavior of the lions, wildebeests, and elephants on the Serengeti Plain than we do about the bears that live in our backyards," Ben said. "When I got interested in bears, I read everything I could get my hands on. There wasn't much. There were population and range studies but almost nothing on behavior. I couldn't believe it."
Ben was also intrigued that many orphan bears didn't fare very well after they had been raised and released into the wild. They often died or became nuisances with a penchant for showing up where they were not welcome.
"The usual way to raise orphans is to minimize contact—put a tarp over their cage so they can't see people stick food in through a hole. The idea is that they won't get used to people feeding them. It's ironic, though, because bears know the world primarily through smell, and they know very well who's on the other side of the tarp. The bears are kept in enclosures for 18 months, then released into a world they know nothing about."
Ben tried a different approach. He learned from Wobbly and subsequent cubs he raised that bears are sensitive, intelligent, and emotional creatures that need more than food. They need security, affection, and someone to teach them.
At first Ben kept Yoda, a gentle female, and Houdini, a male with a penchant for escaping, in his house, encouraging them to play with him and each other. The cubs soon came to treat Ben just as they would their mother—crawling into his lap to nurse, suckling his fingers and ears as signs of affection, and climbing over him in play. Scars on Ben's face and hands attest to the keenness of their claws.
But a house is not a good place to keep growing bears. When the weather warmed and the cubs had recovered their weight and strength, Ben took them to a large pen he'd built in the woods outside town.
Watching Ben prepare the pen for the cubs' arrival was like watching a mother prepare a nursery for a newborn baby. He made sure the wire walls were strong enough to keep the cubs from wandering off and coyotes or other predators from getting in. He dragged big logs into the pen for climbing, layered a wooden box with straw for sleeping on, set out pails of water, and even brought toys.
Twice a day Ben visited the cubs with baby bottles full of formula and apple juice. This invariably sent the cubs into a frenzy as they clawed their way into his lap and settled down to nurse. As they got older, Ben supplemented the bottles with dry dog food. Yoda always picked out the hard red and brown bits; Houdini preferred the soft yellow and orange ones. Once the cubs were full, Ben took them for long walks in the woods.
"Any animal with a long dependency—18 months for these bears—probably has a lot to learn," Ben said as we walked with the cubs. "The only way they can do that is by being out here in the woods."
The success of Ben's technique was obvious. The cubs had been trailing behind us, occasionally stopping to sniff the ground or bushes. When we sat down, the cubs took to the woods, chasing each other, tearing apart rotting logs to look for ants and grubs, scampering up trees. They never strayed too far from us, but Ben's presence seemed to give them the security they needed to set off, tentatively, on their own.
"Every time I come out here with the bears, I learn something just by watching them," Ben said. "I've noticed, for example, that the cubs hold plants in their mouths before they eat or discard them. My theory is that bears have chemoreceptors that analyze the plants and let the animals know if they're edible. And when they first come out of hibernation, they search diligently for moose and deer scat to eat. They seem to need the bacteria to get their digestive systems going again. If you don't know this, you can feed them all you want, but it's not going to do much good."
The real test of Ben's rehabilitation method, though, isn't how healthy his cubs are or how freely they romp in the woods. It's what kind of adults they will turn out to be. Can they survive as wild bears?
"A lot of other rehabilitators thought my cubs would become nuisance bears that wouldn't be afraid of people and in fact would seek them out for food. But bears are smarter than that. It's not people they've gotten to know; it's me as an individual."
To prove his point, Ben took me to visit Squirty, a three-year-old female living in the woods outside Lyme. Squirty, along with her brother and sister, had been orphaned, and Ben had raised them in much the same way as Yoda and Houdini. Now grown up, with two cubs of her own, she was thriving in the wild.
We drove several miles from Lyme, got on three-wheelers to negotiate a logging road, then hiked about a mile into the woods. Along the way Ben pointed out what he called bear trees.
"This is one of the many things I've learned from Squirty and her siblings," Ben said. "Trees like this red pine are the equivalent of bear bulletin boards. If we had a bear's sense of smell, we would know which bears have been here and when. If the bears are passing through, they might just brush against a bush, and the scent would last 48 hours or so. But if they want to leave a message, they bite or do a full back rub on one of these bear trees. The porous bark holds the scent for a long time. Look, you can see the hairs left in the bark."
Primarily olfactory animals, bears communicate with each other by leaving scent deposits. Females advertise their reproductive state and receptivity; males announce to females that they're around and warn smaller males to stay out of the way. Ben's observations reveal that bears may even leave messages about the availability of food. Scientists and other observers have also reported seeing bears rub on trees, but because Ben's bears tolerate his presence so calmly, he has been able to decipher more of their behavior.
"Watching bears in the wild is extremely difficult unless you have a relationship with them," Ben explained. "Wild bears become very nervous when people are around, so you're not likely to see much natural behavior. My guys ignore me and go on about their business."
Ben paused to check the signal from Squirty's radio collar. "Come on. She's just up here."
Approaching cute little cubs is one thing; walking up to a fully grown wild mother bear with cubs to protect is quite another. As we neared, Ben called out to let Squirty know who was coming. I heard a rapid whooshing sound as she warned her cubs, followed by the scrape of little claws scampering up a tree to safety. I followed Ben as he walked toward Squirty.
"You'd better stay here," Ben said as we drew close. I was happy to oblige.
Squirty eyed me suspiciously as she walked up to greet Ben, whom she still seems to regard as her mother. The two cubs peered down nervously from their perch. Ben sat down next to Squirty and stroked her neck, saying softly, "He's all right, Squirty. He's with me. It's OK."
Squirty, however, wasn't so sure. She walked slowly toward me, her head down and teeth chomping. I looked at Ben. "Hold still," he said.
When she was about 15 feet away, Squirty lunged at me and made a deep grumbling sound. Then she did it again. I had just enough of my wits about me to know I could never outrun a bear, but it was hard to heed Ben's advice with 200 pounds of angry bear charging at me. Shaking slightly, I slowly backed up several feet. That seemed to be what Squirty wanted; I had been too close. She turned, went back to Ben, and snuggled into his lap.
The cubs, seeing that mom was comfortable with Ben, soon climbed down and joined the pile. Squirty kept half an eye on me to make sure I didn't try to edge closer, but otherwise she appeared relaxed. I didn't need any further proof that she could distinguish between Ben and other human beings.
Ben gave Squirty some dry dog food to supplement her diet while she was nursing. For the most part, though, she was fending for herself.
"There are houses with bird feeders and garbage cans all around here," Ben said. "Squirty's been living on her own for two years, but she has never been near any of them. I don't think being raised by a surrogate mother has had any ill effects on her at all."
I returned to New Hampshire several times over the next year. Yoda and Houdini grew rapidly and became more independent. When Ben had first taken them into the woods, they had followed him closely. By late fall they were leading the way and even disappearing for days at a time. They were fat balls of shiny fur; Houdini must have weighed a hundred pounds. That winter, which the cubs would have spent denning with their mother, Ben built a warm, cozy den for them, and he was there when they emerged in the spring.
By the following summer Yoda had established a territory near their den—females stay close to where they are raised—while Houdini had begun ranging far and wide, as orphaned males must. Life was hard for him. He wasn't old enough to mate, and his wandering made him vulnerable to hunters and other bears —and led him into more populated areas. One day last spring, after being attacked by an older male, Houdini fled to a development where he had been fed before. This time he paid a high price for an easy meal: He was shot as he raided a bird feeder.
Houdini was only the second bear known to have been killed of the 31 that Ben has raised. For most of his bears adaptation to the wild has come naturally, and Ben has continued to learn from them. He was able to watch how Squirty raised her cubs and apply what he learned to his care of Yoda and Houdini. They, in turn, taught Ben things that will make him an even better mom for the next orphans that will come his way.
Although Ben's methods are unconventional, a number of biologists have come to admire his work. "I learned more about black bears in six hours with Ben and his bears than in the past 20 years," said Eric Orff, a bear expert and senior wildlife biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
"I help the cubs, and they teach me," Ben said on my last trip as we watched Yoda disappear into the woods. "I've learned a lot about bears that was previously unknown, simply because they accept me. I hope what I learn will help us understand and protect them.
"But most of all," he said as Yoda turned to look back at us, "I just like being out here with them."