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A Man Among Bears

Sean Hurley

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Ben Kilham plays with a young black bear cub
(Wildlife Journal)
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A little more than a week ago, a 700-pound Grizzly bear named Rocky attacked and killed his trainer, Stephan Miller. Rocky was the bear in the Will Ferrell comedy "Semi-Pro." California authorities have no plans to remove Rocky from his compound or euthanize him.

That probably wouldn't surprise naturalist Ben Kilham -- for the last 16 years, he's been studying black bears in the forests of New Hampshire. He's written a book about his experiences, "Among the Bears." Kilham's work had generated controversial claims about the way bears think, interact and even communicate.

Reporter Sean Hurley recently spent some time with Kilham, and among the bears.

Ben Kilham lives with his wife in the mountains of New Hampshire in a home he built three years ago. There's a small beaver pond out front, ducks in the nearby woodlands, and through the trees you can see the jagged line of a distant ridge. I had come to hear more about his work with the black bears and hopefully to get a glimpse of this cautious, and according to Ben, highly misunderstood animal.

We sat together in his post-and-beam living room. The walls were covered in incredibly good paintings and sketches done by the Kilham family, past and present. "Well," Ben said, "We could go out and try to locate Bert. I have a collar on him. I haven't been able to close on him but we could go into the woods following his signal."

Ben tracks about ten black bears by means of telemetry radio collars. We wandered out in his pick-up truck to see if we could triangulate Bert's position. Bert is one of the older male bears that Ben keeps a close watch on.

We drove along the dirt road until we hit the secondary. Ben turned on his telemetry receiver and we continued along in the wash of static and whines. Soon we heard a beeping noise and Ben peered down at the receiver beside him. "He's about halfway between where we stopped up there, just about on that angle."

I was still trying to figure out how telemetry worked. "So Bert's right in the middle?" I guessed.

"Yeah, he's about the same strength signal from each end," he said.

Ben decided to take me to Bert's den, which, based on the telemetry, was not at that moment occupied. We parked the truck and walked out together through a rising wood and then crossed over a thorny meadow. Ben gestured to a small, open cave. This was Bert's den. If I wasn't going to see a bear, I thought I might at least appreciate the inside of a bear's house.

Ben pointed out my first obstacle. "There are some sticks he hauled in..."

I hauled the sticks out of the den opening (Ben suggested that Bert probably played with these at night before sleeping) and then shimmied backwards into the wet dirt hole.

"All right... Man it's really wet!" I called up to Ben. My jeans were soaked through. Ben was smiling down at me with a wicked but charming glint in his eye. "This is just where you wanted me, isn't it? Down here?"

He laughed and then pretended that Bert had arrived for a little snack in the form of a damp reporter, "Interview's over, Bert!" Ben called.

By closely observing the bear's life and habitat, Ben has come up with several theories. One of his more controversial ideas suggests that bears cooperate with each other. "I've watched a strange female bear come in and take food in her clearing and she didn't attack that stranger. And the reason she didn't attack that stranger was because she needed that stranger and she couldn't afford to alienate that stranger. And that's where the reciprocal altruism comes in."

The current scientific belief is that bears don't cooperate, that they don't share food. To support his observations, Ben would need hard data. But Ben isn't a scientist. In fact, Ben can't be a scientist -- at least, not in the traditional sense. He's dyslexic and reads at the level of a third grader.

This puts an advanced degree in wildlife biology out of reach. Without a doctorate, he says he can't publish his findings in scientific journals. "I was very well aware that I would be criticized as not being a good observer and not having my fancy degrees -- that my observations were anecdotal, and I'm using anthropomorphisms, and this is all the general lingo that comes out when someone who is not a scientist tries to do something."

The scientific community doesn't agree with what Ben's doing, but they have gradually accepted many of his ideas. Still, his in-the-field method stands in direct conflict with the standard mode of quantitative science. "My method," he says, "is to observe as much as I possibly can. If I decided right then to be scientific, I would have had to come up with a hypothesis about one very small part of the bears behavior and document the daylights out of that one very small part. In order to do that, I would have missed everything else."

When he was 40-years-old, Ben Kilham took a test and learned that his I.Q. put him in the top 1 percent of the population. There's a rising shift in his voice as he talks about this experience. "At age 40, I deliberately abandoned the cultural world, because it hadn't done any good for me. There was no opportunity in it for me as it existed. When I learned what my I.Q. was -- and that really was a revelation -- I said "Geez, if I'm that damn smart, why can't I just do what I want to do?"

It was late afternoon and we were driving alongside the wide glassy sprawl of the Connecticut River. I was resigned to the fact that we probably wouldn't see any bears. But Ben had one last spot he wanted to take me. We jostled up a mile-long scrap of dirt road in his old white truck moving deeper and deeper into the forest. We were heading for a clearing of grass and clover where Ben often met up with Squirty, his principal bear liaison.

Ben set down some ground rules. "The hierarchy goes Squirty, then me, then the rest of her family."

"I'm way down at the bottom," I assumed.

"You're below the bottom," Ben said, laughing. "I get bitten for bringing people like you in here."

"Oh. I'm sorry, Ben!" I said.

When we arrived at the clearing, Squirty was nowhere to be seen. We walked around the trees and grasses for 15 minutes or so.

Then Ben pointed off into the distance. "There she is right there."

I peered up the ridge, seeing nothing. "Where is she?"

He nodded quietly. "Right up on the hill. Two cubs behind her. Cubs moving now."

I was surprised how surprised I was to finally see them. "Oh yeah. Wow!" I exclaimed.

Squirty and her cubs glided in a line down the ridge, glancing our way, before finally disappearing behind a knoll. Ben sent me back to the truck. He went out to meet her with a small bag of corn.

I kept the window down and could hear him calling gently to her, "Hi Squirty... Hi, girl..."

Squirty's came alone into the main open area and took the whole bag of corn from Ben's hand. And then she began to slowly walk away with the plastic grocery bag, liked she'd just finished her shopping. Ben trailed after her.

Maybe it's because Ben has a bear-like quality himself -- he's large and quiet and deliberate and watchful -- but as he moves happily alongside Squirty and they head out toward the cubs, it dawns on me that he and his bears have an awful lot in common. They both live at a similar distance from the world. Who they are and what they have to offer is not easily accessible or readily available.

They are both wary of man and his methods.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By michael scheibler

    From emo, ON, 01/26/2013

    hi ben so glad 2 find 1 more rebel going against the norm!we have much in common re speech in youth studying bears i have film release feb 5 :the gentle bear man of emo; see trl reelproductions.net pls call me tks at 1-807-482-2913 or email me i would like 2 share a few things i have discovered re bear behaviour these 12 yrs re weapons eyes social order ect.i 2 run up against the elite there are not supposed 2 be grizzlies here but i know i do 2 breeds the supposed 2 be extint prairie and the grizzled from the nwt.i have raised 3 griz and 5 black have 1 black now look forward 2 our chat michael of born free ministries and isaiah wildlife sanctuary.

    By Mike Frank

    From Suamico, WI, 02/07/2011

    To Ben,
    I,m dyslexic and lived with wolf for 40+ yr's. Not educated but I know what it is to understand the animal and I found that science is not always as good as first hand knowledge.
    I found it best to just have the knowledge and experience than to try and fit into the science world. But then I never fit into any other social group. A fine group it is.
    Your doing good work and I love your show.

    By blue Magruder

    From Cambridge,, MA, 12/19/2008

    Ben Kilham will be at Harvard in January.
    Family Program: A Man Among Bears
    Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 2:00 pm: Join us for a DVD screening of A Man Among Bears and a discussion with New Hampshire naturalist, author, and wildlife rehabilitator Ben Kilham. This National Geographic Channel documentary features Kilham's unique method of raising and studying black bears, as he aims to show that bears are far smarter and more social than many scientists believe. Free with museum admission,
    Harvard Museum of Natural History, 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, 02138.

    By Michael Lacey

    From Granbury, TX, 11/26/2008

    I was excited to learn that Ben had experienced the same learning experience that I had growing up in the 50's and 60's. I thought the same thing about my ability to advance because I thought I was stupid! It wasn't until I started college at the age of 30 that I started realizing that I could learn but it was harder than most. My IQ I learned later was in the same range 129-132 or upper 5% of the population, but I was extremely dyslexic and ADHD, which made the way I learned things totally different from the gerenal public, meaning I wasn't stupid after all! You can achieve advanced education, but! it's very very hard, you don't relate to others very well and them to you. One sees things differently, thinks differently and feels things differently, than most. It's been, besides growing up thinking one was stupid, having a positive relationship that last.

    So learning of Ben Kilham was very rewarding to know. One doesn't have to attend an institution to learn or master a skill, there's been many well known persons throughout history that were self made, but it helps in most cases to guide one through. Read and spelling are very hard for me and writing takes many many rewrites to catch mistakes, even with words, spell check and a dictionary in hand, but the more I do the easier, if you call it easy, it gets.

    By Laurel Grigg

    From Tucson, AZ, 05/07/2008

    "In fact, Ben can't be a scientist -- at least, not in the traditional sense. He's dyslexic and reads at the level of a third grader."

    I was shocked to hear this statement. I work at the Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center at The University of Arizona, a program that assists college students with learning and attention challenges. We have had many of our undergraduates go on to earn MA/MS, PhD, and JD degrees. It is hard work for sure, but not unattainable. I don't want this to be the mainstream message we continue to send students with learning challenges. With learning strategies, technology, and the right faculty mentor, an advanced degree is an achievable goal.

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