Author and naturalist Ben Kilham speaks | VailDaily.com
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Author and naturalist Ben Kilham speaks

Wren Wertin

Winnie the Pooh may like honey, but Ben Kilham1s bears go for the maple syrup every time.A New Hampshire naturalist, maple syrup maker and gunsmith, National Geographic dubbed Kilham 3Mother Bear Man. He will be presenting a slide show and lecture at the Vail Library on Saturday, the product of a joint effort between Verbatim Booksellers and Gore Range Natural Science School. He comes as part of a tour celebrating his first book, 3Among the Bears, which hit the stores earlier this month.Kilham has been raising orphaned black bear cubs so they might be released<and thrive<in the wild. In the spring of 1993, he received his first pair of baby bears, abandoned by their mother. Thus he embarked upon a new journey that eventually included 24 orphaned baby cubs and several more teenaged bears.3I1m just somebody who likes to understand things, and you can1t understand anything by doing it just once, he said. 3You have to do it several times, with several different animals.His research with black bears has no precedent. Nobody has studied bears as intensively as he has; few have even studied them at all. Everything Kilham learned was new, not only to him, but to the world. They continually surprised him.3They1re unusual in their essence, he said. 3Dogs are group-social animals. They want to be a part of your pack, and they want you to be a part of theirs. But a bear is an individual. When you go out with the adult bears, you negotiate your time with them. It1s not just two beings next to each other; you1re dealing with another individual.Kilham began the project with the intent not to get too emotionally attached to the bears. The first set of twins he called LB and LG, short for Little Boy and Little Girl. He fed them, let them suckle on his ears and neck (instinctual bear-bonding behavior), accompanied them over his many acres of forest as they worked out their place in the world and took a plethora of field notes. And that was only the beginning.After raising so many different sets of cubs, he learned what was general black bear behavior and what was random or personality-specific. Eventually, he came to understand how they communicated, not only with each other but with him as well.3A bear will tell you if they want you to leave, he said. 3OAll right, time to get out of here. I1ve got to go about my business,1 they might say. You come to respect them as much as you would another human, as another individual. And with that, they also have a social structure. It1s a society of individuals. They share feeding areas, but they1re solitary.Kilham is currently featured in this month1s National Geographic Magazine, and has been the subject of several TV documentaries.Though he1s currently bear-less<which melds well with his dash across the country, sharing his insights and photos<he anticipates getting more this summer. The bears that have had no substantial time with their mothers require the largest investment from Kilham.3It1s those young ones that have no experience, he said. 3What they don1t have when they1re young is any social standing, and that1s because they1re orphans. Mothers typically let them stay for four years, kind of a dynasty. Once you1re an orphan, you1ve got nobody. For a young bear, that1s tough.Do they know what they1re missing?3Other bears tell them very quickly and forcefully, he said.Those other bears might tell them by chasing and treeing the cubs, and as they get older, they might attack them.Bears also learn about their world by both smelling and tasting. In fact, Kilham discovered an organ in the roof of a bear1s mouth that nobody had even seen before. He also saw other behaviors, like a stiff-legged walk and slow-licking, that had been undocumented. Both became common behaviors to him. What surprised him the most about the project was the lack of research available.3Hopefully somebody else will join in, he said. 3If you research the behavior of the Great Apes, you1ll find thousands of books. They1re in Africa, and the bear is in our own backyard.Kilham has had the good fortune to be able to observe some of his orphan cubs raise their own families. One such bear is Squirty, so named because she was the runt of his first batch of triplets. Squirty has had two litters, though Kilham was only able to be in close contact with the first bunch due to the isolated venue of her second den. (Squirty is still alive and thriving in his woods.)3She was a much better mother than I was just because she was there all the time, he said.Females usually stay in their mother1s area, whereas males will strike off on their own. When LB left, he headed toward Mount Cardigan, the most prominent landmark on his horizon. Kilham1s land hosts not just his bears but other bears, too. Still, he has no problem identifying his bears.He will be sharing a little of what he1s learned at Saturday1s lecture, and he1ll accompany the words with photographs he chose specifically for their story-telling value.3Basically, I have a picture of everything, he said. 3I1ll talk about bear behaviors: play, what1s instinctive, what1s learned, scent and smell.After his whirlwind tour, he gets to return to his home.3I want to go back to the woods and sleep with my bears, he said.Ben Kilham will speak at the Vail Library Saturday from 5:30 until 7 p.m. For more information, call Gore Range Natural Science School at 827-9725 or Verbatim Booksellers at 476-3032.Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.


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