Animals, Catskills, Travel

Walk with the Bears

Over the past decade, Ben Kilham has raised over 33 orphan black bears, giving them all they need to get back to a life in the wild. Meet Ben and his cubs and hear the heart-warming, but often terrifying encounters with his charges.

By Julie Conway

My introduction to bears did not go exactly as planned. It was 9pm and our first night in a remote cabin in the Catskill Mountains a few hours north of New York.

Just as I was telling my partner Stuart how much I loved the countryside after living in north London there was an almighty thud.

It sounded like a herd of elephants tumbling down stairs.

A few huffs and snorts then something started scrabbling up the slippery tiles on our roof.

I peered out the window and there peering back at me was a 600lb black bear.

I don’t know who was more surprised me or him. The bear sized me up and clearly deciding I was no match started climbing up again.

Panicking we called the sheriff.

‘Do you have a birdfeeder up?’

‘Err, yes,’ says Stuart cautiously staring at the feeder dangling right outside the lounge window.

‘That’ll be it. Bears are real hungry right now. They’re just about to go into hibernation and they’ll eat any darn thing they can get. Bird food is one of their favourite things. He’ll stop at nothing to get that treat.’ The sheriff paused for a moment.

‘Sir, do you have a firearm?’ he asked Stuart with great concern. No we don’t,’ he explained.

‘Give me your details and I’ll come and help,’ he offered.

As Stuart started giving him our address I jumped up and down in horror. ‘We can’t let him shoot the bear, we’re vegetarians,’ I wail.

But luckily for the bear we were three miles outside that sheriff’s jurisdiction. He gives us another number to phone.

The last thing our local sheriff wanted to deal with at 9pm was a  Londoner who had put out bird seed just before the bears go into hibernation.

‘A bear’s got to do what a bear’s got to do,’ he drawled. ‘When the bear’s finished doing what he’s got to do, he’ll go away.’

‘So at what point should I call you if a bear doesn’t finish what he’s got to do?’ asks Stuart.

‘If he comes into your house and you feel he is threatening your life, then call me back,’ the sheriff offers generously.

Fortunately, for us and the bear, he gave up and went after easier gains.

The snow came and the bears went into hibernation so I forgot about our encounter. Until a few weeks ago when we spotted a trail of giant paw prints right outside the cabin.

We are now living in an even more remote area in the Catskill Mountains in the middle of bear country so I decided to ask the locals exactly what to do when encountering the black bears.

Everyone’s answer was different. It ranged from waving your hands around and shouting to try and scare the poor animal (an unlikely event in my case where my low centre of gravity gives any bear a huge advantage) to playing dead.

I decided to take a visit to the ultimate authority on bears, Mama Bear himself.

Over the last ten years Ben Kilham, 49, has raised 33 orphan black bear cubs in New Hampshire.

The son of physicians and keen naturalists he has cared for animals all his life.

In 1993 a warden delivered three tiny orphan bear cubs to his door. With the support of his wife Debbie, a pensions consultant, he decided to try a novel and time consuming technique. To raise the cubs as wild bears.

If the bears are tiny when he rescues them he quite literally becomes the mother bear, climbing trees, walking in the forest, even eating ants to encourage them to forage for their natural foods.

‘Ants are actually very tasty….a lemony flavour,’ he explains.

This has led to encounters with wild bears in the forest and as his cubs have got older and joined the wild bear community with their protection it has allowed him unique access to the bears’ world. Something no other scientist has had.

He is rapidly getting a reputation as the Jane Goodall of the bear world.

At 6ft 5in he is a large and gentle man and as I discover more about bears it seems he is like them in many ways. He is incredibly patient, intelligent and constantly assessing the current situation.

He invites me to meet his ‘kids’ and gives me wise counsel.

‘Wild bears rarely attack each other, it’s all a mental game of bluffing,’ he explains.

‘We assume a bear interprets our signals with the way a human would respond, but they have a very different idea of what is an alarm.

‘A gun fired into the air, we found, is no deterrent at all. Bears don’t watch TV. They don’t associate guns with something bad so they will just stand there. The snapping of a twig, however, will scare the life out of them.’

‘When you meet a bear in the wild, stand your ground and stare him right in the eyes. That is what a wild bear would do. Don’t take your eyes off him for a second or he will assert his dominance. If you stare at him and take a step forwards he will nearly always retreat. Bears do not want to get into fights despite their power and size.

‘Sometimes a bear will snort and swat, that is the first warning that they are unhappy with how close you are. They sometimes bluff charge you. That means they charge straight towards you stopping right at your feet. Stand your ground and then slowly walk backwards staring at him all the time then you will be fine.’

I can’t imagine how I will fight my natural instinct to run as fast as possible in the opposite direction if a huge bear comes hurtling towards me but I resolve to try.

Ben decides to introduce us to the concept gently with a 20lb year old bear named Passaconway.

He is tiny for his age as he was found starving and freezing cold at Christmas time after his mother was shot by a hunter.

Stuart, who is taking the photographs, confidently crawls up to the wooden box where he is hiding.

The little black cub with chocolate brown markings around his nose sticks his head out and not amused by his uninvited guests makes his mouth into a square shape, curls his tongue and blows out air in an explosive snort while at the same time swatting his paw on the ground.

The impact is impressive. Stuart jumps back. Despite his size this bear can quite clearly keep humans at bay. His eyes watch us continually.

He snorts and swats several times and then starts moaning. Despite his apparent confidence he is terrified of us and getting rather upset so we decide to leave him in peace and visit The Boys.

The Boys, otherwise known as Big Guy and Little Guy are also a year old, but these bears are a much healthier size. They have just come out of hibernation and weigh around 65lb. Their standing height is about 4ft tall.

Ben and his sister Phoebe who also looks after the bears, try to have minimal contact with The Boys as they were nine months old when they were rescued so they are wild bears.

Their mother was shot by a policeman as she raided through rubbish in the small town of Conway.

‘The policeman thought she posed a threat, but if he had understood her signals he would have realised she was not threatening at all. If he had simply walked towards her keeping his eye on her she would have left,’ he says sadly.

The Boys were turned over to Ben’s care immediately so they didn’t suffer starvation like Passaconway and they didn’t have to fight off other predators.

They are being kept in an enclosure in the forest, where they can see and interact with wild bears until they are strong enough to fend for themselves. Ben hopes that will be in three weeks time. They can’t be let out of the enclosure now as they will run away. Unlike the smaller cubs he adopts, these bears would not follow him in the forest as they were used to their own mother for nine months.

As we walk through the forest of red pines, maples, oak, ash, poplar and paper birch trees he calls out very gently, ‘Hi guys, Hi guys, I see you.’

With a bag of dog food and some grapes, Ben and Phoebe tell us to come very slowly into their cage.

Ben locks us inside and the two bears stand on a high wooden platform staring down. For a few moments I am quite terrified. Each paw has five needle shaped claws three inches long. They are already very muscular and one swat could do a lot of damage.

Little Guy, a slightly skinnier bear with more tan markings on his face climbs down the log to check me out.

I’ve had chocolate in my pocket which he can smell. He is strong enough to rip it open, but he just sniffs my hands gently and licks them to make sure I’m don’t have any now.

Stuart becomes slightly too comfortable with them and as soon as he takes his eyes off them to change a lens on his camera they snort and swat. They didn’t intend to hurt him, they just took advantage of his eyes being off them to assert themselves.

They gobble up the food, the smaller bear jumps up on Ben resting his front paws on his arms to mug him for as many grapes as possible.

This large man talks to them with extreme gentleness. ‘You are pretty,’ he says to the bear as it paws him trying to get his nose in the packet while at the same time displaying an impressive range of teeth. ‘No, No. Just be careful,’ he says.

There is the greatest temptation to cuddle these large cubs, but bears are not like dogs. They hate to be petted and will deliver a nasty swat if you try.

When the food is gone they retire into their box for a snooze, their heads squashed together in contentment.

These bears will have a few months to adjust to their life in the wild before they face hunting season.

Three of Ben’s cubs have already been killed by hunters. He puts radio collars on his bears before releasing them and asks all the local hunters not to shoot them. A gunsmith and maple syrup producer by trade and a hunter himself, he shoots deer and birds, never bears.

‘Intolerant homeowners not hunters, who are limited in the time and number they can shoot, are my main concern,’ he explains.

‘Hunters are really just helping the state in their wildlife control policy.

‘But I could never shoot a bear, even before I started my work with the cubs. Every hunter I’ve spoken to who has shot a bear says he’d never do it again as they make a terrible moan just like a human who has been shot.

‘When one of my cubs is shot I grieve for it, it is a desperately sad time.’

Ben gives his cubs simple names in an effort not to get too attached to them, ‘But of course it doesn’t work,’ he says. ‘You can’t dedicate 15 months to such an intelligent animal and not feel deeply for it.

‘The numbers of black bears have been growing rapidly, there are 4,000 now in New Hampshire alone

‘You’ll be lucky to see a bear in the wild. The ‘nuisance’ bears who are around the homes are attracted by birdseed which contains 160 calories an ounce and odorous rubbish.

Walk With Bears

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‘The answers are simple, stop feeding the birds when the bears come out or bring the feeder in at night and get a special bear proof bin. If there is no food outside the homes there will be no bears.’

Ben spends much of his time showing videos of his experiences with wild bears to local communities and rangers to help them deal with bears better.

‘Bears are very good at sorting out territory among themselves. If we stand firm and stare at them they will leave our home. If we run inside and peer through the window, the bear thinks we are saying it’s OK to be there.’

Yoda, a female orphan raised by Ben who has had her first two cubs this year in the wild had an extraordinary way of settling a territory dispute.

As an orphan she did not automatically inherit her mothers territory. To take on the large female bears in the area she decided that Phoebe, Ben’s sister was going to be her special weapon.

For eight months, seven days a week Phoebe and Yoda walked the woods facing up to the wild females in the area until at last she had her own territory and she went off by herself.

‘Yoda is one of the most gentle bears we’ve raised,’ explains Phoebe. We’re really excited in seeing how she will behave with her new cubs.

Squirty, one of Ben’s first cubs, is now raising her second family in the wild.

When his former cubs smell Ben’s trail in the forest there are joyful reunions. He has to wrestle with them as a way of re-establishing a bond, a task that takes a brave and strong man when the bear is fully grown.

Squirty’s first mate was a huge male. He swatted the ground and snorted while Ben was visiting Squirty one day to let him know he was there but remained hidden.

‘The next time I saw Squirty this massive bear, the largest I have ever seen came out of the bushes. My heart was thumping, but I stood my ground and stared at him. When I took my eyes off him for a second he bluff charged me. I was terrified, my first reaction was to stand still then try to retreat backwards slowly. But every time I tried to move away the bear would charge me. It became clear that this bear was not going to let me go.

‘Squirty was lying at my feet, her head under my arm, unconcerned about the situation. She seemed to be showing the male that I was important to her and she felt safe with me.

‘He just lay down a few feet away and stared at me. Eventually Squirty decided to leave and he followed her.

‘What I hadn’t realised is that this bear had figured out that whenever I visited Squirty she would follow me for a while afterwards. She was ovulating at that time and the huge male was determined not to let her out of his sight so another bear could father her cubs. It was an extraordinary experience.’

The huge male did mate successfully with Squirty and she had two cubs, Snowy and Bert. Ben came to find her after the winter’s hibernation and she was delighted to see him and went and brought her two cubs to his feet.

‘I was so touched at the level of trust that she felt for me. It was a very emotional moment. But it only lasted a second, the cubs were terrified and Squirty is a good mother so she made it clear I had to leave.’

Over the next year Ben had unprecedented access to Squirty and her cubs and watched how she raised them.

‘I have learnt so much from the bears, they are altruistic towards each other, they are not solitary animals but have a complex social structure and they share information about good feeding spots.

‘But the most important things I’m sure I’m yet to learn as I watch my cubs become mothers themselves and I try and learn about their behaviour and how to be a better mother to my bears.’

‘Among the Bears. Raising orphan cubs in the wild.’ By Benjamin Kilham and Ed Gray published by Henry Holt recounts his extraordinary experiences.

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