Ben Kilham to speak about bears at Lawrence Barn in Hollis

HOLLIS – Widely known as “the bear man,” professional bear rehabilitator and author Ben Kilham will be the guest speaker at the Lawrence Barn in Hollis on Sunday, Nov. 24, from 2-4 p.m.

The event is sponsored by the Hollis Public Library and Beaver Brook.

Kilham has spent the past two decades studying bears, and is considered an expert in the field of bear behavior. His first book, “Among the Bears: Raising Orphan Cubs in the Wild,” focused on his efforts to rehabilitate injured and orphaned cubs and reintroduce them to the wild. It was published in 2002.

His latest book, “Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me About Intelligence and Intuition,” has just been released. Copies of his books are available locally at Toadstool Bookstore in Milford, and will also be available for purchase and signing following his lecture.

Kilham has given more than 500 public lectures on bear behavior throughout the U.S. and internationally, and anticipates a good crowd at the Lawrence Barn.

“Generally speaking, people show up because they have seen bears but don’t know much about them,” he said. “I hope to get people there to understand their behavior so they don’t have to be fearful of them.”

Kilham has been interested in animals all his life, having grown up in a household that was very focused on animals. His father, Lawrence Kilham, was a virologist at Dartmouth Medical Center who studied bird behavior and often brought animals home, including a leopard. Kilham assisted his father with his work.

“Dad brought wild animals to the house,” he said. “We would document the juvenile and then use that to understand adult behavior.”

Although he was not diagnosed as a child, Kilham is what is known as a “gifted dyslexic.” His IQ scores are in the top one percent, but he reads at a third-grade level.

Despite the challenges he faced in school, he graduated from University of New Hampshire in 1974 with a bachelor’s in wildlife biology. He had an aptitude for working with his hands, and subsequently enrolled and graduated from a trade school in Lakewood, Colo., where he mastered the art of gunsmithing.

He met his wife, Debbie, while they both worked in engineering for Colt Firearms, and they moved to Lyme in 1982. He was accepted as a special student at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, based on his mechanical design skills. It was there that he was finally tested for learning disabilities and discovered why he had always struggled. Although he had an Individual Education Plan, he eventually dropped out, but not before making the some important realizations.

“What I learned from this experience, I wished I had known 20 years earlier,” he writes on his website, “I learned that I was intelligent and that I could succeed at anything if I relied on my abilities and developed methods that worked for me. My methods for both mechanical design and behavioral research involve observation, experience and testing with experience. I follow the evidence and use scientific literature only as reference. My own methods have allowed me to do qualitative research without being entangled in the trappings of professional science.”

Despite having a flourishing gunsmithing business, he still longed to work with animals and study animal behavior. He wanted to learn about more than the birds his father studied.

“My interest was in carnivores,” he explained, “but I couldn’t see them easily. I had to find a way to have access.”

That access came by accident at his grandfather’s summer place in Tamworth, where he met Squirty, his most important subject and greatest success. She was the first orphan cub he raised and released, and she has successfully raised her own family. She currently shares her home range with her daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters, yet still accepts Kilham as family. This association has enabled him to observe bear social structure and interactions closely for almost 20 years.

In his lectures and books, he tries to clear up misconceptions that bears are ferocious animals out to kill people, and also offers suggestions on how to avoid confrontations.

“Bears have no interest in humans but only in other bears and in food,” he said. “They think highly of those who share food with them, so if you have a birdfeeder, they see that as a sign that you are friendly. Only humans think that all animals want to be like us. The reality is that bears who get fed at birdfeeders and garbage are tamer than those we raise.”

Kilham said the bear population doesn’t change much from year to year, but bears can appear to be more prevalent when they seek food during a shortage.

“We just had a good food year, so people saw little bear nuisance behavior,” he explained. “When they run out of food is when we see more conflicts. We wouldn’t have to have confrontations if people didn’t leave trash out and if they secured chicken coops with electric fences.”

Kilham recommends that people who have chicken coops surround them with an electric fence as a cost-effective manner of protection. Because bears explore food sources with their tongues, if a bear gets shocked while trying to get to some food, it will learn to avoid that area.

Another misconception is that bears roar and that one should never approach a mother bear with cubs.

Kilham has studied the many forms of communication and has categorized various vocalizations, from angry guttural sounds to huffs and gulps, but said they really don’t roar. A mother will tell cubs to go up a tree or come back down but isn’t likely to abruptly attack.

“Unlike other animals, bears on a regular basis communicate and cooperate with strangers,” he explained. “They have to be able to lie or bluff. Vocalizing and swatting are all intentional communications based on the situation. She may make a false charge, but that is to delay confrontation long enough for communication to take place.”

Kilham has also observed bears smiling and frowning, and said you just have to recognize their faces.

“Bears are very intelligent and lively animals,” he said, “not short on spontaneity. They controlled me to conform to them. Bears are highly expressive. People can tell if it’s a problem or not by reading their expression and body language. There is a direct relationship we can make with them.”

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