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One man's mission to rehabilitate orphaned cubs endures for decades

Ben Kilham has spent decades researching bear intelligence and rehabilitating orphaned black bears in New Hampshire.

LYME, New Hampshire — Few people in this world have spent more time with bears than Ben Kilham, who has lived among American black bears for decades, devoting his life to researching bear intelligence and rehabilitation efforts. 

Up in the hills of Lyme, New Hampshire close to the Vermont border, lies his  sanctuary, Kilham Bear Center, for orphaned bears. 

"We have in residence a young cub that was hit by a car," Kilham's wife, Deb Kilham, who helps run the center, pointed out as she walked NEWS CENTER Maine's Beth McEvoy through the center's cub barn filled with 33 cubs: the most the center has ever had by early July. 

Cubs come to the center for a myriad of reasons, but almost all of them are human-related. Whether it's getting hit by a car, or mother bears being shot in people's yards for disturbing bird feeders or chicken coops, these bear cubs get a second chance through Kilham's work. 

Bear cubs are born in January or February, but come to the center all year long. For most, it's because they lose their mother, and without her protection and know-how, cubs simply can't survive on their own. 

"A lot of people are just absolutely fearful of bears and there's just no reason at all," Ben Kilham said. 

Through his years of behavioral research as a wildlife biologist, he has written two books documenting that bears signal all their behaviors and are more afraid of humans than we are of them. 

This is evident when 30 bear cubs scurry up a wooden beam in their pen when their door is opened. 

"We control bears because they are so driven by food. Food to a bear is like money to a person," Ben Kilham said. "We wouldn't scatter hundred-dollar bills all over our lawn and expect nobody to pick them up. And that is what we are doing with food attractants and bears."

Here at the Kilham Bear Center, orphaned cubs get food, protection, and an education. Once thought to be a solitary animals, Kilham's decades-long research has shown bears are not only social by choice, but by necessity. 

"They share our social behavior. They're able to make friends with strangers and cooperate with them," Ben Kilham said. 

Bears even show other bears food sources, and once these cubs are released at 18 months, they will find other bears to interact with and learn the ropes of the wild from. 

Ben Kilham's nephew, Ethan Kilham, is the cubs' primary caregiver while they are at the center. To the cubs who came in at a very young age, and who don't remember their own mothers, Ethan serves as a surrogate who leads the bears on walks in the woods. 

"They are like any child. They are curious and they have an innocence where they are looking at the world through new eyes. It's always refreshing to go into the woods or walk with them because they are doing it with such pleasure and engagement that it's contagious," Ethan Kilham said.

Ethan takes incredible videos of his cubs and posts them on Instagram.

When the cubs are ready, they will graduate from the cub barn to an 11-acre enclosure rich with natural foods that sits on a hill above the center. Protected from danger and with supplemental food, the cubs grow until they are 18-months-old and ready to be released back into the wild. 

On the day in early July when NEWS CENTER Maine's Beth McEvoy visited the center, staff and wildlife biologists from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Dept., along with members of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, were on hand to help with the release of what was supposed to be five bears. 

It turns out, catching bears is a tricky business. 

Crew members find bears in the enclosure on ATVs and shoot them with darts. While the anesthesia is taking hold, bears can travel far in the enclosure, forcing the crew to track them. Once they find the bears, they are taken to the center where a veterinarian is on hand to carefully watch their response to the drug. The sedation lasts for several hours, in which time the bears are transferred to cages on the back of trailers, and by the evening, they will be released into the wild. 

"Bears signal everything they're going to do or are thinking about — they don't attack anybody or anything without a motive and reason," Ben Kilham explained. 

Of the bears rehabilitated at the Kilham Center, some are taken in the first hunting season but the number that are killed is on-par with the wild population. 

"We get bears in with our ear tags on them that are 10 years old that have had multiple litters of cubs. Some of them are very near the release area and some of them are 100 or 150 miles away," Ben Kilham explained. 

Ben Kilham has helped save hundreds of bears over the years. He has written two books and been in several nature documentaries where he speaks about his 26-year-long relationship with one of his first cubs, Squirty. 

Squirty was one of the first cubs that Kilham rehabilitated and she used to follow him around. 

Every night at the same time, from spring until fall, Kilham still drives to his local study site and puts out a little food in order to observe bears. There, he still regularly sees Squirty, where he can change her collar without sedation simply by bribing her with a few cookies. 

The Kilham Bear Center is not open to the public, but they do have an amazing Instagram page where you can find lots of videos of the cubs. 

Grants and donations keep the center afloat. Kilham hopes his life's work will give people new insights into black bears and make them realize, in some ways, they're more like us than you'd think. 

"[They are] the most important animal in understanding our past lives among us and we can learn a lot just by being around black bears — being able to be with them and understand them and not be fearful of them," Ben Kilham said.

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