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Radio Field Trips: This family rehabilitates black bear cubs in N.H.

Editor's note: We highly recommend listening to this story.

Sometimes, bear cubs need help. When someone reports that they’ve found one, the state calls Ben Kilham. He’s studied black bear behavior and rehabilitated cubs for the last 30 years.

Tucked away in the woods of Lyme, New Hampshire is the Kilham Bear Center, where Ben currently has about 24 bears he’s taking care of until they’re ready to be released back into the wild.

It’s a family operation. Ben’s wife, Debbie Kilham, does administrative work for the center and helps with the youngest cubs. She helps take care of their enclosures and bottle feeds them.

“It’s very hard to even hold the bottle in their mouth,” Debbie said. “Because they’re holding you at the same time and they’re digging into you at the same time.”

Ben’s nephew, Ethan Kilham, is the official bear caretaker. He oversees the larger bears on the property. He also gets to name the cubs and manages the center’s Instagram account.

“They’re such well-mannered and intelligent [animals],” Ethan said. “They’re full of humor and hijinks, the full gamut of emotions. So that’s the fun thing to be around.”

We’ve arrived at the center in time for the cubs’ midday feed. We go inside what looks like a large cabin. There are rooms filled with tall tree trunks, swings and ladders for the bears to climb on.

Two girl cubs, Willa and Billie, arrived in early February, and two boys, Ash and Riley, arrived just last month. Humans disrupted their dens and both sets of cubs were separated from their mothers.

Ben says later in the year, they see a lot of cubs whose mothers are shot by homeowners.

“It’s sad because it’s preventable,” Ben says. “A good electric fence could keep a bear out of anything. But if you’ve got a homeowner who wants to shoot a bear, there’s not much that you can do.”

Willa and Billie are the first to eat. They’re hiding in a tunnel built into the back of their room.

“They’re even a little wary as we go in,” Debbie says.

She calls to the cubs, and Willa is the first to emerge. Debbie pulls the cub onto her lap, and Willa wraps her paws, tipped with sharp claws, around Debbie’s arm.

“She’s looking for the bottle, and she’s very powerful.” Debbie says.

Once the girls are fed, we move to the nursery where Ash and Riley are kept. These cubs are about half the size of Willa and Billie. They hang out in what I guess is the bear version of a crib. They’re snuggled in among blankets and stuffed teddies.

It seems they may not be so happy about being woken, but Ash is quickly satisfied once Ben gives him a bottle.

It takes a little longer for Riley to settle down and latch on, but he gets there. Pretty soon, both the cubs begin what Ben calls chortling. They hum with a purring-like sound.

“I label it the sound of contentment,” says Ben. “Because you go and take them for a walk in the woods and they’ll take a lady slipper blossom and suckle on it and make the same sound.”

When the cubs are ready, Ethan, the center’s bear caretaker, will take them on those walks so they can begin to explore their natural habitat. Once they’re too big for indoor enclosures, they’ll move to a part of the property that’s fenced in. That’s where the larger bears roam until they’re 18 months old – the same age bears leave their mother’s side for the first time in the wild. Ben has released about 350 bear cubs.

“One of the early bears that I rehabilitated was a bear named Squirty,” says Ben. “She came to me as a 6-week old cub, and now, she’s 26-years-old and she’s raised multiple litters in the wild.”

Ben has collected an enormous amount of data from observing the bears over the years. The center has collaborated with researchers from all over on various studies. And now, he’s started publishing his own research.

This is a time of year when people start interacting with bears as they come out of hibernation. Ben says he wants to help people better understand bears so they aren’t so afraid of them.

“They’re a lot like us, you know,” says Ben. “They look like us. They stand up and walk, and they do things that remind us of ourselves.”

Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.
For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.

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