"Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Taught Me about

Intelligence and Intuition"

By Benjamin Kilham

Chelsea Green Publishing

Note: Ben Kilham will be speaking in the Brooks Memorial Library’s Main Room, on Thursday, Feb. 6, at 7 p.m., co-sponsored by the library, Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center and the Southeastern Vermont Audubon Society. The event is free and open to the public.

This is an important contribution to the behavior of northeastern black bears (Ursus americanus) by an independent researcher and most dedicated champion of those now so often beleaguered denizens of our woods and backyards. It is a tour de force of revelatory observations to be both valued and admired because -- as Temple Grandin (the renowned scholar of animal behavior) suggests -- the author owes his idiosyncratic contribution to science in no small part to his strong dyslexia. Grandin makes the point that (her) autism and (his) dyslexia have in common that both therefore depend on "visual" thinking, that is, thinking in pictures rather than words. This, Grandin suggests, gives both autistic and dyslexic individuals the comparable advantage of being more observant of small details (from which to be able to develop theories) than those of us who depend largely on verbal language.

Such thinking is an especially valuable trait in studying the behavior of animals since they live in a sensory-based world. It was thus good for both Kilham and the reader to learn that dyslexia, although a disability, can in fact offer unique opportunities.

The author’s insightful findings presented here are based on his many years of single-minded dedication to a combination of observing bears in the wild and of hands-on interactions with them through the nurturing of orphaned cubs or of the rehabilitation of injured bears -- all of those efforts always being in preparation for their return to the wild. Indeed, Kilham (despite objections from some wildlife biologists) has by now raised more than 100 orphaned cubs from New Hampshire and occasionally Vermont, then to be released as yearlings mostly in New Hampshire, but some also in Vermont.

Much of what the author presents in the book he has learned from closely observing for 17 years at the time of writing the comings and goings of one particular sow, which he had released as a yearling and which over the years has continued to consider him to be her mother (thereby also giving him access to generations of her offspring). This book extends his and Ed Gray’s 2002 publication, "Among the Bears: Raising Orphan Cubs in the Wild." As with the prior book, the present one is significantly enhanced by 25 color photographs of his bears. And I was pleased to note that among the author’s acknowledgments is his great debt to Forrest M. Hammond, Vermont’s preeminent bear expert.

The author has much fascinating detail to offer on the behavior of his bears, including especially on their body language, direct (oral) and indirect (largely scent-based) communication, frowning, smiling, kissing and other emotional interactions, mother-child interactions, treating of certain illnesses, and (contrary to the belief of some others) highly complex enduring matriarchal socializations and alliances (including the establishment and enforcement of rules). And they additionally have the presumed abilities to reason, plan, empathize, pantomime, imitate, bluff, deceive, cooperate to the point of altruism, as well as to be variously fair, judgmental, appeasing, forgiving and even remorseful.

Kilham may have been the first to describe that when two bears meet non-antagonistically they begin by checking out each other’s breath. Kilham has concluded that they do this in order to learn what the other has been eating. Indeed, the author discovered a small previously unknown scent organ located in the roof of the mouth of black bears -- and, according to Kilham, also of some other bears including at least one of the two types of spectacled bear (Tremarctos sp.). 

Moreover, Kilham goes "out on a limb" to put forth the bold suggestion that the communication and other social interactions among bears may well be comparable to that of our own very early human forebears (thus an apt term, indeed) and thereby the foundations of our own social interactions of today.

The increasing numbers of adverse human-bear interactions resulting largely from our ever increasing arrogation of bear habitat has been vividly described in Jim Sterba’s 2012 "Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds." So Kilham’s wide-ranging 16-page appendix on how to minimize those problems is a most useful addition to his book.

I close with two suggestions: First, the author’s scattered anthropomorphic and teleological assumptions and his usual certainty of why a bear carries out some action or other can be safely overlooked because they do not seriously detract from what can be learned from his detailed long-term interactions with bears, both in captivity and in the wild. And second, this book should not be assumed to be a sequel to Shirley MacLaine’s 1983 book of same title, although the two books do have in common detailed descriptions of highly intimate aspects of the lives of Kilham’s bears on the one hand and of MacLaine’s on the other.

Arthur H. Westing writes from Putney.

For Love of Books is a column written by readers of notable books which may be found in local libraries and bookstores. "Guidelines for Reviewers" may be requested from Brooks Memorial Library at 802-254-5290 or info@brookslibraryvt.org.