Events, features and things to do for families in New Hampshire
By Jeff Woodburn
Despite being a popular author, Ben Kilham can barely read. The widely recognized naturalist and bear expert is both gifted with an IQ of 131, which is in the top one percent, and dyslexic with a reading proficiency of a typical third-grader.
“The way I see the world is different,” he said, “It frustrated the hell out of me” when I was young, he continued, “I still struggle, but I’m having more success.”
Kilham’s success includes publishing Among Bears Raising Orphan Cubs in the Wild (Henry Holt & Company, 2002) and he has been working on his second book.
His work has been the focus of three National Geographic TV specials and countless other national programs and newspaper articles. He seemed to have mastered what had long been a tricky problem: how to raise orphaned bear cubs and then assimilate them back into the wild. Previously, it seemed that even a brief and temperate domestication ruined the bears by making them reliant on human food, and as the saying goes, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
In 1992, Kilham convinced New Hampshire Fish and Game officials to allow him to raise two abandoned cubs with the goal of raising them to be independent. He had some credentials to back him up including an undergraduate degree in wildlife management and that he grew up in a family where his father, a skilled and published ornithologist, regularly took in orphaned or injured animals.
Kilham’s approach was novel; he essentially became the cubs’ surrogate mother by providing them love and security, introducing them to the practical ways of the woods and allowing their wild instincts to develop. In time, as the bears grew old enough to be released into the wild, Kilham had developed a bond of trust that would long remain and allow for continuous access to them. Remarkably, he developed a near pet-like relationship with essentially wild bears. This, of course, provided Kilham with a rare vantage point to document the hidden lives of bears.
Kilham’s work shed light on various aspects of bear behavior. For example, he noted that bears live in a highly developed social structure with complex trading systems, have the ability to make judgments and instill punishment. This is important as bear encounters with humans increase due to the expansion of the bear population and the decrease in their natural habitat because of development.
Eric Orff, a retired wildlife biologist with the state Fish and Game Department, said Kilham is “a brilliant man” with a unique “powers of observation.” Not only does he have rare of access, but “He connects things that most of us wouldn’t. His work has contributed to a change in view of bears as a beast… (and) ferocious stalkers.” Ed Gray, the founding editor Gray’s Sporting Journal, who also assisted Kilham in writing his book added, “He’s doing very serious work and is on the cutting edge of the social structure of black bears. He understands it better than any scientist.”
While his findings about social behavior of bears has plenty of fans in the general public and the wildlife community, only now is his work begrudgingly beginning to gain some respect within scientific community. The reason, he believes, is because his method of research is not consistent with the conventional wisdom of established institutional thought. “I can’t publish in professional journals,” he said, because “I don’t use their method.”
This is old problem for Kilham. Despite growing up in a family of highly educated parents and siblings, he was the odd one out. He struggled in school; consistently performing well below what his teachers thought was his potential. He has low reading retention and had trouble converting his thought process for solving problems into words. He graduated from Hanover High School and UNH, but his low test scores on the standardized graduate school admission tests prohibited him from getting into graduate school.
So Kilham changed his plans and went to a trade school to learn gunsmithing. He worked for several large firms.
“For the first time in my life, the results of my efforts reflected my ability,” he said, “And the results were tangible.” Despite his success including creating two patents, he felt the pull of the wild and desire to work outside the system that he so ill fit.
“It was difficult because I was forced to do something someone else’s way,” Kilham said, “I think in pictures rather than words… using systems and creating models.”
Gray, Kilham’s Lyme, NH, neighbor and publishing collaborator said, “He doesn’t think on a linear fashion,” but he’s able to solve a problem by building a model in his head and then turn it three-dimensionally. Gray also added, that “He sees very detailed patterns,” but if you really want to see him action go in the wild, he said. “He has uncanny ability to navigate in the deep woods.”
We live in a culture that measures success and intelligence in a systematic, verbal way. “Words have only been around for 5,000 years,” Kilham said, indicating that there are various ways to learn and forms of intelligence. “What I do,” he said, “Nobody taught me to do. There is genetic diversity in all species.”
Kilham remains frustrated by the way the education is delivered especially to children who have, as he calls it “learning differences.” He serves on the state Advisory Committee for Children with Disabilities, and brings a rare perspective to the group. “If we could just hit the right method of teaching,” he said, including attracting and supporting people with learning disabilities to become teachers. “Everyone has ability,” he continued, “There are not any stupid human beings.”
Reprinted with permission of Parenting New Hampshire Magazine. This article first appeared in the April 2010 issue of PNH. Jeff Woodburn of Dalton is Executive Director of the Children and Adolescents with Chronic Health Conditions. He's also a teacher and freelance writer. He writes a monthly education column for Parenting New Hampshire Magazine.
Last updated by Morgen Thiboult Sep 12, 2011.