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Imperiled bear cubs receive a helping hand at Kilham Bear Center in New Hampshire

Photo by Benjamin Kilham

“Hi, guys! Come on,” Phoebe Kilham calls softly into the woods. She listens and then calls again. “Hi, guys. Come on. You didn’t eat your breakfast.” A few seconds later, 12 black bear cubs come running out of the woods.

“They can read our behavior,” says Phoebe, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. “They’ve learned that I’m no threat to them.”

As some of the cubs nibble on apples, berries, and doggie kibble, others wrestle playfully or climb trees. One small cub latches onto Phoebe’s legs and suckles her hand. “His eyes were not even open when we got him,” she says. “The mother bear
was shot.”

Benjamin Kilham operates the nonprofit Kilham Bear Center at his home in the backwoods of Lyme, New Hampshire. | Photo by Frank Easton

Benjamin Kilham operates the nonprofit Kilham Bear Center at his home in the backwoods of Lyme, New Hampshire. | Photo by Frank Easton

Phoebe and her brother Benjamin Kilham, also a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, operate the nonprofit Kilham Bear Center (KBC) along with Benjamin’s wife, Debbie. Located on Benjamin and Debbie’s land in the backwoods of Lyme, New Hampshire, it’s the only black bear rehabilitation facility in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. The facility aims to nurture, rehabilitate, and release injured or orphaned cubs from those three states.

Those familiar with the Netflix hit series Tiger King, which profiled a troubled animal sanctuary, might wonder about the animals’ welfare at KBC. But, Benjamin explains, “sanctuary implies that animals are being kept in captivity. Rehabilitation centers prepare animals to be released back to the wild, giving them a second chance.”

Early Growth

A cub receives a bottle feeding. | Photo by Frank Easton

A cub receives a bottle feeding. | Photo by Frank Easton

It wasn’t apparent at the time, but KBC began when a state warden who was friends with Benjamin brought him his first injured black bear. At the time, Benjamin held no license to care for wild animals, and formal programs or guidelines for rehabilitating bears did not exist. On top of that, he says, “No one cared about bears. In fact, humans have a natural-born fear of them.”

A year later, in April 1993, Forrest Hammond, a wildlife biologist for the state of Vermont, brought Benjamin two orphaned cubs and encouraged him to become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for the state of New Hampshire. Word of the “bear whisperer” spread quickly, and the number of cubs brought to the Kilhams grew. Phoebe, who left home to get a doctorate in soil science, returned to help raise the bears. Since then, the Kilhams have cared for and released close to 300 bears back into nature.

Working with wild animals comes naturally, the siblings joke. Their father was a virologist at Dartmouth’s medical school who studied bird behavior as an amateur. The family always had wild animals around, and the kids would help observe and raise them.

“We came back from Africa once with a Nile crocodile and two hornbills,” says Benjamin. “When I was 2 years old, my dad brought a wild leopard into the house.”

Bear Necessities

The bears are free to roam a 10-acre parcel of land. | Photo by Benjamin Kilham

The bears are free to roam a 10-acre parcel of land. | Photo by Benjamin Kilham

Today, the 100-acre tree farm includes Benjamin and Debbie’s home, a sugarhouse, a hodgepodge of outbuildings, and two special bear enclosures, each with elevated platforms, climbing trees, hammocks, and acres of fenced-in forest that allow the cubs to forage and find natural food while minimizing human contact. The center is also in the process of building a modern enclosure with many of the same features.

The Kilhams receive cubs, which they name after the towns in which they were found, throughout the spring and early summer. Numbers vary from year to year, but when we visited in 2020, they were caring for 35 cubs; in 2019 they had 85. Most are orphans that arrive undernourished and traumatized, sometimes requiring medical care, which they receive from local veterinarians who donate their time.

Food is left on the ground, and video cameras allow the Kilhams to observe the bears. “Their behavior is modified when we’re around,” says Benjamin. “When they’re alone, they go wild,” meaning they start their natural climbing, wrestling, and socializing.

On Their Own

While human contact is kept to a minimum, the bears quickly discover that Phoebe Kilham is no threat. | Photo by Benjamin Kilham

While human contact is kept to a minimum, the bears quickly discover that Phoebe Kilham is no threat. | Photo by Benjamin Kilham

Cubs begin to interact with other bears at varying ages. When they start, they’re moved to another enclosure, open to a 10-acre parcel of land with woods, wetlands, and ponds, where they are free to roam and learn the ways of the wild. When they reach 18 months, the typical age when they would separate from their mothers, they’re tagged and relocated to Northern New England forests with large tracts of undeveloped land.

The Kilhams report that some cubs have gone on to live for more than 10 years—much longer than if they hadn’t been cared for at the center. They occasionally hear of a bear that was killed by a hunter or hit by a moving car.

“We’ve lost plenty of bears after release, but far more are still out there,” Benjamin says. “It’s difficult, but all these cubs would be lost if we didn’t take them in.”

To limit human contact with the cubs, the center is not open to the public. Learn more at kilhambearcenter.org.

Whom Do You Call?

The Caretakers

For nearly 16 years, Captain John Makowsky, a New Hampshire lobsterman, enjoyed the company of a black-backed gull he nicknamed Red Eye, who visited him whenever he was hauling out or setting traps. When Red Eye showed up one day with an injured leg, Makowsky captured the bird and brought it to the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, Maine. “Red Eye made a remarkable recovery, and John was able to release her a few weeks later,” says Sarah Kern, the center’s community engagement specialist. “It’s a wonderful example of how we can all make a difference.” Here are a few other wildlife rehabilitation centers in Northern New England:

Established by a veterinarian in 1986, the Center for Wildlife of Cape Neddick, Maine, first operated out of a trailer with no running water. Today, it has a modest 1,200-square-foot building and a campus of 45 enclosures. It receives about 2,000 patients each year, representing more than 190 species. The center also provides educational outreach programs to the local community. (207) 361-1400; thecenterforwildlife.org.

The Vermont Institute of Natural Science, established in 1972, specializes in birds and sits on 47 acres along the Ottauquechee River in Quechee, Vermont. By August 2020, the institute had already taken in 780 birds, breaking its 2019 mark of 705. Its Nature Center has indoor and outdoor animal exhibits, live bird programs, and interpretive nature trails. (802) 359-5000; vinsweb.org.

Since 1991, the Elaine Conners Center for Wildlife in Madison, New Hampshire, has treated a menagerie that includes baby birds, infant squirrels, and orphaned fawns. While not currently open to visitors, the center hopes to eventually offer public programs at its new Butler Education Center. (603) 367-9453; elaineconnerscenterforwildlife.org.

If you find a wild animal that needs help, call a local wildlife rehabilitator immediately. These skilled professionals help injured, sick, or orphaned animals before safely returning them to the wild. They receive specialized training and must pass written and oral exams to become licensed by state and federal agencies. Many are volunteers, and many nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation centers rely solely on donations. While rehabilitators can typically administer basic first aid to animals, they also work closely with veterinarians, many of whom also donate their time. The Humane Society website has a state-by-state list of rehabilitators at tinyurl.com/wildrehab21.

Writers Diane Bair and Pamela Wright, authors of more than 30 guidebooks, enjoy writing about nature and outdoor adventures in New England.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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