An Uphill Battle
Kilham rehabs orphaned black bear cubs on his farm in New Hampshire. He prepares them to take a place in the wild as responsible adults avoiding my trashcan. Among the Bears is his story, and though not a good book, it is important and worthwhile.
Abandoned wild animals face a dismal world. Large North American mammals in captivity, as common as fleas on a dog, aren’t in demand among zoo keepers. As for returning to the wild, forget it. Animals habituated to humans are problem animals that disrupt Fido’s morning routines and get shot. Joy Adamson and Elsa demonstrated that ferocious animals can be rehabilitated but Joy’s Elsa more nearly proved the rule than disproved it. The sticky-sweetness of Born Free masked the awful beating that Elsa, Joy and everyone around them took to accomplish what amounted to a miracle. Fortunately, Among the Bears isn’t another sentimental story about cute animals with a right to live free.
Kilham’s approach is different. He keeps the animals in the wild, walks with them, explores the world with them, tries to act and look like mom and keeps his mouth shut. Minimize the sound of the human voice, don’t play soothing music and let ‘em suckle your ear when all else fails. Kilham is a phenomenologist attempting to see, taste and smell the world as the cubs might. It works but only to an extent. They still get shot.
Totally understanding another species is impossible but it is what every ethologist, a student of animal behavior, tries to do. And it is what Among the Bears does that sets it apart from the likes of Born Free. Through his association with the cubs Kilham makes many new observations about how bear cubs learn to be bears. This then is a contribution to ethological literature.
In a blurb on the jacket, the renowned George B. Schaller observes that Kilham’s book ‘shows how even an amateur naturalist can obtain important and illuminating insights into the life of a species that seemed well known’. Really, now, how patronizing. Many contributions to ethology have been made by amateurs and many haven’t bothered with professional and academic credentials until their reputations were already established, if then. One need look no further than Jane Goodall for an example.
Besides, Kilham wasn’t exactly a novice when he took to studying black bear cubs. Educated as a wildlife manager at the University of New Hampshire, he was a licensed animal rehabilitator. He had technical support from the New Hampshire and Vermont departments of fish and game. He can practice his trade, gunsmithing, at his own pace on the farm where he was raised by parents who knew and loved animals. His familiarity with the turf where he worked with the cubs gave him advantages that no animal research institute can offer its students.
And Kilham goes about his task as any good scientist would. He notices the cubs’ mouthing behavior, a way of testing their environment without really biting into it, and keeps records of it. He turns to the laboratory to find out what’s in that scat that has the cubs so excited. He performs controlled experiments. He seeks anatomical explanations, and he uses the scientific literature.
Bears is a good read for anyone who likes animals, bears or otherwise. But it is important beyond this. My Texas grandparents knew wildlife because it fed them and was part of the environment they depended on. They naturally studied ethology before the subject existed. In contrast, my children know what Disney Studios has seen fit to tell them about wildlife, which is worse than nothing. As they move with their romantic ideologies into low-density suburbs and recreational developments, they encounter wild animals who find the environment exploitable. The confrontations are often unpleasant. Shrubs get eaten, Fido gets bit, children are exposed to rabies by Disney’s cute little skunk, Flower, while beavers flood the basement. Communities go ballistic and demand that fish and game departments do something, but for Heaven’s sake, don’t hurt the cute little dears. Skunks and possums, deer and turkey, coyotes, foxes, and raccoons move in. Black bears, North America’s most successful omnivore, head the list. They’ve started shopping in the bookstores on many university campuses.
The more new suburbanites and recreators understand the critters they share the world with, the better off all will be, humans and wild things alike. But armed with little more biology than what was required to get into medical school and Disney’s disgusting diet of pabulum romanticism, educating the new suburbanite is an up hill battle. Kilham’s Bears is a contribution to that education. Copies should be in every suburban public library, required reading before a patron is allowed to study that new house design manual or Consumer Reports latest on SUVs.
So if Bears is important, what’s wrong with it? For starters, the presentation is largely chronological. In May the cubs did this, but in June they did that. Its gets dull and many readers will long for some topical presentation. Then, Kilham might have thrown in some line drawings to help the reader visualize the complex behavior he describes. What is this stuff about back rubbing? A map would help the reader visualize all those interminable walks. And for readers who want to dig deeper, a bibliography would have been welcomed.
Kilham is seriously dyslectic. His time spent trying to figure out how the rest of us see the world may contribute to his ability to see the world as a bear cub might. The co-author, Ed Gray, helped Kilham translate his dyslectic prose into something the rest of could read easily. He did his job well.