Second Vermont Republic

A citizen movement committed to restoring Vermont to an independent republic, free to pursue life, liberty and happiness unimpeded by the demands of an imperial, corrupt and disintegrating United States.

Bear’ing All: Intuition, Intelligence and Black Bears by Julia Hughes (BOOK REVIEW)

Vermont remains a refuge for black bear, who live across the Green Mountains, hibernating in winter and moving downslope in warmer months, where they often interact with human Vermonters in all sorts of comical (and hopefully safe) ways. As a lover of animals and all things cute and cuddly, I needed no more insight into this new book than the author’s cover photo to be drawn in. (In actuality, I know that bears are truly wild animals that deserve to be left in their habitats and treated with the utmost respect.) I’m not much of a science person and I lack any real expertise on the American Black Bear, but with having a deep appreciation for nature and a love for animals, this seemed like a book I could get into. After the first few pages, I felt myself being drawn to Kilham and I was wrapped up into his extraordinary story.

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Over the past two decades, Ben Kilham has had the astounding privilege of getting up close and personal with American Black Bears. In his book In the Company of Bears: What Black Bears Have Taught Me About Intelligence and Intuition, Kilham seeks to convey his findings on the social lives of bears and the parallels he finds between the black bears and humans. Kilham began his journey into the lives of bears by rehabilitating and releasing orphaned cubs back into the wild. Over the years, he has gained intimate access to these animals’ lives. The cubs he once raised in a spare room in his New Hampshire home still regard him to be their mother. They consider him a welcome visitor in their forested homes. Not only does he raise up to three cubs a year, but Kilham is also a state licensed researcher. He spends much of his time in the woods looking to learn more about the social lives of black bears. In his work he uses radio collars and video monitoring but, by far, the greatest tool Kilham has employed in his research has been his first person observations of the bears.

Kilham’s drive to learn more about the black bear was sparked by a love for nature and an intense curiosity about animal behavior. It’s unlikely you’ll hear about Kilham’s work in any scientific journal, his observations about the bears has gone largely overlooked by the scientific community. He rejects modern science’s methodology of testing a specific theory. Instead, Kilham chooses to piece together theories about the bears from his observations of daily interactions with them. Due to the fact that Kilham is dyslexic, he was only able to engage in studies long enough to complete a bachelor’s degree in science. His lack of PhD, has left his work largely ignored by professional scientists. Despite this lack of recognition, he is not deterred. Kilham accredits his special visual based learning abilities to be essential in his studies. Despite an underwhelming amount of recognition, Kilham has made massive breakthroughs in his understanding of the American black bear.

Black bears have largely been regarded as solitary animals, a belief that Kilham himself once held to be true. However, as he spent more and more time with these shy mammals, Kilham began to realize that they were not solitary at all. Black bears have demonstrated that they are, in fact, social creatures. They have complex relationships with one another which are based off of trust and cooperation. Black bears’ relationships are maintained over time by the use of a reward and punishment system regarding their comfort level; bears are quick to let others know when they have become upset. These relationships are maintained largely due to familial ties, however, black bears have demonstrated that they are capable of creating positive, mutually beneficial relationships with other bears as well. Often relationships begin with aggression on both ends, as black bears wish to assert their dominance, but after repeated interactions the aggression lessen and allows an alliance to form. The core driving force in the mind of a black bear is access to a food supply. Interactions between bears are often driven by a need for food. Kilham has observed instances in which one bear will share their own surplus with another bear that does not have access to the proper amount of food. Kilham theorizes that black bears will do this under the assumption that the individual who is gaining access to another’s excess will share their own food when their “friend” is having a hard time finding proper nourishment. These alliances that individual bears form with others can be lifesaving.

Aside from his many discoveries about the ways in which black bears interact socially, Kilham has also helped to advance our understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the black bear. Kilham was struck by certain behaviors that the bears consistently exhibited. Why was it that bears would greet each other with mouths wide-open? What was it that drove the cubs that he cared for to mouth plant life that was unknown to them? In his quest to better understand these actions, Kilham was led by his need for knowledge to the discovery of an organ not previously believed to be possessed by black bears. The Kilhman organ, as it’s been named, is involved in the olfactory functions of black bears.

Kilham’s “In the Company of Bears” is an overall fantastic read, the story draws you in with the intimacy of a diary and Kilham’s love for black bears seeps across the page. It is hard to come away from reading this book without a higher level of respect for black bears and their environment. “In the Company of Bears” is truly educational as it provides a wealth new information and allows for a better understanding of black bears. Kilham’s is story is truly a gift to the reader as it provides a great deal of insight into the word of the American black bear- a clearly misunderstood animal.

For more revolutionary writing, visit Chelsea Green Publishing out of White River Junction, Vermont.

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This entry was posted on September 22, 2014 by in Arts.
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