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Intelligence and Intuition: Ben Kilham’s Groundbreaking Work with Bears

A man who holds hands with full-grown bears, crawls into their dens to photograph their cubs, and comes face-to-face with their sharp teeth? It sounds crazy, but it’s just another day in the life of Benjamin Kilham, author of Out on a Limb.

Kilham has been studying and researching wild black bear behavior for nearly two decades. See some of that groundbreaking (and, at times, yes, cute) work in this video footage, complete with images of cute bear cubs.

Kilham’s dyslexia—which initially barred him from traditional academic outlets for his research—has offered him the chance to provide us with unique observations that offer a fascinating glimpse at the inner world of bears. In observing how bears communicate to one another, Kilham has made some startling discoveries—ones that may provide insight into how early humans communicated and shared resources in order to thrive. It’s also helped Kilham gain additional insight into his own dyslexia.

“Different minds work in different ways, and we need to find ways to foster a variety of talents,” writes Temple Grandin in the Foreword. “Ben forged ahead and did what made sense to him, despite tough times in the academic world. As a result, he has unveiled their wild world for us, helped orphaned bears reenter it, and helped solve human-bear conflicts.”

Many of the bears Kilham works with view him as a surrogate mother, especially Squirty, a 17-year-old bear who is the matriarchal bear who grants him a unique perch into her territory. He feeds them, walks them, and helps them discover their natural habitat before reintroducing them into the wild.

“Like Jane Goodall’s studies of chimps, Ben Kilham’s work with black bears is more than just revealing: it’s revolutionary,” writes Sy Montgomery, author of Walking with the Great Apes and Search for the Golden Moon Bear. “This riveting book supports two astonishing conclusions: that bears are far more sophisticated than most scientists dared imagine, and that dyslexia, once considered a failing, may simply be another, and often valuable, way of thinking. Ben’s work will transform our understanding of how animals live—and how science should be done.”

Kilham’s discoveries and methods are now being recognized in China, where he is working with researchers who are emulating some of his tactics in order to improve their own program to reintroduce Pandas in the wild.

Of possible interest to Chelsea Green’s longtime readers: We published Ben’s father – Lawrence Kilham, too. Lawrence Kilham’s book On Watching Birds (1988) similarly approaches bird watching with the same kind of keen eye and mind that Ben Kilham uses in approaching bears. On Watching Birds was also awarded the prestigious John Burroughs Medal for environmental writing.

Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition is available now and on sale for 35% off until November 22nd. Read the foreword (by Temple Grandin) and Introduction below.


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