by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
May 28, 2009
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's early summer. Two male goldfinches in ravishing splendor are sitting at the thistle feeder, while several varieties of hummingbirds dart around the sweet water. What's missing from this picture?
The answer is black oil sunflower seeds, which would bring a host of other fascinating birds to my deck garden. And also squirrels, raccoons - and possibly bears.
Because we live in the woods, we take our feeders down in early Spring and don't put them up again until Thanksgiving. We badly miss the vibrant Summer bird show, but we don't want to be what Benjamin Kilham, the bear whisperer, calls "nuisance humans." As in, "There are no such things as nuisance bears, just nuisance humans."
At the invitation of the Dummerston Conservation Commission and the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center, Kilham came to the Dummerston school last week to talk to over 100 people about bears. This was in the wake of an unfortunate incident where a black bear was shot in Dummerston by state troopers in front of several horrified people.
Kilham - tall, sturdy, good-looking, gray-haired, madly in love with bears - looks like he lives outdoors. Once a custom gunsmith, he retired 16 years ago to eight acres of fenced-in New Hampshire woods to study bear life. He's rehabilitated and released 65 black bear cubs there now - feeding them, following them and learning how they think. He's written several books, including "Among the Bears: Raising Orphan Cubs in the Wild," and is invited to speak on bear behavior in faraway places like Russia and China.
The bear-human relationship is complex, according to Kilham. When bears come out of hibernation with their cubs, they are - surprise! - hungry.
The bear food supply is "highly unpredictable," but Kilham has identified more than 125 food items that bears will eat - including various leaves, ants, bees, grubs, fresh moose and deer scat. They're opportunistic eaters and can feast on baby birds and fawns, too. (I can add roast chicken carcasses to the list.) Kilham said he's seen one bear devastate between 40 and 60 ant colonies an hour!
Food is scarce for them in early Spring. During early Summer, the world is lush with greens but lacking in protein. Then it's lush with greens and proteins. The bears load up, putting on something like 100 extra pounds, and then it's back to sleep and the cycle begins again.
When berries and nuts are available, black oil sunflower seed and roast chicken carcasses aren't all that desirable. But when they're easily reached in garbage or feeders, why wouldn't a bear take advantage? Also, it seems, bears communicate by scent, and they can smell food miles away.
When a bear visits your home - and we've had bears pop the tops off "animal-proof" garbage cans like they were Pringle's cans; after we built an enclosed metal box, we had a frustrated bear pick it up and throw it at my car - it's not because it's looking for food. According to Kilham, it's because "it knows there's food." If your neighbors have feeders up, the bear might establish a feeding circuit and stop at your place even if you don't have anything to offer.
When we had our first bear visit, the forest service told us to confront the bear, raise our arms over our heads, make lots of noise, maybe by banging a few pans together and yell. The advice was to dominate the bear,
"Wrong," says Kilham. "Be quiet, speak softly, don't challenge the bear. Make eye contact and keep your eyes on the bear. Hold your position. Be as relaxed as possible. If she makes a false charge, stay still, even if she circles. It's not about banging the pot and pans, it's about having the food out."
Bears just aren't that dangerous, Kilham said. He talked about the old days when people fed bears in Yellowstone Park. They'd put honey on their faces and expect the bears to lick it off. Guess what else the bears licked off? Their faces. Or they'd let the bear get in the front seat with them. Ouch!
We know better now. We know that to coexist, we have to leave the bears alone. According to Kilham, thousands of people are killed by white-tailed deer each year; very few are killed by bears. "The bears aren't trying to hurt us," he said. "They're trying to have their own life."
Kilham deeply loves these animals. I think there were tears in his eyes when he spoke about shooting them. "That these kinds of things happen routinely is not a surprise," he said sadly. And he is willing to answer questions if you e-mail him at Benjamin.Kilham@valley.net.
Since the black bear population is healthy in New Hampshire and Vermont, bear-human encounters will continue. So consider keeping your garbage in a bear-proof dumpster and taking your bird feeders down during the summer. If you don't want nuisance bears, don't be a nuisance human.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.