Sunday, January 12, 2014

Book Review - Out on a Limb

Sensationalism sells. It seems everywhere I go in Alaska and Montana, the only bear books on the shelves are compilations of attack stories like Alaska Bear Tales or Killer Bears or Mark of the Grizzly while insightful, educational works like this are relegated solely to online distributors. In truth, a book of bear attack stories probably would not even be published today and gems such as Benjamin Kilham's Out on a Limb are part of the reason why.

A resident of Lyme, New Hampshire, Kilham knew he was different from everyone else when he flunked out of kindergarten. Battling dyslexia - and an educational system that does not cater to the fact that different individuals learn in different ways - Kilham was almost 40 years old before he fully understood how dyslexia works, how it was hindering him, and how he could use it to his advantage. With a family history of animal research, beginning with his ornithologist father, Kilham's disability barred him from obtaining an academic degree so he obtained a license as a wildlife rehabilitator and into his hands came a set of black bear cubs.

Throughout his 2002 book Among the Bears, Kilham recounts his experiences raising several sets of orphaned black bear cubs and teaching them how to function as wild animals before re-releasing them. Being an independent researcher who sees the world in pictures rather than scientific jargon, Kilham was captivated by the behaviors he witnessed. He found black bears to be largely social rather than loners as believed by the scientific community (even today many still hold onto the belief that bears are not social despite all the evidence to the contrary) and saw that they seemed to exhibit altruism, a quality believed to be found only in humans; and not just altruism towards each other but to other creatures. Kilham even performed self-awareness tests using only the cubs, their toys, and a mirror. The cubs reacted at the sight of their reflection by first checking for a scent, then searching around and around the mirror for another bear, and then finally settling in with their toys in front of the mirror and very pointedly observing themselves at play.

Kilham spent thousands of hours with his bears, documenting their behaviors, and taking copious notes about what he was witnessing. He was the subject of documentaries on both the Discovery Channel and National Geographic and even discovered a previously unknown sensory organ located in the roof of a bear's mouth that allows the animal to taste something without having to eat it (now called the Kilham Organ). But unfortunately most of the scientific community does not put much stock in observation and dismissed his work on the grounds that he did not perform controlled experiments and that he did not publish his findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals, even though no one else could have reviewed his work because no one has his unique insight. More open-minded scientists embraced his observations, though, and believed that he may be on the verge of fully opening on the mystery of bear society. Now, with the publication of his new book, he's finally done that.

While Among the Bears recounted Kilham's experiences raising the orphaned cubs, his 2013 book Out on a Limb pulls it all together and is strictly about presenting his findings. Having read so many books about bears, I'm thrilled to find that I can still be surprised by one and some of the observations here are so stunning and yet so simple and obvious that I had to walk away from the book several times just to let it sink in.

According to Kilham's research, bears are not only social animals but they exist within a societal structure. They cooperate with one another, deceive and manipulate to get what they want, lay down rules and boundaries for each other, and punish those who break those rules. Kilham found himself taking the brunt of some of this punishment during the early days while still learning about bear behavior and body language. If he overstepped his bounds or broke an established rule he had missed, he would find himself being bluff-charged, swatted, or with his arm in a bear's mouth (with no pressure applied or teeth used) to remind him of his place, with each followed by soft moans and affection, a reconciliation from the bear and an assurance that the bond is still intact.  Kilham postulates that this system of boundaries and punishments could explain some unprovoked attacks on humans and why some bears react defensively or aggressively to a human presence.

Kilham concludes by offering some practical advice on the bear-human relationship. He tackles the common issue of "nuisance" or "problem" bears and shows it for what it really is: an unspoken agreement between human and bear. When someone feeds a bear, a type of contract is established, a sharing of surplus foods. The same bear will return to the same place or person time and again seeking more because a bond has been established and the bear views the feeder as an ally. This puts quite a stumbling block in the belief that feeding a bear will turn it into a potential man-eater and deepens the story of Jack and Patti Becklund who fed and befriended wild black bears from their home in Minnesota for years without suffering property damage or injury; nor did their bears ever approach other people looking for food. Feeding a bear and then stopping, however, could be setting yourself up for injury or property damage as punishment for breaking the contract.

I don't think I've been this blown away by a book since Charlie Russell's Grizzly Heart and I'm left with the same feeling that we're just scratching the surface of something big and I'm hungry for more! Since the publication of these findings, Kilham has been awarded a PhD with the information in this book being presented as his doctoral thesis. Hopefully now science will start to develop a more open mind and realize that sometimes common sense observation can hold the greatest answers.

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