I was not sure about this book at first glance: I like bears, but a guy kissing one on the cover seems a bit much.
After reading part of the book I became sure: This book is well worth the reading.
Benjamin Kilham has not just studied bears, he has lived with them. He has successfully raised abandoned cubs and followed them throughout their lives. Perhaps more important, he has tried to see the world from the bears’ point of view to learn about them and to be a more successful bear parent.
Among other findings, Kilham demonstrates that bears have a definite form of “society.” This social group is held together with rules, sharing, and punishment to fit the crime. He has shown that black bears' social interaction is much more sophisticated than was previously believed.
His methods are mostly not the experimental method, but the empirical method: Observe and honestly report. Thus, he has been able to learn more about bears than many researchers could ever learn by trying formal experiments. In addition, he makes it clear when he is drawing conclusions based on clear and repeated behaviors versus when he is making assumptions or speculations about what the bears may be doing.
Toward the end of the book, he talks about what learning about bears can tell us about humans. He recognizes that some of what he says may be going far afield, but it definitely fits the facts about both bears and people.
The author of "Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Taught Me About Intelligence and Intuition," Ben Kilham grew up in a family of people who studied the natural world and made a living at it. He helped his father raise and rehabilitate orphaned birds, studies of which his father published (and was criticized for in the scientific community). As a result of dyslexia, the younger Kilham struggled to succeed in a conventional academic setting, but later discovered that "thinking in pictures" was a definite asset when it came to observing the black bears on and around his New Hampshire home. With his wife and sister, he began caring for orphaned cubs, which he studied and then eventually released back into the wild. And with the successful raising of "Squirty," Kilham gained the bear's trust to the point where she accepted him as another member of her species, giving him a unique window onto bear-world.
According to Kilham, bear society is more complex than often believed. Bears have their own social network, which includes both relatives and strangers co-existing on the same land, as with humans, the rules for who is permitted and who isn't, change over time. Bears also have such a keen sense of smell that they can tell by sniffing who has been in their territory, information they may then use to track down and discipline the intruder. This and many other insights help explain bear behavior to the reader that may have previously been misunderstood. Successfully studying (and co-existing) with bears requires you to recognize and respect the bears' perspective. As Kilham puts it, he "pays" for the bears' permission to do such invasive things as examine them and equip them with GPS collars, in exchange for food and other treats. By honoring such a contract, he has discovered many things about the inner workings of bear society, including that bears can demonstrate "human" qualities like altruism, compassion and empathy.
I expected the book to delve more into the day-to-day details of raising and introducing orphaned bears back into the wild but still enjoyed it very much. Kilham does seem to have a lot of open anger toward the scientific community which often comes through loud and clear, but I suppose he is justified. I respect what he's done to further understanding of this species, and I hope he eventually finds the respect he craves from the professionals. From reading the reviews here, I think he's already achieved it with those simply interested in wildlife and discovering more about it.
This is an incredible journey of author Ben Kilham who has been studying, for nearly 20 years, the wild black bears as a state-licensed researcher. His work is deemed safe, methodical and it is officially sanctioned. He had the rare ability to read nature and applied these skills to study bears. He has observed these animals closely and continuously and amassed a wealth of knowledge about the way the black bears communicate, socialize and share resources. They not only taught him their world but also allowed him to understand how humans misunderstand the animal world. The academic community uses radio collars, remote cameras and DNA testing to study animal behavior, but the author employed the simplest method in his study; just observe the bears in their own habitat and learn from them.
Black Bears have the ability to share, cooperate, judge and punish, forgive and reconcile. This study shattered the "bear myth," and suggests that they are actually social and not solitary animals; they communicate with intention, operate with a moral code, and demonstrate altruism, compassion, and empathy. Bears are intelligent creatures with cognitive skills well beyond science currently recognizes in them. Cooperation and altruism did not begin with humans. The use of symbols and expressions existed in animals and they evolved in humans. The results of this study with black bear provide an excellent model to understand primal elements of social change. Up to 900,000 black bears live in North America and millions of interactions occur between humans and bears every year, but very few results in human death. From this study, we learn that black bears are highly tolerant of humans and in rare instances where the bear become dangerous, it is only because humans create that situation. We can modify our behavior that signals good responses from our neighbors in the wilderness, says the author. I very much enjoyed reading this book and it reads effortlessly; highly recommended to everyone interested in animal behavior!
1. Among the Bears: Raising Orphaned Cubs in the Wild
on January 16, 2014
Benjamin Kilham's book Out On A Limb gives readers a front row seat into the world of black bears. He jumps right in with his experience as a foster parent to many bear cubs (their mothers are often killed) and how he takes care of them and reintroduces them into the wild. It's a beautiful story that pulls at your heartstrings and is educational as well. Kilhams explains how he learned the language of the bears and how they interact with one another. He also touches on his dyslexia and his experience as a man who works outside the educational/scientific community and how that has been a struggle for him, but in my eyes a gift of sorts. It's enabled him to not have to conform to their rules.
What is in this book:
Benjamin Kiham's experience with cubs
Squirty's world (Squirty is a bear he was very fond of and learned much from)
The Language of Bears
The Social Code of Bears
What Bears Know
What Bears teach us about our own past, present and future
From black bears to Giant Pandas
Appendix: The Human-Bear Conflict: How to understand Black Bear Behavior and Avoid Problems
Mr. Kilham's extraordinary life with bears is captivating and inspiring. He's articulate, meticulous, and thorough and has made a great contribution to the natural science community. Now, everyone can share in all he has learned from these amazing animals.
I'm very enthusiastic about this book, and found reading it to be illuminating and pleasurable. I did find it slightly annoying in spots, when the author seemed to brag yet again about how brilliant he is. Since the book is indeed full of brilliant observations, not only of bears in their natural habitat, but of what this shows us about the human species, his occasional self praising is forgivable. The descriptions of bear behavior, along with conclusions about how bears think , are based on the author's detailed first-hand observation of generations of bears. Some of the bears are wild, while others were orphaned and then raised and taught to survive in the wild by the author.
The book covers a wide range of related topics, all rooted in direct observation in the field. This includes evolution and stability in different types of animal species, with what strike me as brilliant and far-ranging theories. At the other extreme, there are very practical instructions for interpreting a bear's communications and handling oneself in a surprise encounter with a bear.
I think anyone interested in biology and/or sociology would find this book fascinating. I'd expect it to be of intense interest, too, to anyone who's dyslexic or whose mind seems to work in ways outside what our educational system declares "normal." Educators and parents might also find this book helpful.
on March 15, 2014
This book is a very important part of the growing knowledge that is available about bears. The information is new and this is an in depth look at the lives and behavior of Black Bears from a man who has thoughtfully pursued this knowledge for many years. If you have a library of "bear" books and don't think you need another one, I am sorry, but you do need this one. The work Kilham has done with bears is groundbreaking and the book is well written and concise. It is on my list to read it again.
What a powerful story OUT ON A LIMB proved to be for me.
Benjamin Kilham shares not just his own challenges in communicating and learning as a result of his dyslexia but how he has been able to channel his brilliance by communicating with the black bear.
He writes: "I wanted to understand how bears communicate... There seems to be a kind of equilibrium to the human mind, in which deficits are balanced with assets. We all have our strengths and weaknesses." For Benjamin his included being able to read and relate to emotional signals in humans and animals. This was not something that he took lightly. As we see in the book Benjamin spent significant time getting to know the bears, watching he way they interacted with each other and eventually he gained their trust.
Though I read the book fascinated with Ben's adventures, I could never see myself involved in the type of work he was doing. I could, however, relate to the fact that anything you want to do well you have to study and devote yourself to it. It becomes the definition of your passion. Because of that Ben has been rewarded in not just helping black bears but helping us humans better understand the animals and even people we see.
Powerfully delivered and easy to relate to, OUT ON A LIMB shows the importance of trust and understanding.
on March 29, 2014
I have not read his first book, and perhaps it has more of what I was really longing for. This book is fascinating--it describes many aspects of bears' lives that he has had rare access to, and I truly admired his experience and insight. At the end of the book, though, I was still hoping for more personal feelings and stories about how he felt as he interacted in this way with wild animals. I was amazed that he could raise and then be accepted into Yoda's life, for example... and then matter-of-factly note how she was killed by hunters (who knew that she was a research animal and clearly must have just chosen to kill her anyway). I expected him to be heartbroken and angry--and probably he was--but this was not what he wrote about. Perhaps this makes him a better scientist, and the work stands on its own better when there are less personal feelings included.
As we live in neighboring Vermont, and we have documentation of three bear cubs, mama bear, and a male bear from just last spring alone, I enjoyed reading about these wonderful animals. I especially liked his advice on how to deal with bear, as I run/walk with the dogs in the morning hours and wonder just where they all are.
Read the book. You won't regret it.
on January 2, 2014
I loved this book. This man has spent a great deal of time with bears and has an incredible understanding of their behavior. I met Mr. Kilham at the Harris Center and enjoyed his slideshow as well. Everyone who has a bear go through their yard should read this book. I hope he does as well with pandas.
on September 28, 2014
The brown box full of books traveling around the classroom had made its way to my desk. I’d picked up a book to have a better look at the other options I could choose from but my attention was instantly captured by the book in my hand. On the cover the tranquil face of a black bear, its head was stretched back, its eyes were closed, and its paw was reaching out to touch the hand of a human. Adorable. I was sold. Who wouldn’t want to read about animals as a homework assignment? Just as quickly as the box had come to me, I passed it along and began to learn more about my choice. As a lover of animals and all things cute and cuddly, I needed no more insight into the book than the 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.
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 of his New Hampshire home still regard him as their mother. Kilham is considered 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 have 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 with the observations he makes during his daily interactions with them. Kilham is dyslexic. Due to his learning disability, 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. Exclusion from the world of professional science and dyslexia have never been deterrents for Kilham in the realm of his studies of black bears. Kilham accredits his special visual based learning abilities to be essential in his line of work. 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 that 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. After repeated interactions, aggression lessen and allows an alliance to form. The core driving force in the mind of a black bear is access to ample 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. 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 extremely 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 greater understanding of black bears. Kilham’s 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.