Most people run from wild bears, but not Ben Kilham. He lives among them and has hand-raised 50 cubs in the past 12 years.
Acting like a bear-parent to abandoned cubs, Kilham actually eats and drinks with them, teaching them exactly how to survive in the wild. The independent wildlife biologist has now successfully raised dozens of black bear cubs in the woods near his home in Lyme, New Hampshire.
"I know what these bears are thinking, I know by their behavior what they're about to do," said Kilham, who stars in "A Man Among Bears," a documentary about his special bond with the animals. "I can predict what they're going to do."
He is one of the few people ever to have such an intimate bond with bears. Timothy Treadwell, known as "the grizzly man," lived among those fierce beasts — and he eventually paid for it with his life.
For Kilham, his own special relationship with bears has grown out of a lifelong struggle with a severe learning disability, one that allows him to see the world more like a wild animal, he says.
His connection with bears started more than a decade ago after he found an abandoned bear cub named Squirty. "Squirty came to me weighing three pounds, her eyes closed, little ear flaps down, only seven weeks old," he said. "I raised her as a surrogate mother, walking in the woods, letting her respond to the natural environment."
Squirty is now a grandmother living in the wild, the matriarch of a large extended family that Kilham also presides over in his own way, observing and recording the bears as part of the group.
Kilham, who suffers from dyslexia, says he has "learned more from them [the bears] than they've learned it from me … I learned from reality. I don't learn from books, and, for me, they're an encyclopedia."
In all the years he has spent with the bears, Kilham says he has never been frightened. "I'm not frightened," he said. "Animals communicate everything to you. They are very much like us. They have flesh, blood, brains. The way they communicate is similar."
As for his wife? She says she understands her husband, and that he treats his relationship with the bears much like he treats their marriage. "I say that there's no two humans that know each other completely," he said. "We all have innermost thoughts," says Debra Kilham. "We expect something with each other. We judge on action. I don't know how Squirty thinks, she doesn't know how I think. I don't speak her language. She has expectations of me. If I cross the line, I get punished. It's the same at home."
"A Man Among Bears," made from hundreds of hours of video Kilham recorded, premiers tomorrow night on National Geographic.