Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition
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In Out on a Limb, Ben Kilham invites us into the world he has come to know best: the world of black bears.
For decades, Kilham has studied wild black bears in a vast tract of Northern New Hampshire woodlands. At times, he has also taken in orphaned infants―feeding them, walking them through the forest for months to help them decipher their natural world, and eventually reintroducing them back into the wild. Once free, the orphaned bears still regard him as their mother. And one of these bears, now a 17-year-old female, has given him extraordinary access to her daily life, opening a rare window into how she and the wild bears she lives among carry out their daily lives, raise their young, and communicate.
Witnessing this world has led to some remarkable discoveries. For years, scientists have considered black bears to be mostly solitary. Kilham's observations, though, reveal the extraordinary interactions wild bears have with each other. They form friendships and alliances; abide by a code of conduct that keeps their world orderly; and when their own food supplies are ample, they even help out other bears in need.
Could these cooperative behaviors, he asks, mimic behavior that existed in the animal that became human? In watching bears, do we see our earliest forms of communications unfold?
Kilham's dyslexia once barred him from getting an advanced academic degree, securing funding for his research, and publishing his observations in the scientific literature. After being shunned by the traditional scientific community, though, Kilham’s unique findings now interest bear researchers worldwide. His techniques even aid scientists working with pandas in China and bears in Russia.
Moreover, the observation skills that fueled Kilham’s exceptional work turned out to be born of his dyslexia. His ability to think in pictures and decipher systems makes him a unique interpreter of the bear's world.
Out on a Limb delivers Kilham’s fascinating glimpse at the inner world of bears, and also makes a passionate case for science, and education in general, to open its doors to different ways of learning and researching―doors that could lead to far broader realms of discovery.
Kilham and his work have been featured in five internationally televised documentaries. In addition to being on over forty nationally broadcast radio shows including National Public Radio, he has appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, ABC Nightly News, The David Letterman Show, and more.
the mate can be too well known to the female and thus lacks the ability to stimulate her. I watched the interaction between SNLO and Big Boy from the safety of my truck at distances of ten and twenty feet. It was clear that the bears were experiencing a great deal of tension and excitement as they came together for the first time, and all of that was played out in aggression. He was confident because of his size and experience. She, who was hormonally ready, had suddenly come into close contact
highest-quality portions of her home range to her daughters who had cubs. In other words, she was sacrificing her best food sources for her daughters and grandchildren. I don’t know what to call this other than altruism—a trait that many comparative psychologists argue nonhuman animals lack. How might such a cognitive skill have developed? The notion that wild animals lack the capacity for altruism is rooted in part in the Darwinian view that individuals place more emphasis on competing to
language and increasingly complex social codes as the need to communicate with strangers came into play and gradually increased. Recent findings on our early roots may back that notion up. Scientists have long thought that chimps and humans had a common ancestor until about four million years ago, when they parted ways on the evolutionary tree. But new evidence suggests we might have had an even earlier common ancestor, Ardipithecus ramidus. The physical traits of that creature have led
identify root causes of problems. Put another way, understanding how a system of cooperation and goodness worked at its conception gives us an opportunity to look beyond the emotional drivers of conflict and get down to the rational causes of problems. Warfare is the evidence that human social behavior acts and reacts without having any true understanding of the behavior itself. If we recognize the social behavior of the black bear—or any other animal whose social behavior might give us insight
bear in this situation will act as described above. My advice is to stand erect with eyes toward the bear. Do not attempt to stare the bear down but rather maintain a normal facial expression and speak softly. Standing erect and keeping eyes toward the bear will keep him or her honest. Bears, like dogs and humans, may choose to enforce dominance when the opportunity arises. If you show weakness (by lowering your eyes, turning your back to them, lying down on the ground, or showing fear), it