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.
she responds immediately. Around this time, the mother bear will begin to train her cubs when to follow and when to stay. I have watched Squirty turn and false-charge her cubs, sending them back up the babysitting tree when she didn’t want them to follow her. In time she developed well-honed control over each of them, something I was never able to accomplish while I raised and walked cubs. Throughout the summer, the mother helps her young explore their world, and they follow her back into the
interactions with other bears. When they had their own cubs, they still viewed Ben as their mother, and he would go into the woods and visit them as a member of the bear society. In the process, he learned amazing things about both the orphans he reared and other wild bears in his study area. And as a result, this fascinating book has detailed descriptions of bear body language, oral communication, and behavior—and how Ben learned to read them. I can relate to Ben and his story because his
their tool—and stand on it to get the food? I had no great expectations, though bears’ penchant for creating a nuisance around human food sources suggested they might have some interesting ideas about how to get to the bag. It turned out the bears had no trouble getting their paws on the corn. On her first try, Snowy sized up the height of the bag by standing on her hind legs, then bent at her knees and jumped up to snag her quarry. But she still couldn’t reach it, so she devised a better plan.
legs—all sentences carried out by individual bears for my violations of their individual rules. I have never observed or received any aggressive action from a bear that lacked a clear motive. Being on the receiving end of punishing bites is less frequent for the bears. Much like predator–prey relationships where the evolutionary process prevents advantage from being too severe, subordinate bears are frequently smaller and more agile than their dominants. They can run faster, climb faster, and get
Chester E. Finn, Jr., in a 1989 issue of Commentary, “have enacted comprehensive education-reform legislation, which add to graduation requirements, decrease the average class size, require teachers to take literacy exams, require students to pass standardized tests, redesign teacher-licensing requirements, and much more.” Nowhere did they consider the diversity of how different students learn and consider a complete “outside the box” revision of the American educational system. When I was on