How a New Hampshire rehab center will train the orphaned Newtown bear cubs to return to the wild

The cubs of the black bear killed in Newtown on May 12, 2022 have been sent to Kilham Bear Center, a licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility in Lyme, N.H.

The cubs of the black bear killed in Newtown on May 12, 2022 have been sent to Kilham Bear Center, a licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility in Lyme, N.H.

Contributed Photo/CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Facebook page / contributed

NEWTOWN — The orphaned cubs of the beloved bear shot in Newtown last Thursday have had a harrowing week.

Their mother, a black bear known in the community as Bobbi, was shot and killed on a private property in Newtown. Days later, they hid up in tree until state officials were able to tranquilize and capture them. Then, they were driven hours to reach a wildlife center in New Hampshire.

But soon, they’re expected to be playing with cubs their size, with 11 acres of enclosures to roam, swim and be bears. Over a year from now, they should be back in the wild.

“The reality is, bears want to be bears,” said Ben Kilham, the founder of Kilhman Bear Center, a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center in Lyme, N.H. where the bears were sent this week. “I give a lot of luxury to them.”

At 11 and 13 pounds, the 4 1/2-month-old cubs could have made it in the wild — until winter. Without their mothers’ milk and assistance, they wouldn’t have grown any bigger and wouldn’t have the body weight to keep warm, he said.

“They wouldn’t survive the winter,” said Kilham, who has been studying bear behavior for 30 years. His nephew, Ethan, is one of the other caregivers, while his wife, Debbie, helps with the younger bears, according to the center’s website.

“All of our methods are modeled after the research that I’ve done,” said Kilham, who has a PhD in environmental sciences. The state biologists in New Hampshire oversee his nonprofit center and arrange for bears to come there, he said.

The cubs have the same ability to care for themselves as a human child would, Kilham said.

“You wouldn’t release a 12-year-old in New York City,” he said. “Bears need to be 17 or 18 months before they’re ready to take on the world. We keep them until they’re 17, 18 months, and at that time they can make friends with unrelated bears.”

Philosophy and experience raising bears

Kilham is the author of two books, “Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition” and “Among the Bears: Raising Orphan Cubs in the Wild.”

The latter book details how he began raising a pair of abandoned wild black bear cubs from Vermont in 1993. He writes in the book that he took the “unconventional” approach of raising the cubs in their natural environment.

“For the next seven seasons — two springs, two summers, two falls, and a winter — I would live with the cubs, visiting and nurturing them nearly every day of their lives except during the denning period,” he writes. “I would walk with them unrestrained through miles of New Hampshire woodlands and spend more than two thousand hours at the task, observing and caring for them as they were growing up. In essence, I would become a mother bear.”

His center has since released more than 360 bears into the wild. Their ears are tagged, so the center can track them.

“We know they survive,” Kilham said.

Although the bears were raised around humans, they get into “very few human conflicts,” he said. Each bear has a single caregiver, so they don’t become attached to humans in general.

“By using a single caregiver, I like to use the analogy of people raise their own kids, and when they go out in public, their kids don’t go out in public to strangers and hug them,” Kilham said. “Bears are the same way. They have to know you. The only thing that breaks that is people feeding them.”

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has had the same concerns, warning people not to leave food out for bears. Worried community members would feed the bears and receiving mounting pressure from the public, the agency opted to capture the cubs and send them to the center.

The public may not visit the center because Kilham aims to minimize the bears’ contact with humans. Other centers have even greater restrictions, with caregivers throwing food over a fence, he said.

“We just ignore all that,” Kilham said. “The reality is the bear recognizes by smell, and you can't fool a bear where the food is coming from, the fact that they’re being raised by people.”

Cubs will become ‘part of the group’

After the long trip from Connecticut to New Hampshire on Tuesday, the cubs were sleepy on Wednesday morning. For now, they’re isolated and must be treated with medicine to rid them of mites, lice and other parasites, Kilham said.

But after about a week, they’ll be integrated with the 11 other bears in the center.

“Pretty soon, they’re just part of the group,” Kilham said.

Cubs begin in the facility’s indoor enclosure until they’re ready to explore the outdoor forested enclosure, where they learn to improve climbing, foraging and other skills they need to survive in the wild, according to the center’s website.

While bears are thought to be solidarity creatures, they’re actually social, said Kilham, adding the research he’s done for a paper on female black bears shows this.

“Like us, they make friends with strangers and exchange favors,” he said

Once they’re ready, the bears will return to Connecticut, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

They shouldn’t be permanently traumatized by the killing of their mother and the tumult of the last week.

“It has an effect, but not a long-term effect,” Kilham said.