Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me About Intelligence and Intuition

Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me About Intelligence and Intuition

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Readers interested in animal behavior are likely familiar with books such as Mind of the Raven, Geese of Beaver Bog, and Of Wolves and Men (the first two by Bernd Heinrich, the last by Barry Holstun Lopez). They teach us about communication, social structure, and mating behavior of the wildlife around us, and often shed new light on interactions between these animals and humans.

Out on a Limb, by Benjamin Kilham, does all the same for American black bears, and now sits on my bookshelf among the aforementioned titles. Kilham writes from the unique perspective of a wildlife rehabilitator who has contracted with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department for several decades to raise and release orphaned bear cubs.

The book explores, among other things, the complex social interactions involved when female bears establish their feeding territories. In many cases, this is done through physical altercations. But in other cases, witnessed by Kilham, female bears appear to share their territories, thereby expanding their access to food, as was the case between two female bears who shared access to their beech and red oak stands in times of respective abundance.

I especially appreciated Kilham’s insights about human-bear interactions. For example, he advocates for a thoughtful approach when loggers return in the winter to job sites that they worked in the summer, as this often disrupts bear dens, which can lead to mothers abandoning cubs. He suggests that dogs be used to determine whether bears are denning in log piles and that loggers postpone returning to those sites inhabited by bears until the following spring, after mothers and cubs have emerged from hibernation.

What I found most interesting about the book didn’t have anything to do with bears; it was, rather, Kilham’s suggestion that we approach the science of animal behavior differently. The title of the book reflects not only bears climbing trees, but also the author’s proposition that we “go out on a limb” and broaden our approach.

The book asks whether we are being too rigid in science by not including alternate ways of thinking and conducting research. Kilham uses Jane Goodall and Charles Darwin as examples of researchers whose field methods were qualitative rather than designed experiments, yet Darwin’s theories serve as some of our most important scientific foundations. He also notes the great contributions of Temple Grandin, an animal behaviorist who has autism. Kilham even cites himself as an example: he is clearly making important observations and capturing valuable data about bears, yet couldn’t pass the entry examinations for graduate school due to severe dyslexia and so does not have access to university research funds or publishing in scientific journals.

Kilham proposes that we also broaden our interpretation of animal behavior. He points to the common belief, for example, that animals communicate only with emotion, not with intention. Yet he has found, and gives examples of, communication among bears that clearly includes intention, such as the negotiation between two females for the adoption of a struggling cub whose biological mother was unable to care for it.

Overall, Out on a Limb was an easy read yet very thought-provoking. It questions the common approach to animal behavior science – and science in general. At the same time, the book leaves the reader with a deeper appreciation for the society of bears that are feeding, mating, communicating, and negotiating in our own backyards.

Sarah Galbraith