Saturday, March 08, 2008

National Geographic: A Man Among Bears

On March 8, 2008 The National Geographic Channel aired “A Man Among Bears,” a one-hour documentary about Ben Kilham, a son of a biology professor, himself dyslexic but gifted mechanically and in other communicative ways, in his one-man project to raise black bear cubs as if he were the parent, release them into the wilds into the New Hampshire White Mountains foothills (Winnepsaukee link), and study their social behaviors. One particular female bear was named “Squirty.” The bears have a body language capable of establishing territorial rights and social orders. The bears that Ben raised used the same body language (which could include small bites) with him, to show the kind of behavior they expected from Ben (in terms of food, for example). Bear society seems somewhat matriarchal. They can build nests in trees to sleep to keep insects away in the summer. They hibernate by lowering their body temperatures, and they have a special olfactory organ, name now the Kilham organ, in the roofs of their mouths that enables them to determine what plants are edible and probably even which ones are toxic. Remember that in the tragic film “Into the Wild” Chris apparently ate some poisonous roots that bears living in the area knew to avoid.

When continuously around humans, bears can communicate with humans (whom they perceive as “hairless bears” and as connected to their “society”) with body language. For example, looking a male in the eye will tell the male that he is intruding in your territory. It’s not clear if grizzly bears, which are much larger, would adapt and accept the presence of humans.

A scientist from the University of Minnesota tried to assist Ben with the idea of getting truly quantifiable data from more than one animal. Squirty was thought to be an unusually assertive bear. Did Squirty and her siblings exhibit a greater degree of social cooperation because they learned that from humans, or would they do so naturally in the wild? Can wild animals (carnivores and omnivores) with intelligence and cognition approaching that of humans learn to behave in "human" ways when around humans continuously? Squirty demonstrated other human-like problem-solving behaviors, like building nests in trees for physical comfort (to keep insects away). Squirty and her siblings had children, and could conceivably "teach" their cubs additional social concepts.

Kilham tried an experiment to see if Squirty would recognize herself in a mirror, but Squirty never tried to remove the mark on her forehead.

I once saw a black bear at a distance on the Katahdin trail in Maine. I also once encountered a mother black bear with her club on the Appalachian trail in Shenandoah in Virginia, near Stony Man. She simply crossed the trail with her cub and ignored me. I was alone both times.

Other animals with problem-solving ability, besides wolves and dogs and even foxes, and cats (especially cheetah's as in the film "Duma" and servals) would include cetaceans and killer whales or orcas ("Free Willy") and elephants (which are herbivores).

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