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Raising an orphaned cub from Greenfield so it can return to a bear's world

This time of year, wildlife officials advise the public if you see a baby wild animal let it be — its mother is likely nearby.

But there are instances when animals are orphaned and wildlife rehabilitators raise them.

That’s the case with a bear cub whose mother and siblings were killed in western Massachusetts.

It was just getting dark one day in April when Greenfield police officer Brandon Lagoy and detective Justin Purinton responded to a call from a driver whose car had hit some black bears.

 A bear cub climbs a tree in Greenfield, Massachusetts, after her mother and siblings were killed by a car in early April.
Greenfield Police Department
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Facebook
A bear cub climbs a tree in Greenfield, Massachusetts, after her mother and siblings were killed by a car in early April.

When they arrived, a mother bear and two cubs lay dead on the pavement. Then Lagoy heard something coming from across the road.

"A fairly loud screeching noise, because the cub was trying to call out for its mother," he said.

Lagoy spotted the only surviving cub, about the size of a football, scuttling up a tree. He was afraid if he left it, it would have died, too.

"It's such a small animal," he said. "It's just, you know, you feel for it and you don't want it to be abandoned. The cub would have tried to go back across the road to try and find its mother, based on scent, and it would have gotten hit as well."

As the cub hugged the tree trunk, the police reached out with a branch. She latched on.

And as an outdoorsy kind of guy who has hunted bears, Lagoy knew what to do.

"We just picked it up like you would a kitten, right by the back of its neck, and got it right inside of the cruiser," he said.

The cub spent one night in a dog crate in the police station, and two more at Tufts Wildlife Clinic in North Grafton, Massachusetts. Then she was brought north to the Kilham Bear Center in Lyme, New Hampshire.

Greenfield, Massachusetts, police officer Brandon Lagoy helped rescue the orphaned bear cub. He said she was the size of a football. But her entire paw, including the claws, was the size of his palm, which he said was large for a cub that size.
Nancy Eve Cohen
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NEPM
Greenfield, Massachusetts, police officer Brandon Lagoy helped rescue the orphaned bear cub. He said she was the size of a football. But her entire paw, including the claws, was the size of his palm, which he said was large for a cub that size.
An orphaned black bear cub at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic in North Grafton, Massachusetts, where she spent two nights shortly after being rescued by police in Greenfield.
Tufts Wildlife Clinic
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Courtesy
An orphaned black bear cub at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic in North Grafton, Massachusetts, where she spent two nights shortly after being rescued by police in Greenfield.
Billie, Alma and Willa (from front to rear) are three black bear cubs who have bonded like sisters at the Kilham Bear Center in Lyme, New Hampshire. The center raises orphaned and abandoned black bear cubs so they can be released into the wild.
Nancy Eve Cohen
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NEPM
Billie, Alma and Willa (from front to rear) are three black bear cubs who have bonded like sisters at the Kilham Bear Center in Lyme, New Hampshire. The center raises orphaned and abandoned black bear cubs so they can be released into the wild.

At the Kilham Bear Center, three female cubs were inside a 16-foot high barn with tree trunks that stretched up to bear-cub-sized nooks.

One, named Willa, was whimpering. She was a little unsure of me. But when the bear from Greenfield arrived, now named Alma, Willa welcomed her with a kind of kiss.

"Willa just sort of puts her snout on top of Alma’s, and it was a pretty fast connection," said Ethan Kilham, 34, who raises the bears there.

That kind of bonding is typical of cubs this age. But Kilham said with Alma, Willa and the third one, Billie, it was instantaneous.

"They fell asleep in a big pile together. And they’ve been sisters ever since," Kilham said.

Sisters — and Ethan Kilham is a kind of mother. Not only to these three, but to at least 11 other bears born this year. One, named Dutch, came from Tolland, Massachusetts.

And there are 19 others, much bigger ones, born more than a year ago.

Ethan Kilham is raising a black bear cub named Billie with about 13 other cubs born this year. As part of the rehabilitation process, Kilham doesn't initiate play with the cubs, but he responds if they do.
Nancy Eve Cohen
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NEPM
Ethan Kilham is raising a black bear cub named Billie with about 13 other cubs born this year. As part of the rehabilitation process, Kilham doesn't initiate play with the cubs, but he responds if they do.

In the video above, bear cub Alma plays with some pine needles.

In the video above, bear cubs Willa, Billie and Alma climb up and down an oak.

Like many parents, Kilham prepares meals.

"The trick is to make it thick but not too, too thick," he said stirring Gerber baby cereal with milk replacers, including one made for lambs. "If it sets, they’re not particularly happy."

He tops it with a dollop of applesauce.

Younger cubs are fed with a bottle. The older ones get kibbled dog food. Kilham also introduces wild plants, like dandelions, into their diet.

And the cubs practice finding food in the woods, exploring streams, trees and rotting logs.

"It's a sort of a smell thing," Kilham said. "Well, it's fun, but they're also smelling grubs or bugs or ants that are in there. And their claws are made for digging. So they're getting muscle memory in that sense."

They pull branches down and mouth the buds and leaves. Their nasal systems can detect what’s edible and what’s not.

Kilham is a facilitator, not an instructor.

"I am the safe spot where they are comfortable enough that they can explore the environment without having to think about safety," he said.

The older cubs, who were born last year, live on 11 acres of woods hugged by an electric fence. Ethan Kilham still brings them food, and they also find their own. His uncle, Ben Kilham, points out the enclosure on top of some ledges.

"See the leaning tree?" Ben Kilham said. "Right beyond is a narrow white post. That’s where the fence is going through."

Ben Kilham began developing this method of rehabilitating abandoned and orphaned cubs, like Alma, 30 years ago.

"When I started, if you read the literature, it said that bear cubs could be released back  into the wild at five months and they’d survive. And that didn’t make any sense at all," Ben Kilham said, because 18 months is when wild black bears leave their mothers.

Using logic and knowledge about how wild cubs grow up, Ben Kilham developed a surrogate mother approach. With help from his wife, Debbie Kilham; his sister, Phoebe Kilham; and now Ethan, the Kilham Bear Center has raised and released nearly 400 cubs.

But Ben Kilham said there are rules for Ethan or anyone raising them.

"You don't initiate play or anything with them. But if they want to play with you, you can respond. You've got to remember that young animals are young animals," he said.

Billie is a female bear cub being raised at the Kilham Bear Center in Lyme, New Hampshire. She's shown grabbing onto a reporter's leg.
Nancy Eve Cohen
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NEPM
Billie is a female bear cub being raised at the Kilham Bear Center in Lyme, New Hampshire. She's shown grabbing onto a reporter's leg.
Ben Kilham has been raising and releasing orphaned and abandoned black bear cubs for about 30 years. He started the Kilham Bear Center in Lyme, New Hampshire, a nonprofit that has raised and released nearly 400 bears.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
Ben Kilham has been raising and releasing orphaned and abandoned black bear cubs for about 30 years. He started the Kilham Bear Center in Lyme, New Hampshire, a nonprofit that has raised and released nearly 400 bears.

And many of these young animals, like Alma, were present when their mothers were killed.

"They have to have a nurturing environment. You don't shut them off of all of that," he said.

Back in the cub barn, Willa was still wary of me. Ethan Kilham calmed her with a soft voice.

"What is up here? What is up?” he said.

Alma was making herself scarce. All three cubs were tucked onto a shelf, high off the ground. I climbed a ladder to get my microphone closer.

Billie sniffed the microphone and licked my hand. She was using her keen sense of smell to check me out.

Then she lightly touched my hand with her teeth.

I decided it was time to get down on the ground.

Ethan and Ben Kilham said there’s no risk that interacting with me briefly — or them — will turn these cubs into animals who trust all people.

"Bears trust individuals," Ben Kilham said. "They don't trust broadly. Bears trust each other as individuals. They trust humans as individuals. Just because she trusts me doesn't mean she'll trust the guy standing next to me."

State wildlife agencies trust Kilham’s approach so much that three states — Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont — bring him cubs to raise. He said his cubs’ survival rate in the wild is high and the bears he releases aren’t any more likely to break into chicken coops or trash cans than other bears.

Kilham said humans are responsible for some nuisance behavior because they don’t understand bears are driven by food.

"Food to a bear is like money to a person," he said. "You know the world wouldn’t go around leaving $100 bills all over their yard and expect no one would pick them up. That’s what you do when you have food attractants."

In Massachusetts, by law, people can kill a bear that destroys chickens, bees or other property.

Cars, like the one that killed Alma’s family, hit 30 to 50 bears a year. Hunters kill another 250. Still the population is healthy and growing with about 4,000 bears in the state.

Black bear biologist David Wattles of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife said population concerns are not why bears like Alma are rehabilitated.

"The alternative in that situation is to euthanize that cub, because it doesn't have a mother to take care of it," he said. "I don't think anyone is looking to do that."

Including hunters like Brandon Lagoy, the Greenfield police officer who rescued Alma.

"Even people that hunt, when it becomes a baby, it changes things, right?" Lagoy said. "You don't want to see harm done to anything like that. And so it just became a priority for us to make sure that it had the same opportunity as every other bear in the wild, and to be rehabilitated, and put back out and set free."

This time of year, the older cubs at the Kilham Bear Center are being set free. New Hampshire and Vermont wildlife biologists tag and release them into the woods.

If all goes well, in about a year, Alma from Greenfield will also be back in the wild — and eventually, raise her own cubs.

Corrected: June 3, 2022 at 10:15 AM EDT
An original version of this story said the cubs were fed Gerber baby cereal made with lamb's milk. It should have said milk replacers, including one made for lambs.
Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Previously she served as the editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub, a collaborative of public radio stations. Earlier in her career she was the Midwest editor for NPR in Washington, D.C. Before working in radio, she recorded sound as part of a camera crew for network television news, with assignments in Russia, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba and in Sarajevo during the war in 1992.