Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Book Review: Out on a Limb (black bears, bear-human relations and societies, what we can learn about dogs from bears)

Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition, by Benjamin Kilham (Chelsea Green Publishing, $25, 2013, 190 pages)

Two Books in One

I don’t usually like the idea of two books in one because few authors can write in two different styles about two different subtopics equally well but I love Benjamin Kilham’s successful treatment.

Out on a Limb is a non-fiction book that reads like a story about black bears (with names), with Kilham even raising some of them from cub hood. The latter part of the book deals fairly scientifically and theoretically with evolution and what we can learn from bears, as well as how to co-exist with them which may be the most important take-away lesson in Out on a Limb. This evolutionary portion may be too detailed for some readers’ preferences.

Who is Kilham?

Benjamin Kilham, from New Hampshire, managed to graduate from college but ended up as a craftsman of sorts who rehabilitated wild animals, including bear cubs, leading him to become one of the world’s most respected bear experts. 

Kilham is not self-effacing. He does toot his own horn but he does so, with such charm that it may not be noticeable.

He reminds me of Jane Goodall, who began with few academic credentials but nevertheless became an expert in one field of natural history and eventually turned that research into a PhD. And he reminds me of Temple Grandin (who wrote the foreward) who had some difficulties in academia but whose gifts lay in observing animals.

Bear Lessons for Humans

I was left with a few thoughts. They remain with me, days later – always the sign of an excellent read. 

One, I want this book to be required reading for my college biology students. Have you ever wondered why some people donate their time or money while others don’t? This bear book will give you the answer. It’s all about ‘perceived surplus’ and altruism, cooperation and social exchange.

Two, everyone needs to understand that black bears are not inherently dangerous. The scary-to-humans sounds (snorts, huffs, and clacking of teeth), behaviors and bluffs merely convey fear and discomfort on the part of the bear. They will ‘tree’ when afraid and are largely herbivores, liking berries (and grubs).

Three, Kilham does not mention the ‘bear guy’ (a PhD) from Minnesota. Whenever someone writes a book, say, about canine massage or dog training, and omits the name of a former colleague or fails to reference the other experts in the field, it raises a red flag to me. Sometimes it is that they used to be close colleagues but have since parted ways for philosophical reasons, or reasons unknown. Nonetheless, it is only expected and polite in the world of science to also reference one’s colleagues.

Five, there is much in this book for dog trainers, for whom the current buzz word is ‘social learning,’ to assimilate and, finally, I was so enamored of Out on a Limb, that I emailed the author (and I do this less than once a year for the many books I read).

One aspect of bear behavior that will remain with me is, like the dog, the bear has an incredible sense of smell. Bears can even discern who has traveled into their territory. They also immediately and seriously punish cubs and others who break the rules but, once punished, all is forgiven and life goes on as before, only better (aggression followed by reconciliation). We humans have much to learn about forgiveness and ‘getting over a grudge.’ 

I will hold this book in my heart for a long time.

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