It’s a place people rarely get to visit: the Kilham Bear Center in Lyme, New Hampshire.
Ben Kilham and his nephew Ethan rehab and release injured, orphaned, and abandoned bear cubs brought to their facility by New Hampshire wildlife officials or those from neighboring states.
The center is a nonprofit that’s not open to the public.
Kilham, who got his doctorate in environmental science studying the social behavior of black bears, says it’s crucial to minimize the human contact for the cubs, since they’ll be returned to the wild in their home state once they turn 18-months-old.
He’s taught his world-renowned bear research and observations overseas.
Remember Bobbi the Bear?
After the well-known Fairfield County mama bear was shot and killed by a Newtown homeowner, controversy continued after Connecticut wildlife officials wanted to keep her cubs in the wild.
After the uproar, Bobbi’s cubs were taken to Kilham Bear Center.
“They came in at 11 and 13 pounds relatively scared and traumatized from their ordeal in Connecticut,” said Ethan Kilham, now the primary caregiver at the center.
NBC Connecticut's Caitlin Burchill asked Ben Kilham, “When you heard about the bear cubs [Bobbi’s], their size, would you have wanted them to go back into the wild at that point?”
“No, they were way too small and way too young,” Kilham answered.
From his experience and research, Kilham says cubs need the protection of their mothers to learn basics and fatten up before the winter.
“They’re not ready to go anywhere until they’re 18-months-old -- just like a human child,” he said. “We don’t let a human child loose in New York at 10 years old. It’ll live for a while, but its survival won’t be any good.”
Indra and Izzy, as the center has named them, were two of 36 cubs in their care at the time of our visit.
"Introduced all the other cubs and made friends and are gaining weight and growing up turning into fine, upstanding bears, as you would,” Ethan Kilham said.
The Kilhams have cubs spend time in their enclosed cub center, which looks like an outdoor oasis in an inside enclosure with lots of tree climbing and adventure to be had for the cubs.
Once they reach a certain age, the Kilhams have the cubs graduate into their 11-acre refuge before their release into the wild at 18 months old in their home state.
Wildlife officials in New Hampshire rely on Kilham. Massachusetts and Vermont bring cubs to him, too.
"The Kilhams have this down to a fine art in the animals are returned to the wild with a very high success rate,” said Forrest Hammond, a certified wildlife biologist who has studied black bears for decades.
For three decades, Hammond led Vermont Fish and Wildlife’s black bear program, which brought orphaned cubs to the Kilham Bear Center.
“It was a win-win situation for myself and for the State of Vermont because otherwise those cubs would have been just placed back out into the wild as little cubs, probably to die of starvation or to be predated on by coyotes," Hammond said. "But instead, they were taken care of by the Kilhams and raised up to the point that they were ready to go back into the wild.”
This is the very first time the Kilham Bear Center has rehabbed cubs from Connecticut.
After the shooting death of tagged “Bobbi” the bear in May, Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection was adamant about keeping her cubs in Mother Nature.
“That’s always our first goal is to try and keep wild animals wild,” said Jenny Dickson, DEEP’s director of wildlife division in a news conference at the time.
But after the outrage of animal advocates, lawmakers, and many others, DEEP changed course, telling NBC Connecticut they were concerned humans would intervene after all the attention the cubs received.
NBC Connecticut reached out to do an interview with DEEP for this story.
Will Healy, DEEP’s director of communications, answered some questions via email:
NBC Connecticut: Have DEEP’s practices and procedures changed since sending the cubs to the Kilham Bear Center?
Healy: No. We continue to evaluate each situation based on its own merits. We make decisions regarding orphaned bear cubs based on peer-reviewed published science, extensive experience, communication with bear biologists in other states and provinces, and minimizing potential threats to public safety.
NBC Connecticut: Does Connecticut still plan to keep orphaned bears in the wild?
Healy: Connecticut will continue to evaluate each situation based on the individual facts. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to dealing with orphaned bear cubs. Every state has a unique suite of variables that influence growth rates, survivorship, food availability, and more and we evaluate all of that in the context of our experience with thousands of bears.
NBC Connecticut: What research do Connecticut's wildlife experts follow for their practices?
Healy: The DEEP Wildlife Division’s approach to bears and their behavior is informed by published science, extensive experience, and communication with other bear experts. Our bear biologists meet with bear biologists from other northeastern states and provinces on an annual basis to discuss the latest research and management techniques. We also base many of our practices on experience with bears right here in Connecticut. Each state has slight differences in landscapes, populations, and other factors relative to wildlife management and those need to be considered. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
“The policy just reflects a lack of knowledge about bear behavior and survival of cubs in the wild. You know, it's, it's the assumption that they're going to live,” Ben Kilham said.
Animal advocates in Connecticut continue to push the state for change, specifically for orphaned cubs to be sent to the Kilhams, or for the creation of a similar rehab in our state.
They’re also putting pressure on the Danbury state's attorney to reopen the case of the killing of the cub’s mom, Bobbi.
As for Indra and Izzy, they continue to live what appears to be their best life in New Hampshire surrounded by lots of new cub friends.
They will be released back to DEEP once the Kilhams believe they’re ready for the wild at around 18-months-old.
DEEP officials will then release the cubs back into the Connecticut wilderness.
Chief Investigative Reporter Len Besthoff has an extended look at the Kilham Bear Center in Connecticut's Backyard Bears. To stream the series, you can access the NBC Connecticut app on Roku, Amazon Fire, and Apple TV.