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How One Biologist Applies His 'Bear Whisperer' Know-How To Chinese Panda Cubs

Ben Kilham with a giant panda at Panda Valley in Dujiangyan, China, as seen in the new IMAX film, "Pandas." (Courtesy Drew Fellman)
Ben Kilham with a giant panda at Panda Valley in Dujiangyan, China, as seen in the new IMAX film, "Pandas." (Courtesy Drew Fellman)
This article is more than 5 years old.

For more than 25 years, wildlife biologist Ben Kilham has been raising orphaned black bears. The new documentary "Pandas" shows how he is also working with orphaned panda cubs in China.

Here & Now's Lisa Mullins talks with Kilham about his work.

Interview Highlights

On Kilham's method of working with the pandas
I remember when we got our first two pandas, and the pandas are kept in zoo-like conditions. And the keepers were generally afraid of pandas, and the keepers immediately observed and complained that the pandas liked Jake better than they liked them. And we had to explain to them that — first of all the Chinese hadn't had pets until recently — and we had to explain to them that they had to treat the panda like it was a sentient being, like it was another person, and not like an object.

In practicality, it means that if you've got a dog at home and it's your pet and somebody comes into your house who doesn't like dogs, your dog's not going to like them either.

The commonality between all species of mammals is extremely close. And if you study behavior, you can see these commonalities. And it came right to the surface with these first cubs. They didn't like or trust the keepers because the keepers were treating them like objects. As soon as the keepers recognized and understood what we were telling them, the pandas started interacting with them and liking them.

On the similarities and differences between black bears and pandas

I had a rule in New Hampshire and we maintained it China — we don't inflict our behavior on the bear. If the bears want to play with us, we respond, but we don't go pat them on the head and incite them to wrestle or play or do any of those things.

The giant panda is a much earlier form of bear, around 13 million years old. The black bears are around 6 million years old, and they came off the evolutionary tree at different stages.

The juvenile period for both of them is 18 months to two years. My examples come from my experience with black bears.  I have a bear named Squirty who has been in both of the books that I've written, who came to me as a three-pound cub that was seven weeks old. She's now 22 years old with her 11th litter of cubs. She had no experience with her mother outside of the den. So to give her that experience, I would take her for walks — she instinctively would follow me. But if she wasn't following me, she wouldn't leave a two-acre territory. And on those walks, up to nine hours at a time, she had an experience of her natural environment, of other bears, of potential predators, like coyotes. And then I would return her safely to the remote enclosure. She felt obligated to follow me until she reached 18 months old which was the normal time of dispersal, at which time her behavior changed and she was ready to be on her own.

This article was originally published on April 13, 2018.

This segment aired on April 13, 2018.



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