In New Hampshire, Ben Kilham’s work with black bears has earned him a couple of nicknames, including “the bear whisperer” or simply “Papa Bear.”
In Chengdu, China, Hou Rong’s research into giant pandas has earned her a nickname as well: “Panda Mom.”
Their cross-cultural collaboration is the focus of a new documentary called “Pandas,” opening at the Simons IMAX Theatre at the New England Aquarium on April 6.
It offers a up-close and personal look at the creatures they study and how they come together in an effort to save one of China’s most recognizable animals.
Filmed using IMAX cameras, “Pandas” presents breathtaking, panoramic views of China around the mountains of Sichuan where the nonprofit Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding is located. There, a group of scientists raise endangered giant pandas in captivity with the hope that one day they’ll be able to introduce them into the wild.
The documentary opens in China and then travels across the world to Kilham Bear Center in New Hampshire where Ben Kilham has successfully reintroduced more than one hundred orphaned black bears back into the wild. His techniques involve taking captive-born bear cubs for walks through the woods, where they follow Kilham like a mother bear.
He protects them and allows them to explore without worrying about predators. Hou, the researcher from China, hopes to implement similar methods with their giant pandas.
“That’s what the mother bear does she is their protecting force,” Kilham said of the training method. “For pandas, it works the same way. We will give the pandas an opportunity to learn and we take place of the mother in those situations until development allows them to get ready and be ready to be on their own.”
His techniques weren’t taken seriously at first, he said.
Kilham has an interesting backstory. He has an IQ in the top 1 percent of the population but suffers from dyslexia and reads at a third grade level. When he began his research, he didn’t have access to traditional scientific study and wasn’t backed by any academic institution.
“I had trouble learning in school,” Kilham says in the documentary. “But I could read nature the way other people read books. I don’t teach bears how to be bears. The knowledge is already inside them.”
“Pandas” director Drew Fellman met Kilham many years ago while Fellman was working on a documentary about animal rehabilitation. They began filming “Pandas” in 2015.
“When I met Ben, he was an outsider scientist who had no recognition for the work he was doing, who’d get no attention from academia,” Fellmen said. “In fact, they considered him something of a crank and a pariah on the outskirts. And now this movie’s finished and Ben has a PhD and he’s writing academic papers.”
In the same way some doubted Ben’s methods, there are those who doubt the ability of pandas to survive.
‘I don’t teach bears how to be bears. The knowledge is already inside them.’
“You’ll have people who say things, which to me are incredibly ignorant, but they’ll say things like, ‘pandas are going to go extinct because they’re ridiculous animals, they don’t know how to breed, they don’t know how to take care of themselves,” Fellman said. “This film is about people who are doing whatever they can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Inspired by Kilham’s techniques, the scientists at the Panda Base begin to test the abilities of captive-born panda cubs to see if one has what it takes for a journey into the wild. This means a whole lot of footage of adorable, roly poly baby pandas being bottle-fed, pushed down a wooden slide, and wrestling with researchers.
Soon, one little cub distinguishes herself from the rest with her climbing and hunting abilities.
Her name is Qian Qian.
In the film, wildlife conservation biologist Jake Owens works with Qian Qian over two years, watching her grow from a playful small panda into an adult.
“For bringing a captive-born animal whose mom is also captive-born, whose grandparents are also captive-born into the wild, my biggest consideration is [the panda’s] vigilance.” said Owens. “How alert they are, how aware they are about potential dangers.”
Kilham hopes to see Qian Qian have the same success as Squirty, one of the black bears he successfully released to the wild who has given birth to several generations of wild bear cubs.
Kilham keeps track of her through GPS.
“All young animals need to have is some sort of mother figure,” Kilham said. “What you’re giving the cubs is an opportunity to learn. If you just put them out there by themselves, they’re unable to go anywhere.”
Once, he got stuck in Squirty’s den. Her mate would not let Kilham leave and, at points, looked ready to attack. But Squirty wouldn’t let her mate touch Kilham. When the bears finally sauntered off, Kilham got home with footage of the encounter. He never stopped filming.
“I don’t get scared,” he said. “I get interested.”
When it comes to pandas and black bears, one detail is more than apparent to Fellman, Owens, and Kilham. Giant pandas bite harder than black bears. Their jaws are made to chomp bamboo. When working with bears, expect to get bitten.
“They’ll bite and twist with these little razor sharp teeth,” Fellman said. “It’s adorable and amazing, but it’s painful sometimes.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.