The paratrooper, the poet’s pet and the real Winnie: 10 famous bears in history

BBC History Revealed searches for the most outstanding bears in ursine history – from fire-singed Smokey and the first teddy to the world's most notorious marmalade fiend. Far from being average bears, these ten cuddly critters have found fame on screen, in literature and even in battle...

Smokey the bear is presented with a firefighter's helmet
1

Smokey Bear

Created in 1944 as part of a campaign to educate the US public about the dangers of forest fires, Smokey was initially just a cartoon. That was until 1950, when an American black bear cub (pictured above) was rescued from a wildfire in the Capitan Mountains. With his paws and hind legs singed, the bear was originally called ‘Hotfoot Teddy’, but was later renamed Smokey after the mascot. He was rehomed at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, where he received so much fan mail that he was given his own zip code.

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2

Grizzly’s grizzly bodyguard

Bozo the Bear and Dan Haggerty in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams
Bozo the Bear and Dan Haggerty starred in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams television series (Photo by Getty)

It’s not often that you come across a man named Grizzly with a pet bear named Ben. While in pursuit of a new life in the American West, John “Grizzly” Adams found companionship not in the other gold rush forty-niners, but in a bear cub he had captured while hunting. The bear, which he decided to call Ben Franklin, became so loyal to his master that he risked his life saving Grizzly from another, fiercer grizzly.

The tale became so popular it spawned a novel that later became a television series – The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, starring a bear called Bozo as Ben and Dan Haggerty as the titular mountain man.

3

Wojtek, Polish WW2 private

With a penchant for drinking and smoking, Wojtek had much in common with many other privates serving in World War II – but this private was a bear. When hunters killed his mother, Wojtek was adopted by members of the Polish II Corps.

After being raised on condensed milk, the bear developed a taste for wine and beer, and would even take the odd puff on a cigarette (before promptly swallowing it). As the army prepared to push forward into Italy, Wojtek was officially drafted into the ranks to cheat the ‘no pets on camp’ rule, and was commended for his bravery after helping to carry ammunition into battle.

4

Lord Byron’s Cambridge pet

The Romantic poet kept the bear in his Cambridge lodgings (Photo by Getty Images)
The Romantic poet kept the bear in his Cambridge lodgings (Photo by Getty Images)

When Lord Byron was told that he was not allowed to bring his beloved pet dog to the University of Cambridge, the quick-witted poet devised a plan to ensure that he would never be without a furry friend. As the rules only specified that cats and dogs were forbidden, he instead managed to acquire a tame bear.

Writing of it, he said: “I have got a new friend, the finest in the world. When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, ‘he should sit for a fellowship’.” Upon purchasing his new pet, Byron proceeded to parade him around campus on a chain, terrifying the other students.

5

Paddington

The award for the most polite individual on the list goes to a certain duffle-coat-wearing, marmalade-eating, Peruvian bear. Yes, he has the advantage of speech (and being fictional) but his formal manner has earned him worldwide respect. His creator, Michael Bond, found inspiration in a lone teddy bear at London’s Paddington Station in 1956.

Ten days later, his well-mannered character had been brought to life. But don’t be deceived, this bear drives a mean bargain, and one of his ‘hard stares’ may leave you questioning every decision you ever made.

6

The first teddy bear

Considering he hated his nickname, it’s ironic that Theodore Roosevelt has been immortalised in the eponymous teddy bear. The link came about following a hunting trip in 1902, during which the President had refused to shoot dead a captured bear. A cartoon relating the tale was published in The Washington Post, inspiring Morris Michtom to create a stuffed toy in his honour. Roosevelt gave him permission to use his name, and the rest, as they say, is history.

7

Bart, the film star

Bart the bear and trainer Doug Seus
Trainer Doug Seus helps Bart get acquainted with a teddy bear – part of a training regime for a film role in which Bart was required to adopt a cub (Photo by Getty Images)

Like so many celebrities, Bart was born into stardom. His mother was an actress, so it was only natural that he should follow in her footsteps and find fame on screen. He made his debut in the TV series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams while still a cub, and later appeared alongside stars such as Robert Redford, Daryl Hannah and Brad Pitt.

Bart’s career reached its zenith in 1988, when one of the Academy Awards’ voting members nominated him for his portrayal of a bear in, erm, The Bear. Though the prize was snatched by a human, Bart’s contribution to cinema will be forever cherished.

8

Ursa Major

At over 13,000 years old, and with an excellent vantage point, this bear has seen a lot. Ursa Major, or ‘the great she-bear’ as her name means in Latin, is the third-largest constellation in the sky, and home to dozens of galaxies. For millennia it has been used to locate the North Star in Ursa Minor (the nearby ‘little bear’), setting lost travellers back on the right path. It is thought that her origins lie in the Paleolithic era, when bears were worshippped.

Star chart showing Ursa Major as a bear
The stars of Ursa Major are imagined to take the shape of a bear, as illustrated in this c1825 star chart (Photo by Getty Images)
9

Rocky, the paratrooper

When members of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team decided that they needed a mascot, they went to the zoo and asked for a bear. Her name was Rocky, and during her ‘tour of duty’ carried out five parachute jumps, qualifying her for official paratrooper status. Despite this, she apparently disliked the jumps, as she once gnawed the boot of a man who had ‘helped’ her out of the plane.

10

The real Winnie the Pooh

Winnipeg the bear, or Winnie as she is better known, provided the inspiration for one of literature’s most loved characters. After being purchased by a Canadian lieutenant at the start of World War I, Winnipeg accompanied him to England, where she was donated to London Zoo.

It was there that she caught the attention of a young boy named Christopher Robin Milne, who changed the name of his teddy to Winnie-the-Pooh. He in turn became the subject of his father’s famous children’s books.

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This content first appeared in the October 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed