It’s no secret that Manitobans and Winnipeggers have an affinity for bears. Some could even argue that they love their bears. There’s the polar bears of Churchill fame and the new polar bear enclosure, which is part of the $90-million exhibit entitled Journey to Churchill, at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, both of which instill strong pride in Manitobans.
How many people have asked you whether you’ve seen the polar bears swimming overhead in the world-class bear water park at the zoo? If you answer, “No,” they give you a dumbfounded look. “Get over there right away! You need to see the bears! It’s awesome!” is their stern rebuke.
One of Assiniboine Zoo’s most famous inhabitants is Hudson, the male polar bear, and then there’s Aurora and Kaska, the two resident female polar bears.
But of all the bears in all the world which have a warm spot in the hearts of so many, it has to be Winnipeg, a.k.a Winnie-the-Pooh, that has stimulated the imaginations of generations of children around the globe. The tales of the famous fictional lover of honey, penned by English author A.A. Milne, were based upon a real-life black bear owned by Winnipegger Capt. Harry Colebourn.
In Assiniboine Park, there is a statute paying tribute to Colebourn and his bear that was inspired by a photograph of the duo taken during the First World War.
Surprisingly, few knew about Winnie’s Winnipeg connection until a story appeared in the May 2, 1987, Free Press, entitled Pooh Bear’s Name is Winnie as in Winnipeg, by Heidi Graham. For the front page article, Graham interviewed Fred Colebourn, the son of Harry and also a resident of Winnipeg.
“That’s my father’s bear,” Fred told Graham, while pointing to one of the many photographs of his father playing with the bear.
The “bear facts” are that Winnipeg was purchased by Harry Colebourn 100 years ago at White River, Ontario, while he was en route by train to Valcartier, Quebec, to join his regiment. According to the archives of the Fort Garry Horse Museum in Winnipeg, Colebourn, who was militia officer serving with the 34th Fort Garry Horse and a veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture, Health of Animals Branch, left Winnipeg on August 23, 1914. While heading east to serve in the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, Colebourn’s train made a stop at White River. On the station platform, he saw a hunter — he had earlier killed the cub’s mother — with a small female bear cub. The hunter was offered and accepted $20 for the purchase of the bear cub.
An August 24, 1914, entry in Colebourn’s diary noted: “Left Port Arthur 7 a.m. In train all day. Bought bear $20.”
He named the cub Winnipeg, or Winnie for short.
Later in one of the diaries he kept during the First World War, Colebourn wrote that he and the bear cub travelled to Valcartier where they boarded the SS Manitou for England. They arrived on October 17 and went to the Salisbury Plain, where the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was undergoing training before leaving for France.
“Winnie was to remain with him and a pet to the Second Infantry Brigade Headquarters and a mascot to the CAVC while he remained in England,” according to a Fort Garry Horse Museum on-line article. “Winnie quickly became a pet to many of the soldiers and would follow them around like a tame dog in their off-duty hours at Salisbury Plain.”
In 1987, Harry’s son told Graham that Winnie slept under his father’s cot.
But the bloodbath of the Western Front was not a place for such a friendly bear, so Colebourn on December 9, 1914, went to the London Zoo where he left the bear for safe keeping until the end of the war. Many had predicted that the war would end within six months, but that was far from the case. Winnie remained at the zoo throughout the four years of the so-called “War to End all Wars.” Colebourn’s diaries noted that it was always his intention to return to the London Zoo and reclaim his bear and take her back to Canada. The dairies also mention that he visited Winnie whenever he had leave in England.
Winnie was a hit with children visiting the zoo, Fred told Graham.
“She used to give children rides around the zoo and she was so tame she’d eat right out of their hands.
“I’m sure that’s because of the way my father treated her. He loved animals and they returned the affection.”
When the war ended, Colebourn remained in England until 1919, but instead of bringing the bear home to Winnipeg, he donated the bear to the London Zoo. The donation was in appreciation of the way the zoo’s staff cared for the bear as well as the affection the children had for Winnie.
“She was considered trustworthy by her bear keepers who said that of all the bears they had in the zoo, Winnie was the only one they could say this about. She was also the tamest and best behaved bear the zoo ever had” (Fort Garry Horse).
In return, the zoo in 1919 held a dedication ceremony and erected a plaque that acknowledged that Capt. Colebourn of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps had donated the bear. Articles were written in English newspapers about the friendly antics of Winnipeg.
In A.A. Milne’s introduction to Winnie-the-Pooh, he describes an encounter his young son had with the friendly bear: “So when Christopher goes to the Zoo, he goes to where the Polar Bears are, and he whispers something to the third keeper from the left, and doors are unlocked, and we wander through dark passages and up steep stairs, until at last we come to the special cage, and the cage is opened, and out trots something brown and furry, and with a happy cry of ‘Oh, Bear!’ Christopher Robin rushes into its arms. Now this bear’s name is Winnipeg, which shows what a good name for bears it is, but the funny thing is that we can’t remember whether Winnie is called after Pooh, or Pooh after Winnie. We did know once, but we have forgotten.”
In the first chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh, Milne wrote: “When I first heard the name, I said, just as you are going to say, ‘But I thought he was a boy?’
“‘So did I,’ said Christopher Robin. ‘Then you can’t call him Winnie?’
“‘I don’t know.’
“‘But you said —’
“‘He’s Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don’t you know what ‘ther’means?’
“‘Ah, yes, now I do,’ I said quickly; and I hope you do too, because it is all the explanation you are going to get.’”
The famous bear passed away on May 12, 1934, at 20 — a good age for a bear.
Colebourn returned to Winnipeg and took up a veterinary post with the Canadian government. He died on September 24, 1947, and is buried in Winnipeg’s Brookside Cemetery.
From August 14 to 17, White River will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Winnie’s purchase. To mark the importance of the bear to Winnipeg, all it takes is a visit to Assiniboine Park to take a peek at the statue of Colebourn and his friendly bear, both of whom brought a measure of joy to the world when it was most needed.