The “bear” facts

Knut is a cuddly ball of white fur who has become a celebrity. What is remarkable about this polar bear cub, abandoned by his mother and hand-fed by a zookeeper in the Berlin Zoo, is that the world-wide attention he has earned is approaching the fame given another bear cub at another time and in another zoo.

It is said that Knut has single-handedly transformed the fortunes of the Berlin Zoo, which had been struggling until he arrived on the scene in December. Apparently, the polar bear cub is admired by 15,000 to 20,000 visitors a day.

What made Knut a celebrity was the call by a German animal rights group to put the bear to death. A spokesperson for the group reasoned this drastic step was essential because its contact with humans would not enable the cub to survive in the wild. The fact that it was born in captivity and would never have been released into the wild doesn’t seem to have entered the animal rights group’s reasoning.

When Knut was first viewed by the public, television cameras beamed his cuteness around the world and any talk of doing away with the cuddly bear was soon drowned in a sea of objections. 

It’s even possible that Knut will go onto the same fame as Winnie, the bear cub that delighted children and adults at the London Zoo and inspired a series of children’s books by A.A. Milne.

So far, Haribo, the company of Gummi bear fame, has announced a raspberry-flavoured candy in Knut’s honour, and his image came be found on T-shirts, mugs and other knick-knacks. Can it be long before someone gets the idea to write children’s books about the cuddly bear? Knut’s only drawback is that polar bears are true carnivores; in the wild, polar bears are noted for hunting, killing and eating seals, while Winnie is partial to “yummy” honey.

The story of Winnie has become part of a mythology that may soon engulf Knut. On August 24, 1914, Lt. Harry Colebourn, a veterinary officer with the 34th Fort Garry Horse Regiment of Manitoba, while en route from Winnipeg to Valcartier, Quebec, noticed a man on the station platform at White River, Ontario with a black bear cub tied to a bench. The man told Colebourn that he was a trapper and had shot and killed the cub’s mother. Colebourn was able to purchase the cub from the man for $20. 

In December 1914, Colebourn and the 2nd Brigade were preparing for leave for the front in France. While passing through London, Colebourn decided that the battlefront was no place for a bear and on December 14 asked the London Zoo to take care of the cub he named Winnipeg. It would be four years before Colebourn would again see his  bear. 

In 1919, he gave the bear to the zoo where she was visited and loved by  many, including author A.A. Milne  and his son Christopher. 

Colebourn’s diaries indicate he had every intention  of bringing her back to Canada, but changed his mind when Winnie became a major attraction at the London Zoo. Zoo staff are said to have frequently commented on her playful disposition and friendly nature — a sentiment now expressed by Knut’s keepers.

The zoo dedicated a plaque acknowledging Colebourn’s donation and numerous newspaper stories were written about Winnie and her Canadian owner. 

According to Milne’s first Winnie-the-Pooh story in 1926, five-year-old Christopher Robin went to live at Cotchford Farm in Sussex, England, with a friend named Edward Bear. “Well, when Edward Bear said that he would like an exciting name all to himself, Christopher Robin said at once, without stopping to think, that he was Winnie-the-Pooh. And he was ...” 

In one famous photograph from the London Zoo, Christopher Milne is seen feeding the bear a spoonful of condensed milk, said to be the bear’s favourite treat. But for the purposes of his stories, Milne decided that honey was a better snack and Winnie-the-Pooh couldn’t agree more: “Isn’t it funny/How a bear likes honey/Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!/I wonder why he does.” 

Winnie died at the London Zoo on May 12, 1934. 

In 1992, Fred Colebourn and the great-grandchildren of Lt. Harry Colebourn unveiled the Winnie-the-Bear sculpture by artist William Epp located on the grounds  of the Assiniboine Park Zoo. 

The statue commemorates the connection between Colebourn’s bear  named after his hometown of Winnipeg and Milne’s famous storybook character. 

In 1999, a bronze statue of Colebourn and Winnie by Epp was unveiled at the London Zoo by men from the 34th Fort Garry  Horse. 

To further Winnipeg’s connection, a painting by Ernest Shepard, the illustrator of the Milne books, of Pooh dipping his paw into a honey jar is also found in the Assiniboine Park Pavilion art gallery. 

Not surprisingly, Pooh is acknowledged by the Disney people (they now own rights to the character) as being one of their most-loved and well-known characters, second only to Mickey Mouse — not bad for a bear originally named after a prairie city. 

No one can possibly know whether or not Winnie was really happy in the London Zoo. Nor can anyone truly say with confidence that Knut is actually happy living his entire life behind steel bars. What looks like happiness on TV is undoubtedly just the youthful exuberance common to all species of mammals.

The fact is that animals can never be transformed into creatures sharing human emotions. We cannot possibly know what animals are thinking, despite the claims of the most loving pet owner. What we can do is keep them as comfortable, well-cared for and well-fed as possible when we remove them from their natural environment; whether to a zoo or into someone’s home. 

Perhaps Knut will warm the hearts of countless children and become just as famous as Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s possible that some good might come of the unfortunate circumstances now facing one cute and cuddly bear. For example, he could become the “poster child” for global warming, thus helping his polar bear kin now patrolling the dwindling ice pack along Arctic coasts.