When you think of Winnie the Pooh, you think of a yellow bear wearing a red shirt. While the cartoon character bears (har har) more of a resemblance to a brown bear, the real Winnie the Pooh was actually modeled after a black bear. And the bear's story is, appropriately, like something out of a Disney movie.
On August 24, 1914, a railroad car full of soldiers made a routine stop at White River, Ontario. On the railroad platform, Lieutenant Harry Coleburn noticed a man with a bear cub on a leash. The man was a trapper, who had killed the cub's mother but couldn't stomach killing the cub. He was hoping to sell it. And Coleburn was an eager customer.
Before the War, Coleburn emigrated to Canada from his native Britain in order to study veterinary medicine. Had the hostilities not broken out, he likely would have continued working at the Department of Agriculture in Winnipeg. Coleburn's $20 purchase would eventually change the world.
The bear, named Winnipeg, became the regiment's unofficial mascot. She was eternally mild-tempered and loved posing for photos. But Coleburn's partnership with the bear was cut short when he was called to the front lines. "Winnie," as the bear was nicknamed, was placed in the care of the London Zoo. Coleburn intended to retrieve the bear after what he hoped would be a short war, and take her back to Canada.
Obviously, the War was anything but short. And by the time Coleburn made it back to retrieve Winnie, the bear had become a fixture of the zoo. Winnie was so friendly that the zookeepers even allowed children to enter her enclosure, ride her and feed her by hand. Realizing that Winnie belonged to the people as much as she belonged to him, he said farewell and went home without her.
Winnie had many fans. Most important among them was the son of the author A.A. Milne. Christopher Robin Milne was infatuated with the bear. He would twist his father's arm into making constant visits to Winnie's enclosure, where he would feed her spoonfuls of condensed milk. Christopher eventually renamed his teddy bear "Winnie the Pooh," pooh being a made-up term of endearment he used for a swan he liked to feed.
A.A. Milne was already a published author and poet, but it was the children's stories he penned, based on his son's menagerie of stuffed animals, that would make him famous. The first Pooh book, Winnie-the-Pooh, was published in 1926. The rural idyll, populated by gentle creatures, struck a chord with a shellshocked world. Milne, like Coleburn, was a veteran of the War.
Winnie, already famous by the time the Pooh books became popular, became a star. She died in 1934, at the stately age of twenty. News of her death was reported internationally. Last year, the Royal College of Surgeons put her skull on display for the first time.
The real Winnie the Pooh may not have spoken English or worn clothing, but it sounds like she was every bit the sweetheart as the character. And even though the real Winnie the Pooh is no longer living, she has a more enduring legacy than any bear in history.