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Animals of the Great War, Part 4: The Real Winnie-the-Pooh


2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I.

In addition to humans, the war involved millions of animals - from horses to pigeons to slugs! 

In this special year, our Laura Brown, Auxiliary Veterinary Nurse, writes a series of articles remembering animal helpers, heroes and victims of the war.

Many soldiers heading off to war wanted to take a souvenir of their homeland, but not many went as far as Lieutenant Harry Colebourn of the Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. On his way to the port where his cavalry regiment would sail for Europe, he stopped and bought a female black bear cub from a hunter who had killed her mother. He named the bear Winnipeg after his hometown and took her on the ship to England.

         Winnie, as she soon came to be known, became the mascot of Colebourn’s regiment, the Fort Garry Horse. At first she would sleep under Colebourn’s cot every night, but after she developed a fondness for climbing and shaking the tent poles, she had to be kept outside.

After a month in Britain, the regiment was sent to the front in France. Not wanting to take a bear into battle, Colebourn asked London Zoo to look after Winnie. He served in France for three years, providing veterinary care to the regiment’s horses, and visited Winnie whenever he was on leave.

Zoos were run on very different principles at the time than they are today. When they saw how tame Winnie was, the keepers at London Zoo encouraged children to come into her cage and play with her. She was exceptionally gentle and would let her young visitors ride on her back. She even came out whenever children knocked on her door.

Colebourn’s original plan had been to take Winnie home after the war and give her to the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg. But when he saw how popular she had become at London Zoo, he decided to let her stay. He returned to Canada, where he would practice as a vet for 25 years.

Winnie continued entertaining children at the zoo. Among her visitors in the years after the war were the playwright A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin. Christopher Robin loved Winnie so much that he named his own teddy bear after her -- although he insisted that his bear, unlike Winnie, was a boy. Milne decided to write children’s stories about the teddy bear’s adventures, and Winnie-the-Pooh was born. The real Winnie died at the zoo in 1934.

While the Winnie-the-Pooh stories are still beloved today, many aspects of the real Winnie’s story are troubling to modern eyes. In the early 20th century, it was generally considered acceptable for hunters to sell the young of animals they had killed to people who wanted exotic pets. This practice still goes on today, especially in developing countries, but it is now mainly illegal and is recognised as one of the main factors contributing to species’ extinction. During World War I, zoos used animals primarily for entertainment and had no qualms about taking new animals from the wild whenever they were needed. Today, responsible zoos focus on conservation; they get the vast majority of their animals from captive breeding and try to allow them to express natural behaviour as much as possible. Winnie’s times seem strange to us now. So, perhaps, does the war that caused the little bear to be brought halfway around the world.


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