by Janet Spencer

Come along with Tidbits as we remember several extraordinary bears!

THE CANADIAN BEAR

When WWI started, Harry Colebourn of Winnipeg, Canada volunteered. He was on his way to report for duty in 1914 when he came across a man who had a young black bear cub for sale. The mother bear had died. Colebourn bought the cub for $20 ($475 today) and smuggled the cub all the way to England. He named the cub Winnipeg, or Winnie for short.

The bear became the mascot of his brigade. When they were mustered out to France, Colebourn left Winnie at the London Zoo, intending to transfer the bear to the Winnipeg Zoo after the war. But Winnie became such a popular attraction in London that Colebourne relinquished her permanently to their care.

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• The gentle bear was fond of the children who flocked to the zoo to visit her. One of those visitors was a boy named Christopher Robin Milne. Christopher’s father bought a souvenir teddy bear in 1921. Christopher and his Winnie teddy bear became inseparable. When Christopher’s father began writing stories to entertain his son, the main character was a bear called Winnie the Pooh.

Winnie the black bear died in the London Zoo in 1934, but Winnie the Pooh will live in the hearts of children forever.

THE SOLDIER BEAR

In 1942, a young Iranian boy rescued a Syrian brown bear cub after its mother was shot by hunters. He took it to the train station near him.    A young Polish woman bought the cub and spent the next three months in a refugee camp, nursing the cub back to health.

She then gave the growing bear to the 22nd Artillery Supply Company stationed nearby. They named the bear Wojtek, a Polish name meaning “happy warrior.”

• The soldiers doted on the bear, teaching him tricks and feeding him treats. He drank coffee every morning, but preferred beer. They tried to teach him to smoke cigarettes but he only ate them. Wojtek learned to salute, engaged in wrestling matches with the soldiers, and often marched alongside the men on his hind legs.

The bear moved with the 22nd Company throughout Iraq, and then to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. But when the 22nd Company was reassigned to the Italian front, the British ship that was to carry them refused to carry pets or mascots. So Wojtek was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private. During the brutal Battle of Monte Cassino, Private Wojtek helped keep the guns firing by hauling boxes of ammo, each containing four 25-pound (11 kg) shells. These crates normally took four men to haul. For his bravery and service in battle, Wojtek was promoted to Corporal. On one occasion, the bear was sleeping in the ammunition depot when a thief broke in late at night. Needless to say, the thief received the fright of his life, and no ammo was stolen.

At the end of the war, Wojteck accompanied the 22nd Company to Scotland, where he became very popular with the townfolk.    When the 22nd demobilized in 1947, the bear was donated to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he lived in pampered peace until he died in 1963 at the age of 21. By that time, Wojteck weighed 1,100 lbs (500 kg) and stood 5’11” (1.8 m) tall on his hind legs.

A POPULAR POLAR BEAR

In 1986, a polar bear cub was snatched from her mother in Canada and sold to an East German circus. Named Tosca, the bear was acquired by the Berlin Zoo in 1998. There she gave birth to two cubs in 2006, abandoning them both outside her den.

The cubs, blind, naked and the size of guinea pigs, were rescued by zookeepers.    One died, but the other hung on. Zookeeper Thomas Doerflein became the cub’s surrogate mother, staying with him round the clock for 150 days.    It was the first polar bear born at the Berlin Zoo in 33 years. His name was Knut.

• Twice a day, Thomas Doerflein would put on shows, playing with the cub, feeding him, and showing him off to live audiences. “Knutmania” swept the globe.    The zoo’s revenues for 2007 were 30% higher than the previous year, making it the most successful in the zoo’s 168-year history. The Berlin Zoo already had a full complement of polar bears and normally would have sent Knut off to some other zoo, but they were unwilling to part with their economic boon.

• Knut became addicted to human attention. He engaged with zoo visitors, pressing up against the Plexiglas divider, and playing fetch with a ball he would fling over the divider.   

• As a young adult, Knut was moved into an enclosure with several female polar bears, including his mother. In the wild, male and female polar bears avoid each other. Here, Knut could not avoid the other bears, who bullied him. Knut took up repetitive behaviors so common to stressed zoo animals, such as relentless pacing. In the wild, Knut would have travelled up to 60 miles a day or swum 100 miles at a stretch in search of food.

• In 2011, Knut unexpectedly died at the age of four, drowning in his pool after suffering a seizure that resulted from a viral infection in his brain. His mother, Tosca, died in 2015 at the age of 30. (cont)

THE BAD LUCK BEAR

Andrew Thornton was an American narcotics’ officer with the DEA who quit his job with law enforcement in order to become a smuggler. In 1985, he was delivering a load of cocaine from Colombia in his Cessna plane.

During the late-night flight, he became aware that he was being followed by two government planes, who had obviously been tipped off to his payload. Thornton put the plane on autopilot, pushed all of the illicit cargo out of the plane, strapped on a parachute, and jumped.

• Unfortunately, both the parachute and the reserve chute failed to open, and Thornton plummeted to his death in the driveway of a retiree in Knoxville, TN. His unmanned plane crashed 60 miles away in North Carolina.

• The police began searching for the cargo that had been dumped. Media covered the story and encouraged citizens to turn in any suspicious duffel bags they found.    All but one were recovered.

• About ten weeks later, a hunter in Georgia was tracking a wounded deer when he was surprised to find a dead bear in a clearing near an empty duffel bag. When recounting the tale of his hunt, a friend wondered if the duffel bag was the one that the police had been searching for. The hunter led the police to the dead bear.

• Sure enough, the now empty duffel had previously been full of cocaine. Acting on a suspicion, they had the dead bear autopsied. The chief medical examiner from the Georgia State Crime Lab found that the bear’s stomach was packed to the brim with cocaine. The bear had eaten 75 lbs (34 kg) of cocaine, though it would have taken only 3 or 4 grams to kill it.

The bear, known locally as “the cocaine bear” and officially dubbed “Pablo Escobear” was stuffed, passed around to various owners, and is now on display at the Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, Kentucky.