My young son went to day camp at the local nature center on Friday. The topic was bears and he was pleased to spring a "did you know" on us as we sat around the dinner table, proving once again that one can learn important things from a seven-year-old. His mastery of animal trivia rivals my fascination with geo-oddities and, by happy coincidence, his topic crossed both dimensions. By an improbable set of circumstances, Winnipeg, the capital city of Manitoba, Canada, is invoked by children around the globe millions of times per day.
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Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg
The First World War raged across Western Europe as each side delivering ever larger quantities of men and material to break the stalemate. Great Britain reached out to every corner of the Dominions including Canada. There, Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian by trade, worked in Winnipeg for the Health of Animals Branch of the Department of Agriculture. He was also a lieutenant in the 34th Regiment of Cavalry and he quickly took a leave of absence from his civilian job to support the cause.
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White River, Ontario
Lt. Colebourn left Winnipeg by train in August 1914, bound for military duties in Valcartier, Quebec. The train stopped briefly at White River, a small town built around the harvesting of timber from nearby forests deep within Ontario. Here he encountered a hunter who sold him an orphaned Black Bear cub for $20. The officer named his new companion "Winnipeg" and she joined him on his journey.
The bear traveled to Quebec and then accompanied Lt. Colebourn on his cross-Atlantic voyage to England. Thoroughly docile, Winnipeg quickly became the darling mascot of the Fort Garry Horse. However, everything changed when the brigade was called up to the front. The battlefields of France would be an inappropriate environment for a bear.
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London Zoo at Regent’s Park
He didn’t abandon his bear. Rather, he arranged for her care at the London Zoo. Winnipeg the bear would be delivered to Winnipeg the city at the conclusion of hostilities. However, it didn’t unfold that way. Lt. Colebourn remained in England for awhile after the war. He decided to donate Winnipeg to the London Zoo permanently where she became a popular attraction especially with the children.
She was so thoroughly friendly and domesticated that zookeepers would sometimes let children inside her cage to feed and pet her (can you imagine the liabilities if someone tried that today?). After a long, full life as far as bears go, she passed away in 1934.
Winnipeg so captivated one young child that he borrowed her nickname for his stuffed bear toy. That child was Christopher Robin Milne and his bear of course was Winnie-the-Pooh.
Citizens at each improbable geographic nexus commemorate Winnipeg the Bear and her connection to Winnie-the-Pooh. Here are some notable examples:
- A statue of Lt. Colebourn and his bear on display at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg (via Flickr).
- A Disney-fied commemoration in White River, Ontario (via Panoramio).
- Winnipeg in bronze at the London Zoo (via Flickr).
There is also a plaque that accompanies the London Zoo statue that reads:
by Lorne McKean
friendly and famous
American Black Bear
mascot of Princess Pats
who came to the Zoo
in 1914 while her
regiment went on
to fight in France
and who lived here
known and loved
by many children
until her death in 1934
She gave her name to
AA Milne and
Ernest Shepard gave
Winnie-the-Pooh to the world
Thus Winnipeg the city begat Winnipeg the bear begat Winnie-the-Pooh the stuffed animal, begat Winnie-the-Pooh the book character and cultural icon.
Winnie-the-Pooh was real and the Hundred Acre Wood exists somewhere near White River, Ontario.