They dance, they wrestle, they maul: Bears have had an uneasy time of it in their roles as pets, mascots, and roadside attractions.
They dance, they wrestle, they maul: Bears have had an uneasy time of it in their roles as pets, mascots, and roadside attractions.
WHEN LONDON’S HUNTERIAN Museum announced in late 2015 that it would exhibit the skull of Winnie, the popular black bear who had been in the London Zoo’s charge from 1914 to 1929, there was a mild outcry. The decision seemed a morbid or even tasteless way to commemorate one of the zoo’s most famous inmates. Some commentators darkly observed that the skull poignantly highlighted the unnatural conditions of the bear’s captivity, as the teeth were badly eroded due to a diet comprised largely of sweets.
For Canadians, the skull exhibit resonates strongly because Winnie is also Canada’s greatest ursine celebrity — there is even a Heritage Minute about her. Many Canadians know that she was named after Winnipeg, the hometown of her original owner, Harry Colebourn. They know he took her to Britain as a mascot of his army unit during the First World War and then placed her in the London Zoo when he was called to action. It was there that this real-life bear served as the inspiration for A.A. Milne’s children’s classic Winnie-the-Pooh.
Winnie certainly did not have the life of a typical Canadian bear. Yet, while her story was exceptional in certain regards, in others it was far from singular.
Winnie was initially taken from the forest near White River, Ontario, by a trapper who had killed her mother. The trapper brought the orphaned cub into town and sold her to Colebourn, who was travelling through town aboard a train that would carry the bear further afield. Similar instances of bears being captured, transported, and then used as pets, mascots, and attractions abound in Canadian history. In fact, doing so was a fairly common practice and a part of popular or vernacular culture from the late-nineteenth century well into the twentieth. It happened from coast to coast to coast in an array of settings, including hinterland work camps, rural farms and ranches, small-town stores and hotels, and even urban homes. Few bears were taken as far or written about as much as Winnie was, and therefore most of their captivity stories are forgotten to history. Nevertheless, the ways Canadians used bears as companion animals, promotional devices, and tourist attractions reveal how values and premiums placed on wildlife have changed over time.
Many bears that fell into the hands of hunters, farmers, and hinterland resource workers were brought to communities where they were displayed at commercial businesses, hotels, and railway depots. Typically they were used to attract and to amuse customers by appealing to their curiosity about wild animals. In effect, they served as living promotional devices, drawing crowds along main street. Though vulnerable when small, bears are very strong. They can be trained to wrestle, to do tricks in anticipation of a handout, and to rear up on their hind legs in expectation of food; many photographs of pet or mascot bears in Canada show them in such a standing position.
In addition to small-town hotels, saloons, and stores, captive bears were closely associated with transportation corridors, which were zones where rural and urban Canadians intermingled. It was not by chance that Harry Colbourne acquired Winnie where he did: White River was a divisional point station on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which meant that all trains stopped there to refuel and to change crews. The trapper who captured Winnie-to-be carried the cub into town knowing that the world not only passed through on the tracks but also tarried awhile on the station platform.
The CPR made Western Canada accessible to well-heeled pleasure travellers, and several of its station masters offered passengers the opportunity to see bears up close. Photographs from the 1890s show a yearling black bear displayed on the veranda of the Fraser Canyon House hotel at North Bend, British Columbia. Around the same time, a grizzly bear named Nancy was kept at the station in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Nancy was a prominent trackside feature due to her pen being attached to the garden beside the station platform. In his travelogue On the Cars and Off, Douglas Sladen observed Nancy to be “a most reasonable beast, to be kept in perfect good humour by presents of single grapes.” Nevertheless, Sladen believed her captivity at such a central location was dangerous, because “bears will be bears — someday.” Nancy reportedly mauled several people, which was ironic, given that a donation box attached to her pen solicited contributions to the local hospital.
Tourists hoped — or even expected — to see bears in Canada’s mountainous national parks, and the CPR sometimes helped them fulfill this wish. In 1908, CPR passengers were invited to feed and to pose for photographs with a bear kept on the grounds of the Mount Stephen House hotel at Field in Yoho National Park, B.C. That fall, the bear grabbed a little boy who wandered within the radius of its chain and dragged him into its den. A construction contractor who witnessed this event managed to rescue the child after a “tough fight” in which he was badly marked about the arms and face. The bear was unceremoniously shot, while newspapers celebrated the contractor as “the hero of the hour in the Rocky Mountains.”
Bears were also held captive at points along the Canadian National Railway, particularly along its route through the Rockies. Aquila and Helen Maxwell brought their pet black bear Ole to the embryonic town of Hinton, Alberta, in 1912 after operating a series of hostels for railway construction workers. They displayed Ole near Hinton’s brand new railway depot, where he was chained to a crate that served as his den. Local children were fascinated by this bear, which had been trained to dance to the violin. However, Ole had to be destroyed after his unpredictable disposition was aggravated by teasing from the army of labourers that passed through town.
While passenger trains followed fixed routes and predictable timetables, the age of mass automobile tourism that began during the interwar years saw travellers explore Canada at their own pace and by routes of their own choosing. Businesses that sprouted up to sell food, gas, and lodging to the motoring public responded to this flexibility with an array of attention-grabbing signs, novelties, and attractions that would help to distinguish them from their competitors. Since many motorists hoped to see large, furry mammals “in the wild” when travelling Canadian roads, putting captive bears on display at roadside businesses struck many operators as a surefire draw.
Postcards and promotional photographs showing roadside bears were common everywhere in Canada. Postcards from Dorchester, New Brunswick, show a soda-swigging bear chained to a post in front of Ward’s Cabins during the 1930s. On the opposite side of the country, the Restmore Lodge and Cabin Camp near Chilliwack, B.C., promoted itself with “Indian handicrafts,” cave tours, and Peggy the soda-drinking black bear. Peggy was kept in a pen beside the road and was chained to a stump carved in the shape of a chair. Customers could purchase candy and carbonated drinks to feed her, but this pastime was so popular on summer long weekends, when pleasure travellers flocked to the roads, that Peggy suffered stomach troubles and had to be cut off from her supply.
Peggy was usually quite docile, but in June 1938 — perhaps driven by the imperatives of mating season — she broke free of her collar and scrambled across the creek that bordered on the property, behaving as if she was “prepared to stay there for an indefinite period.” Efforts to coax and cajole her back into her pen were unsuccessful, so a local doctor was called to the scene. He put morphine and codeine in Peggy’s favourite varieties of pop and ice cream, and only after she consumed these did she allow herself to be led stumbling back to her pen — “doped to the eyebrows,” as the local newspaper put it.
Most human-bear encounters at roadside businesses were benign. However, having noisy children, giddy tourists, and city people unfamiliar with wild animals in close quarters with bears could lead to significant injury and even death. In 1938, a two-year-old boy was badly mauled by a chained bear at Nitzi’s Service Station in northern Ontario’s Timiskaming district. Toronto’s Evening Telegram reported that the supposedly “tame” bear nearly tore the young boy’s scalp off, but the child made a full recovery after receiving a blood transfusion. The same could not be said for the bear, which was clubbed and shot to death by the service station owner. Following this incident, a panel of experts, including the deputy minister of
health, weighed in on the use of captive bears as roadside attractions in Ontario. The panel concluded that “it’s not a very good idea to try to make bears pets.”
Nevertheless, against the experts’ advice, proprietors of roadside businesses in Ontario and other provinces continued using bears to attract customers. In the summer of 1939, a woman from Hamilton was attacked by a gas station bear in northern Ontario, while in August 1940 an eleven-year-old boy was treated for serious lacerations to his legs after he teased a bear with the offering of an empty bottle of soda. The practice of keeping bears captive at roadside stopping places only began a gradual decline in the 1950s, as Canadians recognized the dangers and liabilities of displaying these animals. There was also a broader change in attitudes toward wildlife spurred by suburbanization, the ecology movement, and the popularity of movies like Walt Disney’s Bambi. By the 1970s the practice had been largely relegated to secondary routes, making it rare to find bears kept captive along Canada’s main highways outside the confines of zoos and wildlife parks. Instances of serious injury were less common but did continue, including a 1961 episode where a teenager was severely mauled when he interrupted the feeding of a bear at a service station east of Peterborough, Ontario.
Canada’s thousands of kilometres of new roads made it easier for city-dwelling hunters to go into the bush, including recently opened areas where bears were less familiar with — and less fearful of — humans. New roads helped to drive recreational development in places like the Kawarthas in Ontario, the Whiteshell in Manitoba, and the Shuswap in British Columbia. New roads also led to accidental collisions that killed mother bears, leaving orphans behind. Consequently, Canada’s burgeoning car culture contributed to the unusual and dramatic trend of keeping captive bears in private urban homes.
The popularity of keeping black bears as pets is well documented in Ontario. In 1934, Ontario Game and Fisheries Minister
George H. Challies noted, “there is quite a demand outside the province for bear cubs, which bring from $20 to $50” — not a small amount during the Great Depression. Departmental memorandums instructed game wardens to be certain that any purchaser of a bear cub or cubs, in addition to paying the seller, also purchased a one-dollar licence and paid a sixty-cent royalty to the provincial government.
Some of the bears purchased or captured in Ontario’s forests were destined for life in the big city. Many tried to escape. Teddy, a bear belonging to the Crux family from Etobicoke, Ontario, broke out of his urban confines in September 1940. A week later, a neighbour found him along the side of a road and returned him to the family. Family members were elated to have back their “pet, and perfectly harmless, bear.” Other Toronto-area bears also made daring escapes. Reginald Sparkes, from one of the city’s more affluent neighbourhoods, lost his bear in 1944 and required the fire department’s assistance to retrieve the animal from a tree. After the bear was recaptured using ladder and lasso, a perplexed firefighter asked, “who’d ever expect to find a bear in Forest Hill?” This incident prompted Sparkes to rethink his relationship with the animal; he decided that the busy streets of Toronto were no place for a bear and brought it back to his cottage to be released.
Fugitive bears were certainly newsworthy, but these stories were even more notable when they involved a prominent family. In August 1938, O.D. Skelton — undersecretary of state in the federal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King — made headlines not for his acumen in international relations but because his family’s pet bear had escaped from their home in Rockcliffe, near Ottawa. At the time, the renegade bear was still so small that Skelton’s son Alex was bottle-feeding the animal. After the bear was recaptured, the Skeltons’ reunion with their pet was short-lived, for the council of Rockcliffe promptly passed an ordinance prohibiting residents from keeping bears as pets.
Whether at trackside stations, at roadside businesses, or in the family home, the private keeping of bears as pets was highly unusual and
blurred traditional relationships between humans and companion animals. Unlike typical pets, bears’ bodies still held value.
For example, in 1934, J.C. Patterson captured two black bear cubs and brought them back to his residence in Brampton, Ontario. By February 1937, the pair had passed their pet stage and tipped the scales at a combined weight of 340 kilograms. Unable to properly care for the animals, Patterson attempted to donate them to the local zoo for fear that they would be targeted by hunters if he released them into the wild. When the zoo refused to take the ursine pair, Patterson, in a cruel twist of irony, decided it was best to shoot them himself. It was later reported that a butcher cut the animals into roasts and steaks for their owner’s consumption.
In Simcoe County, Ontario, Clarence Fraser’s pet bear escaped in the autumn of 1937, much to the chagrin of his neighbours. Once he located the missing bruin he had the undesirable task of shooting his beloved pet, as he felt he could no longer safely keep the animal. Fraser lamented the decision but took solace in the fact that the bear would remain part of the family — adorning their living room as a new rug.
These and many similar instances demonstrate that Canadians rarely treated bears as domestic pets in the manner reserved for dogs and cats. Bears were valued differently, and when their maintenance, and even risk factor, superseded their perceived value, they often ended up on the chopping block.
These vignettes illustrate just a few aspects of Canadians’ complicated relationship with captive bears from the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. While Winnie of White River remains the best-known of the bunch, her rise to fame in a distant imperial metropolis cannot obscure the fact that most captive bears were not destined for a storybook ending. Some bears fell into captivity after being rescued by good-hearted people who could not stand to leave orphaned cubs in the wild. Others were taken from similar circumstances by profit-minded individuals, and still others were hunted down with the specific intention of their being made a captive. But regardless of how a bear came into captivity, a sad fate awaited most that did. Captive bears that showed signs of aggression, caused accidental injuries, or learned to escape were likely to be passed on to another owner, released back into environments to which they were unaccustomed, or killed.
Nothing about the nature of bears has changed since the middle decades of the twentieth century. What has changed are the values Canadians place on these animals and the ways we interact with them. Our relationship with bears has changed for the better, overall, and we have become both better informed and more compassionate in our dealings with them. Canadians no longer think of bears as viable candidates for captivity as pets or attractions; most believe their rightful place is in the wilderness, sometimes with protective measures. Although the practice of ordinary Canadians keeping bears as pets and mascots has fallen by the wayside, what lives on is the public’s desire to observe bears — in the wild, beside a highway, in zoos and wildlife parks, on the printed page, and online. Looking beyond Winnie to the broader history of how Canadians have kept bears in cages, on chains, and in backyard pens goes some way toward explaining our continuing fascination with these animals and, ultimately, elucidating our own human nature.
Nancy of Medicine Hat was “a most reasonable beast” who helped to raise funds for a hospital.
Lower right: A postcard of a sodaswigging bear at Dorchester, New Brunswick, circa 1930s.
Left: A woman holds a bear cub at the Stanley Park Zoo in Vancouver, circa 1954.
Upper right: A woman and a chained bear at Field, British Columbia, circa 1908.
Right: A girl with two bear cubs in Port Arthur, Ontario, late 1950s.
Above: Two women approach a black bear at the nuisance grounds of Banff National Park, Alberta, circa 1951.
Below: A man wrestles with a trained bear, circa 1902.