Beyond Win­nie

They dance, they wres­tle, they maul: Bears have had an un­easy time of it in their roles as pets, mas­cots, and road­side at­trac­tions.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Mike Com­mito and Ben Bradley

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.

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