The Real Winnie the Pooh (Was a Canadian Army Pet)
If you barge into your nearest English literature department and demand to know the identity of the real bear who inspired A.A. Milne’s wholesome teddy who toddles around in a red t-shirt and no panties, they tend to look at you funny. “What do you mean, ‘real bear’?” they might say. “It’s a drawing that talks. Please get off my desk.” Except they wouldn’t (maybe the desk part), because there really was a gentle black bear named Winnie that won the hearts of London zoogoers, including Christopher Robin Milne, though it was a long journey from Canadian army pet to English attraction.
Will the Real Winnie the Pooh Please Stand Up?
To be fair, the real Winnie was pretty different from the cartoon character based on her. She was a she, for one thing, and as a black bear, she was, you know, quite a bit darker (though, confusingly, not all black bears are black). Winnie was also a nickname; technically, everyone’s favorite half-naked bear’s full name is Winnipeg.
Winnie’s Tragic Backstory
Winnie was born in Canada in 1914, but that’s about where her luck ended at the time. When she was about seven months old, her mother was killed by a trapper in White River, Ontario who didn’t have the heart to finish off the baby, so he did the normal thing and put her on a leash and took her to the local train station to see if anyone there wanted to buy a bear.
Amazingly enough, they did. Well, at least one person did: Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture and freshly minted soldier on his way to basic training. Without an apparent thought to the logistics of escorting a bear across province lines to Quebec, he paid the trapper $20 for the bear, who he named after his hometown. That would be more than $400 in today’s money. Dude was really into that bear.
The Canadian Army
Somehow, Colebourn got Winnie to his training camp, where his superiors were apparently like, “Ah, you brought a bear, sweet.” She became a beloved pet of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, sleeping under Colebourn’s cot, accompanying him all around camp, climbing tent poles, and getting absolutely smothered with attention from the soldiers, who played with her every chance they got. If you had to be in the army during World War I, this is where you wanted to be.
Traveling to England
Only about two months after he acquired his new life partner, Colebourn was called to England, so naturally, he packed Winnie up and brought her with. Again, everyone was freakishly cool with this, until he was called again to the front lines in France. This, it was decided, was the army’s limit for tolerating ursine shenanigans, and Colebourn was informed he’d have to find some kind of bear kennel.
A Home in London
Again, Colebourn lucked into a place to home his bear friend. It just so happened the London Zoo had just opened a new bear habitat, and they were willing to take Winnie in while Colebourn defended her freedoms and stuff. He promised to come back for her when the war was over before tearfully parting, as many young lovers did, except, you know, one of them was a bear.
The London Zoo
That ended up being a lot longer than Colebourn expected -- about four years, to be exact. In the meantime, Winnie became the London Zoo’s biggest attraction. She was so accustomed to humans that she allowed zoogoers to ride her back and feed her condensed milk, which obviously amounts to the best day of a child’s (and quite a few adults’) life. By the time Colebourn came back for her, he couldn’t justify taking her from the children of London, so he went back to Canada alone, knowing his heart would go on.
Enter A. A. Milne
One of the kids who went particularly batshit for Winnie was Christopher Robin Milne, (obviously) the son of A.A. Milne. They always had a fairly strained relationship, neither really knowing what to do with the other unless they were making up stories in the woods -- or taking a trip to the zoo. In truth, the older Milne was all but forgotten once they reached the bear habitat, when they would ask the keeper to open Winnie’s cage, “and with a happy cry of, ‘Oh, Bear!’ Christopher Robin rushe into its arms.” He very well may have liked the bear more than his dad, to the point of renaming his teddy bear, then sensibly named Edward, to Winnie.
Why “The Pooh”?
The second half of the tubby little cubby’s name is a little more confusing. Christopher Robin also knew a swan -- because when you live in England, sometimes you know swans -- that he called Pooh because it was the noise he made to express his displeasure when the swan didn’t behave as desired, which is the only way swans behave. It’s unclear why he also bestowed it upon his beloved teddy bear, who was never disobedient, when it’s just as bad a name for a bear as for a swan. Kids are weird, man.
The Canonical Explanation for “Pooh”
Weirdly enough, Milne gives a different reason that Winnie is the Pooh in the first Winnie the Pooh story. After an incident in which Pooh’s arms became “so stiff from holding on to the string of the balloon all the time that they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose, he had to blow it off. And I think -- but I am not sure -- that that is why he was always called Pooh.” Which is a bizarre thing to write, because he knows. We know that he knows. Writers are weird, man.
Don’t Cry For Winnie the Pooh Bear
Meanwhile, back at the London Zoo, Winnie enjoyed about a decade of international fame before she died in 1934 at the age of 20. That might not sound like a lot, but that’s an old-ass bear. That’s the equivalent of dying at 98 surrounded by family after a particularly good meal at the Olive Garden.
You can still see Winnie, or at least part of her, if you’re prepared to literally stare death in the face. In 1934, the Royal College of Surgeons got their hands on her skull, and they waited a respectful 80 years to display it in their museum, but now everyone can go visit a much less cuddly version of Winnie.
Tributes to Winnie
For a slightly less macabre tourist activity, tons of statues have been erected of Winnie, including one in the London Zoo and one in Winnipeg depicting her and Colebourn holding hands. They finally made it home, you guys! There’s even a whole Winnie museum near where she was found. There’s not a lot going on in White River, Ontario.
What About Winnie the Pooh?
The O.G. Pooh Bear -- that is, Christopher Robin Milne’s stuffed animal -- lives on, too. He’s on display at the New York Public Library, and while he looks about as haggard as you’d expect a century-old scrap of fabric to look, he’s in remarkably good shape considering most of our teddy bears didn’t survive summer camp.
The Other Residents of the Hundred Acre Wood
The rest of the Pooh gang had real-life inspirations, too, though they were just other stuffed animals owned by Christopher Robin that were named based on the type of animal they were as pronounced by a child’s stupid mouth. Not everything is a story, guys.
Top image: Walt Disney Television Animation