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A Canadian Officer Rescued the Real Winnie-the-Pooh

The beloved children’s book character was based on a real-life black bear cub.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Did you know that the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh were, at least in part, the result of a World War I veteran trying to explain war and his own PTSD to his young son? Moreover, author A.A. Milne based the beloved character on an actual bear at the London Zoo. Her name was Winnipeg, and she was rescued by a Canadian cavalry veterinarian on his way to France for combat.

Harry Colebourn was born an Englishman, but moved to Canada to study veterinary surgery. When World War I broke out and British subjects were called up to defend the empire, he joined the unit of Fort Garry Horse to treat the horses. On August 24, 1914, he was traveling with his unit by train when they stopped at a small lumber town.

Colebourn got off to stretch his legs like everyone else, but he spotted a trapper standing near the train, trying to sell a small bear cub. Colebourn got into veterinarian sciences because of his love of animals, and the baby bear captured his heart almost immediately.

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The trapper explained that he had killed the mother, but couldn’t do the same to the cub. He was asking a princely sum for the bear cub, but Colebourn paid it out. He named the cub “Winnipeg Bear” after his adopted hometown.

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  • The original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed toys. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The bear cub followed Colebourn around during training, climbing trees and begging for treats as the cavalrymen and the veterinarian trained to take on the Kaiser’s armies. Winnie quickly rose in rank herself to become the regimental mascot. By October, the men were on their way to England with Winnie in tow for final training and then deployment.

In England, Winnie was once again popular, but it was quickly clear that the front in France would be no place for the animal. Colebourn, hoping that the war would be over within months, arranged for Winnie to spend a little time in a brand new bear habitat at the London Zoo. He promised her that they would return to Canada together once the war ended.

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But, of course, the war did not end quickly. Colebourn went to the front in December 1914, and the war would go on for almost four more years. He visited Winnie whenever the unit was granted leave or pass in England, but the war dragged on too long for their relationship. By the time it was over, Winnie was well-established in London, and pulling her out would have been a disservice.

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  • Christopher Robin Milne (left) and Harry Colebourn & Winnie the Bear at the London Zoo (right). 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So she remained there, a celebrity of the post-war city. Children, especially, loved their war-time gift from the Canadian officer. It was there that a young Christopher Robin Milne, the proud owner of a teddy bear named Edward, first met Winnie. He was smitten with the black bear, and renamed his teddy “Winnie the Pooh,” combining her name with the name of a swan he used to feed.

The boy’s father, A.A. Milne, began using Christopher’s stuffed animals to tell him stories, including stories about his own responses to the war. A.A. Milne had fought on the Western Front, same as Colebourn, and it was a horrible place to be.

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Christopher's teddy bear first appeared in one of his father's poems in 1924, followed by the book Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926. Today, the stories of the adorable bear and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood endure, largely thanks to a Canadian veterinarian who saved the cub and an English veteran who told the stories.

By the way, Winnie really did love honey, and Christopher was able to feed it to her on at least one occasion. Unfortunately, her sweet tooth and the tendency of the English to let her indulge led to her developing periodontitis, a painful gum disease. Winnie eventually died in 1934 at the age of 20, and was mourned by Londoners who remembered her gentle and playful nature.