MIGHTY HISTORY

A Canadian officer rescued the real Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh was inspired by an actual bear named "Winnipeg" that lived in London from 1914 to 1934. But she only lived in the zoo thanks to the timely intervention of a Canadian veterinarian assigned to a cavalry unit headed to France.

We've written before about how 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 son. But Pooh bear was inspired by an actual bear at the London Zoo, Winnipeg, 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 Aug. 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.

The trapper explained that he had killed the mother, but then couldn't do the same to the cub. He was asking $20 for the cub, about the same as $500 today. It was a princely sum for a bear cub, but Colebourn paid it out. He named the cub "Winnipeg Bear" after his adopted hometown.

1914 photo of Colebourne and Winnipeg the Bear.

(Library and Archives Canada)

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 to be 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.

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.

Harry Colebourne and Winnipeg the Bear when Winnie was still young.

(Manitoba Provincial Archives)

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 to "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.

The stories that the prolific author told his son were first included in a collection in 1924, followed by a book of stories focused on "Winnie-the-Pooh" in 1926. Today, the stories of the adorable bear and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood endures, 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 Robin 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.