For those who have seen the recently released biographical drama “Goodbye Christopher Robin” (2017) how many know the story of how the bear named Winnie got her name? Or, how she arrived at London Zoo? An earlier film entitled “A Bear Named Winnie” was made in Canada in 2004 and was inspired by this true story.
Having enlisted many years earlier into the Canadian Army, Lt Harry Colebourn had served with both the Fort Garry Horse Regiment as well as the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps (CAVC). Shortly after the start of World War one, he was en route to a training camp in Valcartier, Quebec. Passing through White River in Ontario, Harry saved a female bear cub from a hunter, who had already killed its mother.
With no other option other than to keep her with him, Lt Colebourn named the bear ‘Winnie’ short for Winnipeg, where his section of the CAVC was raised. She was adopted as the mascot for the Unit. As she grew, Winnie bonded with most of the men in the Unit and sought out human company. As a consequence, it was impossible to return Winnie and expect her to survive.
With the CAVC readying to leave for the trenches of France, Lt Colebourn realised that he could not take Winnie with him into the field of battle. But, what to do with her? Without human companionship and interaction, Winnie would almost certainly become lonely, depressed and possibly even die.
The answer was to entrust her to the London Zoo where Winnie could receive constant visitors and get the attention she had become used to.
The author A A Milne took his young son Christopher for days out at the Zoo and very soon Winnie became their favourite animal. Milne began writing stories about Christopher and the bear, who they initially called Edward. However, Christopher had a stuffed toy swan which he called Pooh and soon he had added that name to the bear, who became known thereafter as “Winnie-the-Pooh”.
Lt Harry Colebourn visited Winnie whenever he was on leave from France throughout the war and recorded his visits in his diary. After the war ended, Harry saw for himself how loved she was by all the visitors to the Zoo. So, he decided he should not take her back to Canada and donated her to the care of the Zoo on a permanent basis in December 1918. Harry was constantly updated
about her condition and how she was faring. Winnie died aged 20 on the 12 May 1934 but has never been forgotten.
In addition to the two films, a bronze statue unveiled in 1981 stands in her memory at the London Zoo. In 1996, Canada Post commissioned a set of four stamps depicting the story of this little black bear from Canada. A commemorative festival is held each year at White River in Ontario and a collection of memorabilia can be seen at the White River Heritage Museum.
A truly heart-warming true story of a veteran Canadian soldier and his compassion for animals.