It’s weird to discover that among tales of imaginary heffalumps and confused North Poles, Winnie the Pooh was more grounded in reality than you’d think. Christopher Robin Milnes, son of the author of Winnie the Pooh, frequently fed honey to his ursine friend Winnie, a black bear who lived at the London Zoo. This bear was the namesake for the boy’s stuffed bear as well, which is almost enough to make you start looking around for insecure rabbits and pompous owls. History didn’t quite sync up with the books, of course, starting with the fact that Winnie was female. And Canadian.
In 1914, Harry Colebourn, young veterinarian in the Canadian army, was traveling by train across Canada towards an eventual deployment to Europe. At one of the station stops, he saw a black bear cub in the possession of a trapper, which he bought for $20 on the spot. At first his compatriots thought this purchase, made at the modern equivalent of $330 (US), was nuts, especially since they had to ride in the train with the bear as well. In time though, the young cub, named Winnipeg after Colebourn’s home, charmed everyone in the unit, and was eventually adopted as the mascot of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade. She traveled with Colebourn to England, where he realized that they must part ways in order to save Winnie from the dangers of the fighting that was to come.
Imaginary and real friends
Before Colebourn was deployed to France, he arranged to place Winnie in London Zoo. The bear had clearly bonded with the young soldier, but quickly started making new human friends at her new home. Among these was the aforementioned Christopher Robin, who was smitten with Winnie. In addition to frequent visits, the young boy cemented her place in children’s literature by renaming his favorite stuffed bear after her. The “Pooh” moniker was attached later by Christopher’s father, A. A. Milne, and the drawings of Winnie the Pooh by illustrator Ernest Shepard were actually based on his son’s teddy bear, Growler.
Interaction with the animals
At this point in the 1920s, one of the London Zoo’s missions was just to build interest in wildlife among the British public, and they promoted celebrity animals like Jumbo the elephant, Obaysch the hippo and of course, Winnie the bear. With less concerns over respect for the natural condition of the wildlife, visitors would often interact with this animals, getting rides from Jumbo, avoiding Obaysch for safety’s sake, and in the case of Winnie, showering her with affection and feeding her honey.
Winnie seemed to do well enough in such an environment, living to be 20 years old, a bit more than the ten years most black bears live in the wild, but not hitting the peak age of 30 either. Some of Winnie’s aging may be attributable to Christopher Robin’s affection, as a recent exhibit featuring the bear’s skull was noted for clear signs of tooth decay. As charming as Winnie the Pooh’s endless hunt for honey may be for a stuffed bear, it looks like the real Winnie should might have benefited from a few more thistles or haycorns in her diet.
Source: Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick, Little, Brown and Company