Writer stumbles upon birthplace of lovable honey-loving stuffed bear

Most us have grown up with Winnie the Pooh, either reading the stories by A.A. Milne, or perhaps watching the Disney cartoons.  He is known for his love of honey, his slightly befuddled thinking, and his ability to get into scrapes (especially those involving trying to find honey).  His friends, the other stuffed animals, help him in various ways – according to their abilities and idiosyncrasies.  Owl, for instance, is exceptionally bright and has a reputation for solving the most urgent problems the friends stumble upon.  Yet, he is forgetful and sometimes misspells common words.

Statue of Lt. Harry Colebourn and Winnie the Bear, located in Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg. Winnie the Pooh, created by A.A. Milne, took inspiration from Winnie the Bear to create his popular series. Photo by Karen Flaten

The stories are so well loved that some of us have gone so far as to self-identify with one or  other of the characters.  “I am a Piglet,” claimed my friend Heather, referencing Winnie the Pooh’s sidekick Piglet, who tends to be rather anxious.  I was surprised, as I had never seen her as being anxious, and said as much.  “Oh, yes, underneath this calm exterior, I am extremely anxious,” she said.  Wendy, another friend, smiled.  “And I am a Tigger,” she said.  Again, I was surprised, as my impression of Tigger from the Winnie the Pooh stories is that the striped tiger was always jumping around, hugging everyone, and was difficult to calm down.  Wendy seemed pretty self-possessed, although she was certainly always ready with a smile, and often saw the funny side of things.  A short while later, Wendy shared a story from her early working years, when she worked at a nursing home and arrived at work every day doing back flips and cartwheels, acrobatics which did not please the nursing home administration. Wendy didn’t stay long at the job, but she did learn her lesson, unlike Tigger, whose character has not changed no matter which rendition we find him in.

The Canadian Medical Association took an analysis of the Pooh characters’ various psychological profiles a step further, releasing a somewhat tongue-in-cheek report in 2000 which assigned bona fide psychological diagnoses to the characters in the Winnie the Pooh stories.  Winnie the Pooh is stated to likely be afflicted with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), evidenced by his inability to pay attention.  He is also obsessed with finding honey (one might say he has an addiction to honey), which may be related to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).   He is also obese and may be suffering from “shaken bear syndrome,” due to having been dragged down stairs with his head bumping against each tread (by his owner, Christopher Robin).   Piglet, flustered and anxious, is diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, as well as low self-esteem.  Tigger – exuberant, happy-go-lucky Tigger – has ADHD and exhibits “risk-taking behaviors.”  Eeyore is diagnosed with a major depressive disorder.  Owl, considered the most intelligent of all the characters, also displays symptoms of dyslexia and short-term memory loss.  The other characters have been similarly diagnosed.

Whether they were created with psychological disorders in mind or just distortions of eccentricities observed in ordinary people, A.A. Milne created a wonderful world that generations of children have grown up with.  Many of us enjoyed the Winnie the Pooh stories enough to learn that they were inspired by a stuffed bear that was a favorite of the author’s son.  We loved the setting and the imagined expeditions into the woods with the toy bear and other stuffed animals.  A.A. Milne created characters that were funny and had idiosyncrasies that we could relate to.  Maybe we questioned idly how a bear became named Winnie the Pooh, but most of us didn’t dwell on the question.  But perhaps, in the back of our minds, we wondered.

So imagine my surprise when, on a recent trip to Winnipeg, I came across a reference to the origin of Winnie the Pooh.  Listed in a brochure of sights to see in the city, were the Winnie the Bear statue and the Pooh Gallery, both located in Assiniboine Park, a huge, rambling park on the banks of the Assiniboine River.  I was intrigued that there could be a prequel to the Winnie the Pooh stories, so I investigated further.  Here is what I found:

Lt. Harry Colebourn with Winnie.
Contributed photo

It was 1914, just at the beginning of World War I.  Lt. Harry Colebourn was a recent graduate from veterinary school who had joined the Fort Garry Horse Regiment (a regiment from Winnipeg) with the expectation of taking care of the horses during the war.  He journeyed by train to Quebec for training.  But stopping at a small station in Windy River, Ontario, Colebourn saw a young bear cub in the hands of a trapper.  The mother had been killed, and the orphaned bear cub was for sale.  Colebourn purchased the bear cub for $20 and brought her with him on the train ride to meet up with his regiment.  Colebourn named the bear “Winnie,” in honor of his hometown, Winnipeg.

It is hard to imagine these days that a train passenger would find a bear cub for sale at a train station.  Nowadays, you would have to go to a pet store that sells exotic pets, find a seller online, or perhaps adopt an animal from a sanctuary.  And bears are only legal to own as pets in a handful of our United States, although laws are less restrictive in some areas of Canada.  But you would not be likely to find an exotic pet store at a typical railway station, and certainly not at a train station in a small town.  And working out the transportation for the exotic animal would be difficult.  Checking Amtrak’s website, I found no reference to exotic animals or exotic pets, but Amtrak has only recently begun to allow dogs and cats to be brought on board, with several restrictions.  Amtrak’s website states:  “We happily welcome dogs and cats up to 20 pounds for trips up to seven hours on most routes (some restrictions apply*).” The pet must be contained in a pet carrier, and there are various other restrictions.  Amtrak requires that pet owners also sign a Pet Release and Indemnification Agreement.  So – it doesn’t sound like a pet bear could be brought on the train in this day and age…but a hundred years ago, things were different.  In Colebourn’s day, bears would have often been seen performing in circuses, perhaps even occasionally performing on a city street.  Exotic pets were de rigueur in the Victorian Age and beyond, with animal welfare groups yet to be formed.

But back to Winnie the Bear….it turned out the men in the unit loved the bear cub also.  Soon, Winnie became the unit’s mascot.  She was a lovable young thing, and there was a strong bond between her and Colebourn.  The unit brought her along to England, where they were assigned for further training.  After reaching England, and more training, the regiment was to be deployed to France.  At this point, Colebourn knew he couldn’t bring Winnie along.  He reached out to the London Zoo and secured a place for Winnie there.  His plan was to bring her back with him to Winnipeg after the war.

But the London Zoo provided a good home for Winnie, and she flourished.  Her pleasant disposition created a large fan base for her.  People brought their children to the zoo to visit Winnie; within a short time, Winnie the Bear became a star.  Colebourn returned from the front intending to bring Winnie back to Winnipeg but changed his mind after seeing how happy she was at the London Zoo and returned to Canada alone.

The Great War was something of a game changer for the world.  The horrors of war were felt by many; thousands lost their lives or returned quite damaged.  A war-weary public was enchanted by the warm-hearted ways of Winnie the Bear, who allowed visitors to feed her by hand and even allowed children to ride on her back.  By the early 1920s, she was still drawing a large crowd at the zoo. In fact, Alan Alexander Milne, himself a former soldier, brought his young son, Christopher Robin, to see her.  She impressed Christopher so much that he renamed his toy bear, previously called Edward, after her.  Winnie, he called the bear.  Adding “the Pooh” to Winnie’s name (perhaps after a swan that Christopher Robin used to feed, which he called “Pooh”) completed the name we know now.   

Lt. Harry Colebourn with Winnie the Bear. Contributed photo

A.A. Milne had been a successful author and playwright before the war.  After the war, affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (then known as shell-shock), Milne purchased a cottage close to Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England, which soon became the setting for the Hundred Acre Woods.  Milne and his son enjoyed hiking in the woods, and Christopher often brought his stuffed bear along. Soon, the bear and other characters became a subject for Milne’s writing – both poetry and stories.  The stories featuring Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh became childhood favorites in England and then in North America.

Folks in Winnipeg must have known the story of Winnie the Pooh’s origin for many years, but it is only recently that Pooh Gallery was opened in the pavilion in Assiniboine Park, with exhibits documenting Colebourn’s time with Winnie and other artifacts.  In 1992, a statue showing Lt. Harry Colebourn playing with a very young Winnie the Bear was created and installed in the Assiniboine Park Zoo.  It was later moved to the whimsical Nature Playground in Assiniboine Park.  In September 2018, the Nature Playground included beautiful flower beds, as well as numerous fanciful play areas for children to play in and on.  At its entrance is the statue of Winnie the Bear with Lt. Harry Colebourn.

Winnie the Pooh’s adventures were a salve to the shell-shocked world of post-World War I, a fantasy that was cute and funny and brought healing to a world that had seen too much.  A.A. Milne brought us a story that inspired and restored, made us laugh and made us cry.  How moving is it to find out that the real bear did the same – in her own way?  She inspired a young veterinarian, an entire troop of soldiers, a generation of visitors at the zoo – and then became the namesake for a child’s toy bear and the amusing stories crafted by a father enjoying the make-believe world of his young son.  Thank you, Winnie the Bear!