The biography of Smokey Bear: the cartoon came first

After he was rescued from a fire in New Mexico and nursed back to health, Smokey Bear was sent to the National Zoo.
After he was rescued from a fire in New Mexico and nursed back to health, Smokey Bear was sent to the National Zoo. (1950 Photo)
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By John Kelly
Sunday, April 25, 2010

Can you please verify the story behind Smokey the Bear? I recall him as a permanent resident at the National Zoo from visits there as a child, but the memory is so distant and vague that I am unsure whether the story is real or something I am making up from various fragments. Wasn't he a rescue animal from a forest fire out West?

-- Raphael (Rocky) Semmes, Alexandria

His official name is actually "Smokey Bear" -- no "the." And, yes, he did live for many years at the National Zoo. But before there was a real bear, there was a cartoon bear. In other words, Smokey Poster inspired Smokey Bear, not the other way around.

The push for public awareness of forest-fire prevention heated up during World War II when balloon-borne Japanese incendiary devices managed to start fires in the Pacific Northwest. A 1943 poster showed a leering Tojo and Hitler over a burning forest, along with the words "Our Carelessness . . . Their Secret Weapon."

Bambi, fresh off the success of his eponymous film, joined the effort in 1944, proving that although people might have trouble listening to humans, they had no problem listening to animals. As Walt Disney had lent Bambi for just a year, the deer was replaced by a bear. On Aug. 9, 1944, Smokey Bear first appeared on a poster, along with the slogan, "Smokey says -- Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!" Three years later, Smokey's mantra had been amended to the now familiar "Remember -- Only you can prevent forest fires!"

In May 1950, sparks from a camp stove (or a casually discarded cigarette -- reports vary) started a fire in the Capitan Gap of New Mexico's Lincoln Forest. By the time the fire was out, 17,000 acres had been consumed. Among the survivors: a 3-month-old black bear cub discovered clinging to a singed pine tree by a crew of firefighters brought in from Texas.

The bear was given the nickname "Hotfoot Teddy" and flown to Santa Fe for treatment of his burned paws and legs. New Mexico game warden Ray Bell, his wife, Ruth, and their 4-year-old daughter, Judy, nursed the cub back to health with a diet of Pablum (a soft infant cereal) and milk mixed with honey.

The Forest Service saw in this orphaned cub the opportunity to personify -- well, animalify -- the emblem of its fire-prevention efforts. Flown to Washington with much fanfare, Teddy became Smokey and went to live at the National Zoo.

What was life like for Smokey? Who can say. He was a favorite with young visitors, for whom the bipedal, denim- and ranger hat-wearing cartoon bear was a very recognizable symbol. But something was missing from Smokey's life. In 1962, he "married" Goldie Bear. It was hoped that they would provide a future generation of Smokies. They did not, and in 1971 the pair "adopted" another orphaned cub from the Lincoln Forest: Little Smokey (a.k.a. Young Smokey, a.k.a. Smokey Jr.).

In a 1974 article by Kenneth Turan in The Washington Post magazine, the aging Smokey Bear comes off as a somewhat sad creature, an ursine Howard Hughes. Wrote Turan: "Moving with an awful reluctance, his back legs stiff and just about immobile, he paws wearily at the nearest fish."

Beset by old age, arthritis and the lingering affects of his childhood burns, Smokey spent most of his time sleeping. By then, giant pandas Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, recent gifts from the Peoples Republic of China, had become the zoo's star attractions.

Smokey died Nov. 9, 1976. He was eulogized in The Post with a full-blown obituary. His body was flown back to New Mexico and is buried under a plaque in Capitan that reads "This is the resting place of the first living Smokey Bear . . . the living symbol of wildfire prevention and wildlife conservation." Little Smokey died Aug. 11, 1990.

Smokey's cartoon persona has outlived the real bear, as cartoon personas tend to do. But his message remains: Only you can . . . well, you know.

Luna landing

The photograph that accompanied last week's column about Luna Park was not of the Arlington amusement park but of the Luna Park in Pittsburgh, one of dozens of the same name across the country.

Send your questions to answerman@washpost.com.


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