Seven bears who changed the world

Far from being average bears, these cuddly critters have found fame on screen in literature and even in battle.

Seven bears who changed the world © U.S. Department of Agriculture

Wojtek the army bear

With a penchant for drinking and smoking, Wojtek had much in common with many other privates serving in World War II – but this private was a bear. When hunters killed his mother, Wojtek was adopted by members of the Polish II Corps. After being raised on condensed milk, the bear developed a taste for wine and beer, and would even take the odd puff on a cigarette (before promptly swallowing it).

Wojtek the bear
Wojtek the bear

As the army prepared to push forward into Italy, Wojtek was officially drafted into the ranks to cheat the ‘no pets on camp’ rule, and was commended for his bravery after helping to carry ammunition into battle.



Considering he hated his nickname, it’s ironic that Theodore Roosevelt has been immortalised in the eponymous teddy bear. The link came about following a hunting trip in 1902, during which the President had refused to shoot dead a captured bear.

"Teddy" Roosevelt © Washington Post / The Archives of American Art
“Teddy” Roosevelt © Washington Post / The Archives of American Art

A cartoon relating the tale was published in The Washington Post, inspiring Morris Michtom to create a stuffed toy in his honour. Roosevelt gave him permission to use his name, and the rest, as they say, is history.



The award for the most polite individual on the list goes to a certain duffle-coat-wearing, marmalade-eating, Peruvian spectacled bear. Yes, he has the advantage of speech and, well, being fictional, but his formal manner has earned him worldwide respect. His creator, Michael Bond, found inspiration in a lone teddy bear at London’s Paddington Station in 1956.

Paddington Bear at Paddington Station @ Wikimedia Commons
Paddington Bear at Paddington Station @ Wikimedia Commons

Ten days later, his well-mannered character had been brought to life. But don’t be deceived, this bear drives a mean bargain, and one of his ‘hard stares’ may leave you questioning every decision you ever made.


Bart the Oscar nominee

Like so many celebrities, Bart was born into stardom. His mother was an actress, so it was only natural that he should follow in her footsteps and find fame on screen. He made his debut in the TV series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams while still a cub, and later appeared alongside names like Robert Redford, Daryl Hannah and Brad Pitt.

Bart the bear with trainer Doug Seus © Shannon Foley
Bart the bear with trainer Doug Seus © Shannon Foley

His career reached its zenith in 1988, when one of the Academy Awards’ voting members nominated him for his portrayal of a bear in, erm, The Bear. Though the prize was snatched by a human, Bart’s contribution to cinema will be forever cherished.


Rocky the paratrooper

When members of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team decided that they needed a mascot, they went to the zoo and asked for a bear. Her name was Rocky, and during her ‘tour of duty’ carried out five parachute jumps, qualifying her for official paratrooper status. Despite this, she apparently disliked the jumps, as she once gnawed the boot of a man who had ‘helped’ her out of the plane.



Winnipeg the Bear @ Archives of Manitoba / Caters News
Winnipeg the Bear @ Archives of Manitoba / Caters News

Winnipeg the bear, or Winnie as she is better known, provided the inspiration for one of literature’s most loved characters. After being purchased by a Canadian lieutenant at the start of World War I, Winnipeg accompanied him to England, where she was donated to London Zoo. She caught the attention of a young boy named Christopher Robin Milne, who changed the name of his teddy to Winnie-the-Pooh. He in turn became the subject of his father’s famous children’s books.



Smokey The Bear © US Department of Forestry
Smokey The Bear © US Department of Forestry

Created in 1944 as part of a campaign to educate the US public about the dangers of forest fires, Smokey was initially just a cartoon. That was until 1950, when an American black bear cub was rescued from a wildfire in the Capitan Mountains. With his paws and hind legs singed, the bear was originally called ‘Hotfoot Teddy’, but was later renamed Smokey after the mascot.