Winnie the bear gives life to Winnie the Pooh

Yogi, Winnie and Smokey.

They walk, they talk and they even wear some clothes. Beyond that, they are all members of the bear family.

Yet, there are some differences. Two of these cartoon characters are purely fictional, while the other is grounded in reality.

Long before the world heard of Tigger, Piglet and Eeyore, the tale of Winnie the Pooh began to unfold in the woods of northern Ontario in 1914. Although he was not a character in the tales of Winnie the Pooh, Harry Colebourn was central to the storyline.

Colebourn was born in England in 1887, but travelled to Canada to ultimately become a veterinary surgeon. He graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College in 1911 and soon began a career with the Manitoba Department of Agriculture in Winnipeg.

With the First World War looming, his skills as a veterinarian led him to the military. By the time the war broke out, he was trained and ready for service.

As he travelled to Quebec before heading overseas, Colebourn?s train stopped in White River, Ont. An animal lover, he was immediately drawn to a little black bear cub at the station. Before the train left town on Aug. 24, 1914, Colebourn purchased the bear for $20 from the trapper who had shot the cub?s mother.

In honour of his adopted hometown, he named her Winnipeg Bear. It was later shortened to Winnie.

Shortly after their arrival at the camp in Quebec, Colebourn and Winnie were on the move again overseas to England. Despite their short stay in Quebec, Winnie quickly became a favourite. The soldiers loved her playful but gentle nature, and soon adopted her as a mascot.

Winnie?s popularity continued in England. Facing damp and depressing conditions, as well as thoughts of the battles to come, she was a source of pleasure for the soldiers.

Unfortunately, their living arrangements would be short-lived. With Colebourn and his brigade receiving orders to depart for France, he was forced to look for a new home for Winnie. On Dec. 9, 1914, he loaded the bear into a car and headed to the London Zoo.

Colebourn made arrangements with the zoo to take care of Winnie during the war, with plans to eventually take her back to Canada.

During breaks from the war, Colebourn visited Winnie at the zoo. Despite his initial plans to return home with the bear, he changed his mind following the war. With Winnie as the star attraction, Colebourn officially donated Winnie to the London Zoo on Dec. 1, 1919.

At the zoo, Winnie maintained the same demeanour she had developed earlier. As she grew to be an adult bear, she remained gentle, good-natured and playful.

In fact, Winnie was the reason many people visited the zoo.

Children?s author A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher, were among those visitors. Milne noted the delight his son took in Winnie.

Young Milne was so taken with the bear that he named his own teddy bear after Winnie and added ?Pooh? in memory of a pet swan. Thus was born Winnie the Pooh.

Milne committed his son?s visits to the zoo to memory, as well as Christopher?s activities with his teddy bear. Upon being asked to write a story for a newspaper in December 1925, he transferred those memories to paper.

The reaction to the story was extremely positive and led to numerous books and more stories about Winnie the Pooh.

Colebourn continued to visit Winnie until he finally returned to Winnipeg in 1920. The bear enjoyed a place of prominence at the zoo until her death on May 12, 1934 at the age of 20.