I grew up with the story of Smokey Bear. I even taught Smokey’s story as a kindergarten teacher. A bear cub was rescued during a forest fire and nursed back to health. He was named Smokey and became a messenger for the prevention of forest fires. Those basics are still there, but there is much more.
Smokey’s story actually begins in World War II. Forest resources were critical to the war effort and there was great concern about enemy attacks. After a Japanese submarine landed shells near Los Padres National Forest in southern California, the forest service created the Cooperative Fire Prevention Program.
The Wartime Advertising Council looked for an animal to lead the fire prevention message and used Walt Disney’s Bambi for one year. In 1944, after considering a squirrel, they decided to use a bear and named him Smokey.
So what about the little bear cub in the fire we all know about? It wasn’t until 1950 that he was rescued near Capitan, New Mexico. He was badly burned on his paws and buttocks and he weighed five pounds.
The cub was taken to a veterinarian in Santa Fe by Ray Bell, a pilot with New Mexico Fish and Game. A local newspaperman nicknamed the little bear Hot Foot Teddy. The veterinarian was able to treat the burns but the little bear wasn’t eating. Ray Bell took the bear home where his wife and daughter nursed the bear every two hours and restored him to health.
When word of the cub spread, California wanted him as a living symbol of their flag. The United States Forest Service wanted him as a living representative of their campaign bear, Smokey. The New Mexico game warden made the decision to send the cub to Washington DC.
With no budget to transport the little cub, Trans World Airlines (TWA) was approached and they agreed to take little Smokey to Washington as freight but would not fly an attendant. Bill Piper of Piper Aircraft Co. came to the rescue sending a brand new plane to fly Smokey and his human tender to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Smokey began his work for the Forest Service and children came to know him and his message.
Another New Mexico orphaned black bear, Goldie, was brought to the zoo to be Smokey’s mate in 1961. She was also known as Mrs. Smokey. They never had cubs.
Smokey lived and worked at the National Zoo as a Federal employee of the Forest Service. He retired in 1975 at age 25, the bear age equivalent of 70 in human years, the mandatory retirement age for federal employees. He was officially a member of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.
Smokey died a year later and his remains were returned to Capitan, New Mexico and buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park.
When Smokey retired another New Mexico orphan cub went to the National Zoo. The new Little Smokey embodied the message until his death in 1990 when live bear representation was discontinued.
From 1950 forward, millions of children in the United States and around the world grew up with Smokey’s fire prevention message. In 1992, a Forest Service review considered the prevention message to have been very successful as human wildfires were reduced by half even though use of public lands increased tenfold. In fact, the message was so successfully received that the public had difficulty understanding that natural and prescribed fires were beneficial.
At the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta we talked extensively with the current coordinator of the Friends of Smokey Bear Balloon. He told us how the original thought of a Smokey balloon slowly gained momentum and was eventually approved by the US Forest Service. A public and government partnership funded the original Smokey balloon which took flight over the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in1993.
In addition to hundreds of appearances around the country, the Smokey Bear Balloon was the first non-Disney balloon invited to fly over Walt Disney World.
The original Smokey balloon snagged a radio tower at the 2005 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta and was destroyed.
The first Smokey Bear Balloon is also buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park.
With public support, funds were raised for a second Smokey Bear Balloon. It continues to make dozens of appearances each year. That balloon is aging and the future is uncertain. The Friends of Smokey Bear Balloon organization have the “rights” to the image but funding a new balloon and continuing operations going forward look challenging.
We are hoping for a future that includes Smokey Bear for our grandson and yours!