Did you know that the living, breathing em“bear”diment of one of the most popular advertising icons in U.S. history called the National Zoo home? The famous Smokey Bear lived in DC for 26 years—from 1950 as a rescued cub until his death in 1976.
Smokey’s message, the national forest fire prevention campaign, was launched during World War II, after a Japanese submarine bombed an oil refinery near the coast of Santa Barbara, California, in 1942. Fear spread that more Axis attacks would wreak havoc on one of the West Coast’s most precious resources—lumber. After the Wartime Forest Fire Prevention Program’s campaign (featuring scary Axis cartoon humans) didn’t really take off, they looked for a mascot that could better grab the attention—and hearts—of the American people, much like Bambi did at this time. (After all, people have an easier time listening to cute animals than other humans, right?)
Portrayed as a friend of the forest, Smokey began appearing in 1944 on stamps and posters across the country. (Congress passed an act that placed Smokey under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture and stipulated that use of any collected royalties and fees was to be used for continued wildfire prevention education.) After the slogan and bear image endured multiple iterations, the Smokey campaign that most of us are familiar with—the “Only You” campaign with the adorable hat-wearing bear—launched in 1947 by the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council. (Washington, DC, disc jockey Jackson Weaver served as Smokey’s radio voice by uttering into an empty trashcan, “Remember, ONLY YOU can prevent forest fires.”)
And then the (unfortunate) opportunity arose for the Forest Service to bring Smokey to life….
In May 1950 a forest fire broke out in the Lincoln National Forest near Capitan, New Mexico, ultimately destroying 17,000 acres. Among the rubble firefighters found the seriously injured black bear cub, with severe burns on his paws and legs, clinging to a charred tree. With no mother bear in sight, a New Mexico game warden, Ray Bell, arranged for the five-pound bear, nicknamed “Hotfoot Teddy,” to be flown to Santa Fe for treatment. While recovering, the cub stayed with the Bell family, who helped nurse him back to health with hot infant cereal, milk, and honey.
Meanwhile, the rescued cub’s story became a national story, and people craved information about his recovery. Perhaps realizing the value the cub could serve as a conservation and wildfire prevention spokes-bear, once healed the cub, now named “Smokey,” was presented to the U.S. Forest Service with the promise that the agency would use him specifically for these purposes. As a survivor of a devastating fire, Smokey was the perfect advocate for the Forest Service’s fire prevention campaign. (Move over, Bambi!)
After Smokey was turned over to the Forest Service, he needed a permanent home that could accommodate a growing, rambunctious black bear. A month after his rescue, the celebrity was flown in style to Washington, DC, in a personalized Piper airplane—courtesy of Mr. Piper himself. (During an overnight stop, the St. Louis Zoo arranged for a special room for the bear!) He finally arrived at his new home to much fanfare at the National Zoo as a healthy, famous four-month-old cub on June 29, 1950. (His first stop in DC was a reception at the National Airport’s Presidential Room, where he adorably nibbled on the rug, Venetian blinds, and anything else he could find.)
Smokey became an instant celebrity at the National Zoo. The Washington Post described the scene: “children screamed with delight and photographers flashed scores of bulbs.” Numerous gifts and thousands of fan letters per week poured into the zoo—so many, in fact, that the postal service eventually gave the celebrity his own zip code (20252)!
In 1962, Smokey was introduced to a female black bear, Goldie, who also arrived from New Mexico via police escort up Connecticut Avenue. They never had a cub of their own (they weren’t even observed mating), but they “adopted” a son, Little Smokey, in 1971. Little Smokey was another orphaned bear from New Mexico. The younger Smokey’s name was officially changed to “Smokey Bear II” during a ceremony when the elder bear officially retired in 1975. Smokey II lived at the National Zoo until his death in 1990.
Smokey Bear died at the age of 26 on November 9, 1976. His celebrity earned him a front-page obituary in the Wall Street Journal. As stipulated by a congressional resolution, he was flown back to New Mexico to be buried in Capitan, close to where he was rescued. His final resting place is memorialized in Smokey Bear Historical Park.
In 1978, the National Zoo, with Forest Service representatives in attendance, honored the longtime celebrity resident with the opening of Smokey Bear Park, a renovated area with moated enclosures for various species of bears. It is currently sitting animal-less on the American Trail, with no indication that this park even existed. Given that it’s such a beautiful section of the zoo, we hope that it will be revived in the near future, complete with a remembrance of the impact that Smokey had on millions of Americans.
Bonus footage! The story of Smokey, as told by Hopalong Cassidy:
Bannicoff, Tad. “Bearly Survived to become an Icon.” Smithsonian Archives blog (May 27, 2010), https://siarchives.si.edu/blog/bearly-survived-become-icon
Broache, Anne. “A Bear-Handed Grab.” Smithsonian Magazine (June 2005), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-bear-handed-grab-41187866/
Charlton, Linda. “Smokey Bear Dies in Retirement.” New York Times, November 10, 1976 (https://www.nytimes.com/1976/11/10/archives/smokey-bear-dies-in-retirement.html)
Chronology of Smithsonian History. “Smokey Bear Arrives at National Zoological Park.” https://siarchives.si.edu/collections/siris_sic_1084
“Goldie Bear Heads for Red-Carpet U.S. Capital, Wedding.” The Albuquerque Journal, August 8, 1962, https://foresthistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/SBC_27_Oct_1962.pdf
Kelly, John. “The biography of Smokey Bear: the cartoon came first.” Washington Post (April 25, 2010), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/24/AR2010042402441.html
National Archives. “Little Smokey” (video). National Archives Identifier: 1849 / Local Identifier: 16-P-1147. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/1849
National Archives. “The REAL Smokey Bear.” The Unwritten Record blog. https://unwritten-record.blogs.archives.gov/2013/10/31/the-real-smokey-bear/
Py-Lieberman, Beth. “Smokey Bear, the Spokesman and National Zoo Highlight.” Smithsonian.com (August 9, 2011) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/smokey-bear-the-spokesman-and-national-zoo-highlight-46338270/
Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1950. https://ia601408.us.archive.org/16/items/annualreportofbo1950smit/annualreportofbo1950smit.pdf
“Smokey Arrives, Makes Smash Hit at Airport as Super-Duper Incarnation of Teddy Bear.” Washington Post, June 30, 1950, B1.
Smokey Bear, “the Living Symbol”. Smokey Bear Historical Park website. http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/SFD/SmokeyBear/SmokeyBeartheLivingSymbol.html
Story of Smokey. https://smokeybear.com/en/smokeys-history/story-of-smokey