Lions, Tigers, and Whatsitbears…

Given that the Smithsonian’s National Zoo currently houses only three species of bears (don’t get me wrong—they’re really great bears!), it’s crazy to think that in the early 1900s the zoo had one of the largest collections of bears in the country. In his book published in 1930, Dr. William Mann—the zoo’s director from 1925 until 1956—listed twenty-one different species/subspecies of bears (170 individual bears total) that had lived in Rock Creek Park’s “Bear Row” since 1890.

list of bears
List of bears at the National Zoo from 1890 to 1929. From William Mann’s Wild Animals In and Out of the Zoo (1930).

As you can imagine, housing so many bears can create quite a space conundrum. In the early 1930s, when zookeepers noticed that two particular bears—Snowy, a male polar bear and Ramona, a female Kodiak bear—seemed friendly towards each other, they were placed in the same enclosure (along with Snowy’s female polar bear friend, Marion). To the zoo’s surprise, Ramona became pregnant and gave birth in February 1935. One cub lived fifteen days and the other died a few days later, but the zoo was now aware, and quite giddy, that the two could breed successfully. This mix was simply unheard of . . . but more on that a bit later.

Snowy and Ramona were reunited after the birth. The genetic experiment recommenced with all scientific eyes on DC.

The local press has some fun with the “modern saga of The Three Bears.” Dubbed a polygamist by the Washington Post, Snowy the polar bear had apparently become irritable when Ramona was moved to a private enclosure with her cubs. Marian, the polar female, felt scorned by her crabby male friend, who ignored her. The drama was mostly kept to a minimum when the threesome was reunited. The Post informed its readership of the latest in the rare soap opera unfolding in Rock Creek Park.

WaPo headlines

Exactly a year later, in February 1936, Ramona gave birth to four cubs. (She had been separated from the other adult bears a few months earlier so that the keepers could more closely monitor her and better attend to the needs any cubs. The vet staff wanted to take every precaution necessary.) The first of their kind, three of the yellowish-white hybrid bears—two males named Taku and Fridgee, and a female named Pokodiak—lived to be healthy adult bears; the fourth had died a few weeks after birth.

At the time of their birth, there were no other confirmed instances of hybrid Kodiak-polar bears in either the wild or in captivity. Other hybrid bears existed: A black bear–European brown bear hybrid was born at the London Zoo in the 1850s but did not live to maturity; a European brown bear–polar bear hybrid was born at a zoo in Stuttgart, Germany in 1876 and did live to adulthood. A Kodiak and a polar bear, however, had not proven to be a successful breeding pair. In the wild, it could have happened, but their habitat ranges were far enough apart that it would have been an extremely rare occurrence. Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) would be more likely to mate with polar bears because they can be found in northern Canada, closer to the polar bear range. Kodiak bears (Ursus arctos middendorffi) have a much more limited habitat range on Kodiak Island in southwest Alaska.

It was as unnatural, Dr. Mann said, as if two mules had produced offspring. —Washington Post, January 8, 1949

At three months of age the “three little Whatsit bears” were introduced to the public. The cubs delighted the District. Camera crews risked falling into the bear pit to get a good photo. The Washington Post described the combined 42 pounds of fluff as “plump and wooly like Chow puppies.” Over the next several months, the cubs were treated to a diet of cod-liver oil, fruits, vegetables, and meat juice to ensure that they remained as healthy as possible. The local paper noted that they were treated just as well as human babies.


Snowy and Ramona again reunited after spending two and a half years apart. (By this time, Marion was placed in a separate enclosure.) Another male cub, Willie, was born in February 1939. As the first litter of cubs were three years old at this point, their playful antics and the birth of Willie certainly played a role in the zoo breaking the three-million-visitor mark that year. DC was bear crazy way before the pandas arrived!

The successful births of the four healthy cubs may have surprised the genetics world, but, according to Dr. Mann, an amazing twenty-three Kodiak-polar cubs were born over the next twenty years. Only four, sadly, lived to adulthood.

at the zoo
Washington Post, March 22, 1942

The biggest surprise (and presumed impossibility) of all occurred when Pokodiak and Willie produced a healthy male cub in 1950 (the other five in the litter did not survive). Believed to be sterile, this second-generation hybrid cub gave the genetics world something to scratch their heads and talk about—not only because he was a second-generation hybrid but also because his parents were brother and sister (although as you might remember from Mohini’s story, inbreeding was not uncommon in zoos back then).

not-logical headline
Washington Post, January 5, 1950

It shouldn’t have been born at all. It violates all the laws of zoology and biology, of Mendel and Darwin, of.… It violates the laws of everything.” —Zoo Director Dr. William Mann in the Washington Post, January 27, 1950

In the history of second-generation hybrid bears at the National Zoo (1950–1976), two of fourteen cubs survived. The first “miracle” cub born in 1950—aptly named “Gene,” short for genetics—became quite a celebrity at the zoo. An estimated 30,000 visitors attended Gene’s first day on exhibit as an adorable, wobbly three-month-old. He even shared an enclosure with another celebrity bear of the same age—Smokey, the National Parks spokesbear. They got along very well—they liked to wrestle, one larger but the other faster, according to Dr. Mann. That year, with a total of forty bears calling DC home, the National Zoo’s attendance reached an amazing 3.4 million visitors.


Gene cub
Photo of Gene with keeper Ellsworth Henry. Washington Post, June 4, 1950.
Children Watch Hybrid Bears at National Zoological Park
Children watch hybrid bears at the National Zoo during the 1950s. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives
Frances and Elizabeth, second-generation hybrid bears, receiving nourishment from Nancy Miller at six weeks of age. In her 1970 National Geographic article, “White Tiger in My House,” Elizabeth Reed noted that she hand-reared four hybrid bears during her husband’s tenure as zoo director (which began in 1956). Photo from William Mann, “Wild Animals in My Life,” National Geographic, April 1957.

The Kodiak-polar bear era at the National Zoo ended when the last hybrid bear, Pokodiak, passed away in 1974 at 38 years of age. (Unfortunately I could not track down where Gene’s path led him in adulthood.) The Smithsonian Annual Report noted that the hybrid bears were famous for their scientific uniqueness and wowed audiences with their massive size. (Kodiak bears are larger than grizzly bears. Male bear Willie was nearly 1,400 pounds!)

With climate change a grim reality, the hybridization of bears will become more common in the Arctic regions of North America, as a shared habitat becomes more frequent. In 2006, the occurrence of the grizzly-polar bear hybrid in the wild was confirmed by DNA testing near Sachs Harbour on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic. Confirmed hybrids have since risen to eight—and all descending from the same adventurous female polar bear.

To end on a happy note, head over to the National Zoo and say hello to the fabulous giant pandas, sloth bears, and Andean bears (and all the other wonderful animals as well!) as spring rapidly approaches.


Altshuler, Melvin. “Zoo’s Who’s Whos’ News.” Washington Post, September 27, 1950: B1.

“Bear-Faced Remarks.” Washington Post, July 23, 1957: A1.

Brinkley, Bill. “Genetic Wonder of Wonders, Hybrid Cub of Hybrid Bears May Be Seen at Zoo.” Washington Post, January 27, 1950.

Brinkley, Bill. “Hybrid Bears Have Babies, Baffling All.” Washington Post, January 5, 1950: 7.

Brinkley, Bill. “Poster Bear Smokey Joins Zoo Star List: Move Over, Gene.” Washington Post, June 17, 1950: 1.

Cook, Robert. “‘Gene’—The Hybrid Bear.” Journal of Heredity 41:2 (February 1950): 34.

“Coy Trio of Hybrid Bear Cubs Keeps Crowd Waiting at Debut.” Washington Post, May 6, 1936: 1.

“Gene Wows 30,000 at District Zoo: Baby Bear Packs D.C. Zoo.” Washington Post, March 13, 1950: 1.

Grove, Lee. “Bare Fact: Bears Weren’t Born To Be Cuddled by Us Bipeds.” Washington Post, August 15, 1950: B1.

“Hybrid Bear Cubs Grow Fatter Daily With Constant Care.” Washington Post, July 27, 1936: X9.

“Hybrid Bears.” Hybrid and Mutant Animals website.

Kelly BP, Whiteley A, Tallmon D. “The Arctic melting pot.” Nature 468:7326 (December 2010): 891.

Mann, William M. Wild Animals In and Out of the Zoo. Volume 6 of the Smithsonian Scientific Series. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1930.

Mann, William M. “Wild Animals in My Life.” National Geographic (April 1957), 497–524.

“Offspring of ‘Ramona, ‘Snowy,’ Called Biological Rarities.” Washington Post, February 25, 1936: 13.

“Polar Bear Snowy Papa of 2 Hybrids; Kadiak Is Mama.” Washington Post, February 15, 1939: 1.

Pongracz JD, Paetkau D, Branigan M, Richardson E. “Recent hybridization between a polar bear and grizzly bears in the Canadian Arctic.” Arctic 70:2 (2017): 151.

Sampson, Paul. “Suggestion for Fun: Take Your Family to the Zoo,” Washington Post, July 3, 1953: 17.

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Reports, 1950–1974.

“Stork Hovers Over Bear Den As Even Zoo Has ‘Triangle’: Kadiak Goes to ‘Hospital,’ Leaving Polar Pair to Scorn Each Other.” Washington Post, January 27, 1936: 11.

Ursid hybrid.

“Zoo to Revive Story of 3 Bears In a Modern Triangle Setting.” Washington Post, October 18, 1936: M1.

Maneuvering Moats for Marshmallows: The Great Polar Bear Escape of ’69

For International Polar Bear Day, I’d like to recount an entertaining story I recently stumbled upon while researching zoo history. And you will be happy to know that I can call it entertaining because no people or animals were hurt in this escape story. And who doesn’t enjoy an entertaining, benign escape story?

For a zoo employee, no day is ever the same—you never know what challenges or rewards you will face on a daily basis. But imagine coming to work and finding seven polar bears pillaging a concession stand, chowing down on sugary goodies. That’s exactly what happened on the wet, soggy morning of July 17, 1969.


The Brookfield Zoo, located in suburban Chicago, prides itself on being the first zoo in the United States to incorporate cageless, moated exhibits. These natural settings were a request from Edith Rockefeller McCormick (daughter of John D. Rockefeller), who donated 83 acres of land for the specific purpose of creating a modern, innovative zoo modeled after the cageless exhibits she admired in Europe. Zoo construction began in 1926 but was halted during the Great Depression; the zoo finally officially opened in 1934. Not only did it gain international recognition for its moated exhibits, but it was also the first zoo in America to house giant pandas (Su-Lin arrived in 1937), which drew millions of visitors through its gates during its first decade of operation.

The moated grotto exhibits, often cited as favorites, gave visitors an unobstructed look at the animals and allowed them to throw food to the begging bears—a very common practice at zoos in those days. In fact, the Brookfield Zoo had a concession stand right across from the polar bear enclosure that sold marshmallows for bear feedings in addition to human treats. The polar bears could watch that stand every day, all day in hopes that visitors spent their coins on goodies for them.

Polar bears begging for treats in their moated enclosure at the Brookfield Zoo. Photo:

The moats and marshmallow combo worked out well for the bears and visitors entertainment-wise, but the zoo wasn’t prepared for what happened in the summer of ’69.

Between the evening of July 16 and the early morning hours of July 17, Chicago experienced torrential downpours. Flooding was so bad that even the deep moats in the polar bear exhibit flooded, creating a pool instead of a barrier. The seven (yes, SEVEN!) very smart polar bears were able to swim out of their enclosure and made a bear-line right for the refreshment stand that had taunted them every day for years.

When employees arrived the early morning of the 17th before the zoo opened, the bears had already broken the concession stand windows and had finished the supply of marshmallows. They had moved on to the stash of ice cream and chips, as well as tossing around a cash register.

A photo of the damaged cash register accompanied the front-page headline story in the Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1969.

When approached by the zoo employees, five of the bears immediately swam back into their enclosure. One had run over to say hello to the grizzly bears, who wanted no part in a cordial visit from their neighbor. The other bear made a run for the zoo restaurant, but guards, using vehicles with sirens and horns and firing a few shotgun blasts in the air, were able to redirect it back towards the polar bear exhibit. The bears didn’t need to be tranquilized, but the guards were prepared to do so if necessary. The local fire department was immediately called in to pump out the flooded water while the bears were kept busy with more marshmallows.

The incident made the national news, and a children’s book, The Marshmallow Caper, was written about it. It was also the first time in the zoo’s history that the gates had to close, as it is normally open 365 days a year. Luckily it was an event that could be looked back on with chuckles instead of tragic evocation. Keeper Jim Rowell remembered, “It sounds funny now, but any time an animal escapes it can turn into a nightmare.”


I could not find any details about modifications the Brookfield Zoo made to prevent the bears from escaping again, but the zoo did end the sale of marshmallows and prohibited animal feedings in 1970. Sorry, bears.

Da Bears 1, Humans 1.


“Brookfield Zoo (Chicago Zoological Park).” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Edited by Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 2005.

Deuchler, Douglas, and Carla W. Owens. Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society. Images of America Series. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.

Krizmis, Patricia. “After Deluge, 7 Bears Find Way to Marshmallow ‘Eden’.” Chicago Tribune (July 18, 1969): 1:

“Polar Bears at Illinois Zoo Swim Moat, Devour Snack Stand Sweets.” Washington Post (July 19, 1969): A3.

“Polar Bears Swim Zoo Moat to Feast on Marshmallows.” New York Times (July 18, 1969): 35.

“Zoo Escapes Funny in Retrospect.” Bangor Daily News (November 21, 1992),


Smokey Bear, Washington, DC, 20252

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.”)


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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!)


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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)!


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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.

Smokey’s memorial in Capitan, New Mexico. Photo: 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.

The former Smokey Bear Park at the National Zoo. We hope to see animals in this space in the near future. Photo: DC Zoo Walks.

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),

Broache, Anne. “A Bear-Handed Grab.” Smithsonian Magazine (June 2005),

Charlton, Linda. “Smokey Bear Dies in Retirement.” New York Times, November 10, 1976 (

Chronology of Smithsonian History. “Smokey Bear Arrives at National Zoological Park.”

“Goldie Bear Heads for Red-Carpet U.S. Capital, Wedding.” The Albuquerque Journal, August 8, 1962,

Kelly, John. “The biography of Smokey Bear: the cartoon came first.” Washington Post (April 25, 2010),

National Archives. “Little Smokey” (video). National Archives Identifier: 1849 / Local Identifier: 16-P-1147.

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Py-Lieberman, Beth. “Smokey Bear, the Spokesman and National Zoo Highlight.” (August 9, 2011)

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1950.

“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.

Story of Smokey.