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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

“Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” Smokey Bear Arrives at the National Zoo

Statue of Smokey Bear in Smokey Bear Park in International Falls, Minnesota, sculpted by Gordon Shumaker, 1954, Smithsonian Art Inventories Catalog #IAS MN000034
Sixty-four years ago, in June of 1950, a tiny singed bear cub arrived at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., having lost its mother and survived a forest fire in the Lincoln National Forest near Capitan, New Mexico.  Named Smokey Bear, he had been rescued and nursed back to health by Forest Service staff to become the living symbol of fire prevention.  Although most people believe Smokey Bear came into existence with the cub, he had actually been a fire prevention ad campaign for the Forest Service for six years prior to that. However it was the tiny cub, found clinging to a tree, who breathed life into the forest fire campaign and grew to be a nationally known symbol who taught generations of children to be careful while enjoying the national forests.

In television and radio ads, Smokey Bear admonished us, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” The Forest Service erected an exhibit outside his enclosure at the zoo and he was visited by thousands of families every year.  A popular jingle added the extra “the” in Smokey the Bear, but both are used interchangeably. He even had his own postage stamp.

Smokey Bear 20 cent postage stamp from 1984 shows Smokey the icon and Smokey the cub clinging to a burned tree.  National Postal Museum, #1985.0796.3181.
Unfortunately, the original Smokey lacked the charisma one might want in such an icon, and was, indeed, a bit cranky and solitary.

The original Smokey Bear frolicking in a pool at the National Zoological Park in the 1950s, photograph by Francine Schroeder.  Smithsonian Institution Archives, negative #92-3559. 
But given his difficult early months, it was not surprising he was not the cheeriest of fellows.   He never produced off-spring with with mate, Goldie, and he was retired in May of 1975.

He was replaced with Smokey Bear II for the next fifteen years, but the exhibit was closed when Smokey II was retired. 

Smokey Bear II enjoying the honey and berries that are dispensed from his new automated dispensing tree. National Zoological Park staffers put together the "honey tree" in Smokey’s exhibit area in the summer of 1984. The national symbol of forest-fire prevention turned 40 that year. The Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program funded the construction, photograph by Jesse Cohen. Smithsonian Institution Archives, negative #95-1209. 

Smokey I passed away in 1976 and his remains were returned to Capitan to rest beneath a stone marker in Smokey Bear Historical State Park.

I have a special fondness for Smokey Bear.  When I was five years old in 1953, I fell down while trying to fly a kite and I broke my arm.  After taking me to the doctor to have the arm set in a cast, my father consoled me by taking me to the little shop full of toys in my home town of Rochelle Park, New Jersey.  I did not hesitate for a moment and picked the little stuffed bear with a shovel, hat, badge, Smokey belt, and Forest Service uniform.  Smokey was my constant companion for many, many years!  This image on Pinterest is most like mine, although it lacks the shovel.  I was rarely seen without him, no matter how much my older sisters teased me, and never went to sleep without him at my side.

The Forest Service is planning to relaunch the Smokey Bear campaign for a 21st century audience, and I suspect he will snuggle with many more little children for generations to come and hopefully reinvigorate the message to care for our national forests.

Pamela M. Henson
Institutional History Division
Smithsonian Institution Archives

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