A friend of mine (Hi, Kevin!) recently posted on Facebook that he was old enough to have seen the original Smokey Bear.
Wait. What? There was an actual, live, Smokey Bear? I didn’t know that. Fascinating. And just like that, I got sucked into the black hole of blog research. Here are some fun facts that I picked up from Wikipedia and SmokeyBear.com:
First, let’s get one thing straight: It’s Smokey Bear, not Smokey the Bear. Smokey never officially had a middle name. “The” snuck in through popular culture, and now he can’t seem to get rid of it. Next, it should be noted that the cartoon, ad campaign bear was created in August 9, 1944, because so many men were off to war that there weren’t enough to battle our forest fires, and prevention was therefore desperately needed. However, he didn’t get his famous slogan, “Remember… only YOU can prevent forest fires.” until 1947.
In 1950 there was a wildfire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, and a little bear cub got caught in it. He climbed a tree, but his paws and hind legs were burned before fire fighters were able to rescue him. He was nursed back to health in, of all things, a private home, but his story spread. (You might say that Smokey was trending before trending was cool.) Eventually he arrived at the National Zoo, where he lived for 26 years. Sometime during that period my friend must have seen him.
He was one popular bear, so I’m a little surprised I didn’t know of his existence. He received more than 13,000 letters a week. The Post office finally gave him his own zip code, 20252.
They tried to breed Smokey in 1962, in the hopes that he’d produce an heir to the throne, but apparently it was not to be. So they brought in an abandoned cub for him to “adopt”, and that cub took over duties in 1975 until his death in 1990. Apparently we are now Smokey-less.
The original Smokey only got to enjoy one year of retirement before his death at the zoo in 1976. They returned his body to be buried in Capitan, New Mexico, where he had been born. (That must have been a fun trip. Ugh.) He is now buried, complete with plaque, in a garden in Smokey Bear Historical Park. So many obituaries were printed about Smokey that the zoo has four full scrapbooks of them.
Smokey Bear is considered one of the longest running ad campaigns. In his cartoon form, he continues to be a symbol of wildfire prevention and wildlife conservation for the Forest Service. In fact, Congress passed the Smokey Bear Act in 1952, so all his royalties would be used for wildfire prevention education. He has more face recognition than the average vice president. He has had TV shows, dolls, cartoons, songs, books, posters, t-shirts, patches, coloring books, and mugs. He has “spoken” with Bing Crosby, Art Linkletter, Dinah Shore and Roy Rogers. He even has an award named after him. Forest Service hats are now called Smokey Bear hats, even though the hat style existed before he did. In 1966 he was a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Smokey got a postage stamp in 1984. The National Agricultural Library has a special collection of all things Smokey, in Beltsville, Maryland. There’s an annual Smokey Bear Days festival in Capitan, New Mexico. Smokey has been rendered in CGI, which is pretty awesome, and he even has an app. In 2012, he became the NASA Expedition 31 crew’s launch mascot, and because of that, a plush Smokey celebrated his 68th birthday on the International Space Station. Currently, Sam Elliot is his voice in PSA’s. (All fellow voice fetishists may join me in a collective swoon.)
In 2001, Smokey’s official slogan was changed to, “Remember… only YOU can prevent wildfires.” This was done for two reasons. A lot of grassland fires were happening, and also the Forest Service wanted to clarify that controlled burns and prescribed fires were okay.
So there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know about Smokey Bear but were afraid to ask. Incidentally, visit Smokey Bear’s website. It’s really cool. You’ll learn stuff. Such as, “In 2019, 87% of all wildfires were caused by humans.”
Clearly, we still need Smokey.
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