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The first Smokey Bear poster shows a brown-coated bear. He is wearing jeans. He's peering shyly up from under a campaign. He pours a bucket of water over a campfire. "SMOKEY SAYS," the poster reads, "Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!"
Albert Staehle was the illustrator. He might have chosen a bear (over the suggested raccoon) because he wanted Smokey to look like the father of the forest, as his wife later recalled. But many will forever associate the cartoon with a real bear cub. Its paws and belly were singed in a 1950 spring wildfire.
Now a biography has been published. It is titled, "Smokey Bear: The Cub Who Left His Pawprints on History." In the book, the "real" Smokey is getting a proper tribute. This is according to the Sun-Sentinel newspaper. It is in South Florida. The book's author is Karen Signell. She met Smokey when he was a cub. The bear was living at the National Zoo. It is in Washington.
The cub had been rescued by a game warden. His name was Ray Bell. He had been fighting a fire. It was burning in New Mexico's Capitan Mountains. Don Bell was 15 when his father came home with the bear. The animal weighed five pounds. The Sun Sentinel's Brittany Shammas reports:
"The Bell family was constantly taking in wild animals. So Don Bell didn't think much of the 'cute little guy' who slept in a rabbit cage on the back porch. But the story of the rescued cub would become a national wonder. Smokey's arrival at the capital airport drew hundreds of reporters, photographers and onlookers. And he appeared in newspapers across the country."
At the zoo, Smokey drew millions of visitors. He lived there 26 years. Having a living animal symbol helped make the wildfire-safety campaign more visible, Signell writes in Smokey's biography. The Smokey ads were also a far better choice, at least to modern eyes, than the racial caricatures that populated the previous campaign. (The obsession with forest fire prevention kicked off during World War II. It began after a Japanese submarine fired shells into an oil field in Southern California. The area was very close to Los Padres National Forest.)
Signell visited the cub not long after he reached the zoo. She writes Smokey's story from his perspective. Don Bell told the Sun-Sentinel he feared it might be "hokey." But that "(a)fter she got it all put together and everything and finished it up, I read it. And I think she did a pretty good job."
On her site, Signell writes:
"I thought of the book as a fictionalized historical biography. And, from the beginning, I wrote it mainly for adults. But also youngsters. I chose to write the novel from the bear's point of view (but in the third person), in my respect for the wild animal's intelligence and my empathy for his emotions. It was not easy to write this way. I had to imagine how he smelled his world. What sounds he made. But I was greatly helped by naturalists' books with vivid descriptions of cubs and bears they knew well."
Other famous National Zoo residents during Smokey's life also make appearances in the novel. Expect to hear about the Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. They are the two giant pandas gifted from China after President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit and space-chimp Ham's retirement.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How does Smokey help prevent forest fires?
Write your answers in the comments section below