Feature

The once ‘living’ Smokey Bear is remembered at the National Zoo

Robert Hudson Westover
Office of Communication
June 5th, 2019 at 12:20PM
A picture of Smokey Bear standing next to his statue outside the new Smokey Bear exhibit at Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
Smokey Bear stands next to his statue outside the new Smokey Bear exhibit at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. The Smokey Bear Zone celebrates 75 years of preventing wildfires. The exhibit highlights include an iconic Smokey statue, vintage posters and photographs of the real Smokey Bear. (USDA Forest Service photo by Tanya Flores.)

In honor of Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday, the Smithsonian National Zoo installed an exhibit to remember the actual black bear who, for a generation of zoo visitors, was the very living embodiment of national wildfire prevention.

The Smokey Bear Zone is open to the public through December of this year. Visitors to the exhibit walk along a short, paved path that gives them a view of the enclosure where Smokey lived. Posters along the bilingual interpretive trail show Smokey through the decades as he offers friendly tips on the proper way to extinguish campfires and advice on how to be a good steward of our national forests, grasslands and America’s many wilderness areas. Other exhibit highlights include a life-size statue of the iconic character, as well as photographs of the real Smokey Bear. 

The exhibit also features the art of American artist Rudy Wendelin. Many of Wendelin’s iconic Smokey posters, which he created for the USDA Forest Service, helped shape the public identity of this beloved character. Reproductions of his vintage posters are interspersed with informational displays about Smokey’s history.

How Smokey got to the zoo is a heroic story of survival for one lucky bear.

It all began on a spring day in 1950, in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, when a bear cub was caught in the path of a raging wildfire. He took refuge in a tree, a climb that saved his life, although he didn’t escape injury completely. He was badly burned on the paws and hind legs.

A picture of a child pointing to a Smokey Bear poster in the Smokey Bear Zone at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
A child points to a Smokey Bear poster in the Smokey Bear Zone at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. The exhibit celebrates 75 years of preventing wildfires. (USDA Forest Service photo by Tanya Flores.)

Hearing the cub’s cries of pain, firefighters removed him from the burned tree. After baby Smokey recovered from his burns, the go-ahead was given to send him to Washington, D.C., where he found a home at the National Zoo. He remained there until he passed away in 1976.

It’s important to remember that the story of Smokey Bear began well before the baby cub was discovered in New Mexico. In 1944, the image of a black bear was selected to speak for the forests, and he was named Smokey Bear.