There’s a bear in there 

Not seafaring felines but seafaring bearsNot all seafurrers were ships’ cats, says Able Sea-cat Bart, regaling readers with entertaining tales of the mischief, mayhem and misdeeds wrought by “honorary seafurrers” – in this case seafaring bears.  

Sailors’ pets

Those who have only seen bears in a state of captivity can scarcely realise (writes The Westminster Budget’s naval contributor, November 29, 1895) that, under certain conditions, they are not only delightful and amusing pets, but also the best of “chums” with our blue jackets on board of our ships of war. These animals are extremely fond of a bath, and during warm weather are generally swimming ashore and off again, or round the ships they belong to. An old shipmate tells me the following story.

seafaring dog and searing bear

On board a sloop on the Mediterranean station, a young female bear one day made her appearance, together with a kind note from a friend of mine who had captured it during a recent bear hunt. Young Miss Bruin usually behaved in a most exemplary manner, but one day when we were on the coast of Asia Minor, and part of the crew had gone ashore on duty, their allowance of daily grog had been placed in a small breaker (cask) on the quarter-deck to await their return.

A small cask of liquid kept permanently in a ship’s boat in case of shipwreck.

When no one was looking our young bear sniffed the grog, and, pulling out the bung, tilted a portion of the breaker’s alcoholic contents down her throat. The effect was astonishing. She flew up and down and across the deck quite mad with drink! Those on deck had to jump into the rigging out of the way of her savage charges. She ended the bout by lying down on her back, biting, kicking, and scratching; and it was some time before a lasso was thrown over her head, and she was tied up until sober.

Not a seafaring feline but a rampaging bear, galloping along the deck of a ship, upending deckchairs and crew alike.When HMS B was at Therapia, Miss Bear went overboard for her morning dip. The ship was moored quite close to the shore, whereon stood a lamp post. This being a novelty in our pet’s experience, she landed, and a moment afterwards was up to the top of it inspecting its contents. A Turkish boy, never before having seen a bear on top of a lamppost, chucked a stone at her. This was unbearable to her ladyship; she was down that lamp-post and after that boy in a jiffy.

The boy rushed away bellowing, the bear gaily cantering after him. Presently there arose a fearful hubbub in the village, and a Turkish policeman came on board the ship to say “the bear was attacking and devastating the whole city.” A couple of blue jackets were landed, and very soon brought our pet back to her proper ship.

At the Dardanelles, we met one of our ironclads, and as they also had a bear on board our captain made a signal to his senior officer, “Is bear ship visiting allowed?” The request having been granted Mlle Bruin stepped up the ladder on to the ironclad’s quarterdeck. The strange bear, unluckily for him, made a discourteous gesture with his paw. What that gesture really meant in bear language we know not, but the effect was electric. Amidst shouts of laughter from the crews of both ships, our young lady chased him round and round his own ship – up on the hammock nettings and round the poop and forecastle until he was forced to take shelter from her wrath below in the gunner’s storeroom.

When we were lying at Port Said, a large P and O steamer was moored close behind us. It was an intensely hot afternoon, and our bear was as usual swimming round the ship. When she passed astern she looked round at the P and O ship, and seeing no signs of life on board, thought, as we supposed, that it was a good opportunity to see what sort of a craft the liner was. So, instead of passing round our ship she swam alongside the other, and clambering up the accommodation ladder, had a look round. The only object visible was the P and O doctor, lying full length on a Chinese wicker chair.

a smiling bearThe bear crept up quietly to the sleeping doctor, placed her nose and then her back under the chair, gave one hoist, and capsized the doctor, chair and all. Suddenly waking up and rubbing his eyes and giving a good swear, the doctor saw the beast and picking himself up ran along the deck, the bear after him. However, he managed to reach his cabin door and slammed and locked it. Meanwhile our chief boatswain’s mate had got into our dinghy, hurried on board, collared the bear, and brought her back smiling.  — Launceston Examiner, January 3, 1896

PHOTO CREDIT Chirgwin and the bear. Maritime Museum of British Columbia


My take on thisSailors collected pets. Lots. Cats and dogs. Parrots and monkeys. Bears and tigers. Larger “pets” were usually bestowed on them when they were much smaller, or had been captured like Miss Bruin or rescued like Barbara, a bewildered polar bear cub spotted on drifting ice off Greenland. She happily took up residence on board as an honorary seafurrer and was startled to find herself unceremoniously offloaded to the bear pit at the Royal Navy Zoo on Whale Island. It was built in 1893 to house the countless pets that sailors brought home, but couldn’t take home.

a young bear standing on hind legs to be hand-fed from an enamel cup by a barefoot sailorFor the “Single Voyage Pets and Mascots Collection World Record,” it’s hard to beat the Great White Fleet’s World Tour (December 16, 1907–February 22, 1909). “We keep adding to our host of pets in every port and the Conn begins to look more like a menagerie than a warship. Our list now stands as follows – six dogs of all breeds, about the same number of cats, a pig … parrots and a monkey from Trinidad, a black bear from Seattle, a kangaroo, an eagle, two native opossums, and more parrots from Sydney. The Elecs have a pair of white rats from Los Angeles, two Angora goats from Punta Arenas, and one from Santa Barbara and a racoon from Rio.” (Electrician Leslie Haines to his parents, August 26, 1908). That’s just USS Connecticut. The Great White Fleet probably held the “bear on board” record. Seattle’s Aberdeen Commercial Club presented each ship with a bear cub on May 26, 1908 as “harbingers of good fortune in time of peace and war.” That’s 16 bears. 

PHOTO CREDIT Coxwain Deglen feeding a bear mascot on board the ship, during the Great White Fleet World cruise, circa 1908. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph: NH 50481


Enter Big Ted, the Ultimate Mascot

“Ah! Blest is their lot whom fate shall send A true Mascotte, a fairy friend! Luck’s his for ever!” (Edmond Audran’s “La Mascotte,” 1880). Mascots made a brief entrance on stage (in light opera) before moving on to a warm welcome in the armed forces. With wars and warlike rumblings on most continents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, having harbingers of good fortune on hand seemed sensible. Mostly dogs and cats. But bears had their spotlight moment thanks to Teddy Roosevelt’s unsuccessful Mississippi hunting trip in 1902.

Line drawing of Teddy Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bearAfter several days, other members of the party had spotted (and one assumes shot) bears, but not Roosevelt. Since it was unthinkable that the President’s bear hunt would be a failure, the guides tracked down an old black bear the dogs had trailed and attacked and tied him to a tree for the President to shoot. Roosevelt refused. It would be unsportsmanlike he said inspiring Clifford Berryman’s cartoon in the Washington Post on November 16, 1902.

The event was certainly a harbinger of good fortune for Brooklyn candy store owner, Morris Michtom, who put a couple of stuffed toy bears his wife Rose made in the shop window. People wanted to buy them, so he mailed one to Roosevelt, asked his permission to call them “Teddy’s Bear”. The rest is Teddy Bear history. The Michtoms left the candy business, made stuffed bears and a fortune with the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. Roosevelt adopted the teddy bear as the symbol of the Republican Party and won the presidency in 1904.

As for the old black bear? Roosevelt’s reprieve was no harbinger of good fortune. He was put down, as they euphemistically say. 

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