I cannot remember the year, but I was quite small. My family visited Washington, D.C. and during the visit we saw the original Smokey Bear. The story of Smokey is tragic, but also quite remarkable. You can read it here. After his rescue from a burned out
New Mexico forest he was nursed back to health and lived out his days in the National Zoo in Washington. My mother talks about seeing him to this day. He died in 1976 after living to a ripe old age in bear years.
Although many think he was the inspiration for the campaign against forest fires, he actually was not. The Ad Council and U.S. Forest Service had actually created the mascot Smokey Bear in the 1940’s, fearing Japan or Germany would attack the U.S. and set fire to vast tracks of forest land. The orphan cub story put a real face to the campaign and became part of the historical lore.
Over the years, Smokey has become one of the most recognized and beloved icons in America. His likeness is used constantly to promote fire prevention–and it works.
When you hear “Smokey Bear” you’re almost automatically triggered to think of his catch phrase, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
My sister this week shared this article with me about spin-off characters which were inspired around the world by the success of Smokey here in the United States. I had to admit I was a little unsettled reading about “Savi the the smiling squirrel”, but hey, every culture has its own nuance and if it keeps their timber and wildlife from going up in an inferno, more power to them.
The article ties success of Smokey and the other spin-off furry critters to a study of “anthropomorphism.” That’s a fancy word for giving animals human like characteristics and turning them into warm, fuzzy, and friendly characters. Again, I’m not one to argue since even I have a soft spot for old Smokey Bear. But I doubt the folks who came up with the idea in the 1940’s gave a lot of thought to whether the Germans or Japanese would be dissuaded from burning us out when confronted by a furry critter carrying a shovel and wearing a Ranger hat.