SuitcaseBearIt started with Twitter. Many good things do. For all the unpleasantness you hear about, my experience of Twitter has been ‘A Good Thing’. I’ve read articles and posts I would almost certainly not have come across in any other way. I’ve met and tweeted with some lovely people. Still do. And Twitter also provides a rich source of topics for blog posts. Like bears.

I love bears. All bears. Live bears and toy bears. I still have my original teddy, Sandy. Boring name I know but I was only small. He sits on the shelf with my very first toy, Panda (equally unimaginative – no clue there that I would become a writer). Both animals are missing eyes and ears and have had much of the stuffing knocked out of them. Bearing this in mind (sorry, hadn’t even realised) you won’t be surprised to hear that when I discovered the pocket bears on Twitter, I just had to follow them. And of course find out about their history.

‘Pocket’ or ‘Mascot’ bears were made around the time of the First World War, most of them by a British company J.K. Farnell. Although accounts differ, there seems to be no doubt that, while originally toys, they soon became very popular with the troops in World War I. Often given as gifts by sweethearts, sisters, spouses or children, they went into the trenches with the soldiers and many perished along with their owners. There are records of bears being found in the pockets of dead soldiers and sent back to the grieving families.

While researching the pocket bears, I came across the story of another bear. A real bear. Wojtek, companion to the Polish 2nd Corps in World War II. Left an orphan after his mother was shot, he was found near Hamadan, Iran, by a local child and later sold to a refugee who donated him to the soldiers. He became their beloved friend and mascot and travelled with them across the Middle East. When the troops sailed for Italy to fight with the British 8th Army, the only way they could take Wojtek too was to enlist him in the Polish army as a private.

There is no doubt at all that Wojtek was much loved by the soldiers, who treated him as family. Indeed it’s been said that he thought he was a person, not a bear. He remained with them throughout the war and travelled with them to Scotland in 1945 where they were to begin the process of demobilisation. The unit now disbanded, Wojtek ended his days in Edinburgh Zoo. And while it seems he was much loved there too, it was nevertheless a zoo and I don’t like to think of him being behind bars; I hope he was happy.

Maybe we’d do things differently, who knows. However, I am unwilling to judge the past by today’s standards. Those soldiers saved Wojtek, they looked after him and they loved him. That’s the important bit. Anyone who treats animals kindly is a hero in my book. Although we may profess to be more enlightened these days, there’s still massive cruelty in our world. Bears and other animals suffer horribly, every day. Among them the Moon Bears, (and Sun Bears and Brown Bears) imprisoned on bile farms in China, milked for their bile in the most cruel and painful way. Charities such as AnimalsAsia work tirelessly to free them. Please help them if you can. They desperately need your support.