Friday, February 24, 2012

A cage for a Teddy Bear

I spotted this on Trade Me, and it struck through to the heart. A bear behind bars, front paws raised up to the metal like a bewildered prisoner, mouth open on a cry in the silence of a postcard from long ago. I've forwarded the image over to my great friend Liz of Mad Bush Farm fame (who announced on a Radio NZ interview yesterday that she is definitely working on a book on the history of Wellington Zoo -- yay, you go, Liz!), and she's working on a definite identification of the bear's species. We both think at this stage it's highly likely at this stage that this is a brown bear, aka American Grizzly.

A sad photo -- with the story of Wellington Zoo's first bears behind it.

Proposals were put forward at Newtown Zoo for bear pits as early as 1908 (Evening Post 11.12.1908), just two years after the zoo originated with the donation of King Dick the lion. By early 1910, however, the plans were still only on the drawing board: “A kea aviary at Newtown would delight some people more than a bear garden.” (EP 26.1.1910)

In July 1911, Wellington City Council’s reserves committee “adopted the recommendation of [Mr A S Le Soeuf, director of Sydney Zoo] in regard to the construction of a bear pit.” (EP 5.7.1911) By early January 1912, a Malayan bear had been presented to the zoo by a Mr Kersley. (EP 6.1.1912)

Then came the incident which led to the Zoo obtaining its first brown bear -- possibly the subject of my postcard. In late 1911 and early 1912, Wirth's Circus was travelling around the country with an act that included two species of bear -- incredibly, a polar bear training act, and "Teddy Bears", likely American brown bears. One became notorious and filled the country's newspapers with shocked headlines.
SENSATIONAL CIRCUS INCIDENT. AUDIENCE GREATLY EXCITED. The following are further details from Christchurch about the attack by a bear.

A sensational incident occurred at the first performance by Wirths' circus, which opened here on Monday evening in the King Edward Barracks. All went well until towards the end of the second turn, an act in which a young man named Syd. Rose made a dog, a, goat, a lion, a lioness, and a bear perform. The first-named animals went through their business well. The lion and lioness were fed with meat from a fork, and the bear ate its meat from the trainer's mouth, its jaws almost touching his lips. Then the lions went to their accustomed places on platforms a few feet above the trainer's head. He took the bear by a fore leg and led him for a promenade. They were halfway round the cage when the bear hit suddenly with its free paw. The man went down with the bear above him, its teeth fixed in his arm. While they were on the floor of the cage the animal savaged him, while the man held on to the collar about the beast's neck so that it might not have a chance to get full play with its dreadful claws. The lions sat aloft watching the struggle and taking no part in it.

Mr G Wirth, who was near, was the first to act. He seized a great billet of wood and rushed into the arena. He struck the bear once on the head, and then lost his weapon. A menagerie hand had followed him armed with an iron bar. As he belabored the beast, Herr Schmidt, trainer of the polar bears, came to the fight with a heavy pitchfork. At the same time a half-caste entered the cage, and beat the beast with a piece of piping. Ready hands drew the trainer out. The lions still sat aloft snarling, but offering to take no part in the brawling. The bear was beaten to his cage, and the lions, who had come down from their high places, to their dens.

The wounded trainer meanwhile was being given first aid, two nurses, who were in the audience assisting. While the bear was being beaten for its guilt, its victim was being taken to the hospital. Amongst the audience there was great excitement. Women shrieked and shuddered where they sat, men rushed towards the cage, which was already surrounded by many circus hands, and there was some difficulty in clearing them away. The sight was a sickening one, but the spectators realised that they were safe, and there was nothing approaching a panic.

Rose, the injured man, is a native of Christchurch, and has been with the show for eight years. He had trained the animals. The bear had not performed since; the circus was at Invercargill, and on Monday afternoon Mr G Wirth asked Rose whether he desired a rehearsal. Rose replied that it was not necessary. The animal, an American Grizzly bear, had been with the show practically all its life. It had never been a vicious brute, but was always uncertain, and needed careful watching. Rose's injuries proved to be limited to wounds about the arm and thigh, the latter being deep cuts. He had also heavy scratches about the .body. No vital spot had been touched, and his injuries were scarcely dangerous in themselves. The programme was gone through as usual.
Poverty Bay Herald 10.1.1912

I've boldened parts from the article above. Hard to imagine what the bear went through that day, and afterward.

Well, that was it of course for the bear's show business career. It's surprising that Wirth had offers to pay and take the bear off his hands -- but he decided that the Wellington Zoo should be the end of the line for his misbehaving asset.
THE WIRTH'S CIRCUS INCIDENT BEAR TO BE PRESENTED TO A ZOO. (Special to ''The Colonist.") Christchurch, Jan 9. Mr Geo. Wirth has decided to present to the young man Maclnnes a gold medal for the courage he displayed in coming to the rescue of S. Rose, the trainer, when he was in grips last night with the brown bear. Since the incident of the struggle became known over the Dominion Mr Wirth has received several offers for the animal, one of as much as £60, but he decided to decline them all. In deference to Mrs Wirth's feelings in regard to the brute it has been resolved to make a present of it to the Wellington Zoo.
Colonist 10.1.1912

George Wirth paid a visit to the zoo on 17 January, after the bear attack at his Christchurch show. 

With regard to the bear, which mauled its trainer in Christchurch, it is understood that the Rev. John Crowes, president of the Wellington Zoological Society, is interviewing Mr. Wirth on the matter. The offer is for £50, and this sum, it is hoped, will be raised in time to secure the animal before the circus leaves New Zealand, Probably some definite announcement will be made tomorrow. 
 EP 17.1.1912

The Zoological Society began campaigning for subscriptions to buy the bear from Wirth.

In event of a successful campaign to raise funds for the purchase of the bear, a temporary cage, will be provided. A proper bear-pit will then be built in a clear space near the lake and close to the monkey-houses. It will be lined with concrete. The floor will be on a level with the path near the lake, while visitors will be able to look down on the bear from the upper path.
EP 18.1.1912

Ultimately, the Wellington Zoological Society raised £41 towards the cost of the bear, the city coming up with the remaining £9.

In April, the city’s Baths and City Reserves committee recommended than plans prepared by the city engineer for a bear-pit at the zoo, costing £200, be carried out in that financial year. (EP 19.4.1912)

 Sir,— On passing through the Zoo today I stood and looked at the little bear and the dog. I noticed that the bear is now getting far too rough a playmate for the little dog, who is now in danger of getting seriously hurt. The bear has a very unpleasant way of squeezing the dog up against the side of the cage, and there is no shelf or ledge where it can get out of the way. Hoping you will kindly let this be known, as it may help the dog. I am, etc., 
 EP 12.7.1912

This could have been the Malayan, smaller bear.

In November 1912, the Zoological Society were reported to be making enquiries into obtaining “another brown bear”. (EP 22.11.1912) Still, in January 1913, the zoo definitely had just two bears, “a big brown bear (the notorious one that clawed a man in Christchurch)” and “a playful little Malayan bear.” By 1916 there is reference to “bear pits” at the zoo, (EP 18.12.1916), so these were probably constructed sometime late in the 1912-1913 financial year.

Then again, the zoo had a black bear in a cage in 1918. These might have been in the “old bear cages near the entrance gates” as they were described when it was proposed that they be the temporary residence for the zoo’s first polar bear in 1924.

Although barriers have been erected round the cages of the larger animals at the Newtown Zoo, the small boy bent on seeing as much as possible is not content unless he stands right at the bars of the cages. George Kensington, twelve years of age, who is on holiday with his father from Palmerston North, yesterday afternoon poked his right hand into the black bear's cage. The animal is not of a fierce disposition, and will take nuts and sweets out of a person's hand without any risk to the donor, but occasionally boys and others have teased it, and apparently the bear was taking no chances yesterday, for it seized the boy's hand and chewed it badly before the boy was able to release himself. He was taken to the Hospital, where it was found necessary to amputate the first and second fingers. He is now reported to be progressing well. 
EP 22.4.1918

This may have been the black bear which was reported to have died during 1922. (EP 26.1.1923)So, depending on the species identification, my postcard my date from 1912 (brown bear, before the £200 bear pit was constructed), or 1917-1922 (black bear, caged near the entrance gates).
The polar bear must have thought volumes, for his quarters are very cramped and his swimming pool is merely an unsatisfactory hip-bath; the smaller black (or brown, according to taste) bear gave up thinking about it some time ago, for he was found dead one morning. 
EP 1.12.1927

In May 1922, the Zoological Society presented a “Japanese bear” to the zoo. (EP 19.5.1922)

There is reference to a brown bear still extant in 1924, (EP 21.1.1924) a “Himalayan bear” and a “Cinnamon bear” mentioned by the secretary of the Zoological Society. (EP 14.2.1924) By 1928, when the new bear pits were constructed for the polar bear, the neighbouring pit was for black bears, plural. (EP 3.10.1928) 

So, from out of the early formative years of our country's first zoo, comes a poignant image of a bear behind bars, pressing itself hard against the metal, mouth open on a cry.

How this particular bear ended up, I have no idea. Probably found dead one day in a bear pit, and replaced for the next visitors' attraction.

It would be fitting, I think, if among the last man made tracks on earth would be found the huge footprints of the great brown bear.-- Earl Fleming


  1. It's a sad reminder of how little animals of any kind were truly valued during this time period. Zoos have changed of course but I think of all the old images I've now seen of zoo animals this has to hit a chord.

    I'll be very interested to hear back about what species we are dealing with in this image. I'd say we do have Wirth's Brown Bear.

  2. It makes me cringe to remember how awful the Auckland Zoo (animal prison) was when I was a child and how we thought those dreadful conditions were quite acceptable. The only inmate I can recall feeling sorry for was the polar bear, who would neurotically pace back and forth in his bare concrete enclosure. My favourite animal was the orang utan, who would sit morosely smoking cigarettes thrown to him through the bars of his cell. He was no doubt chronically depressed and probably died prematurely of lung cancer.

  3. I have an interest in the history of zoos and animal collections in this country, but I'm not a fan of them, even now. Yes, I remember the poor polar bear at Auckland Zoo, that green fur, the demented swaying. The line between "conservation of species" and public entertainment remains, to this day, a very fine one.

  4. A little further info on your bear Lisa.

    He was imported sometime in 1910 by Wirths with a group of other American Brown Bears and Polar Bears from Hagenbecks.

    This bear was separated into an act that included a lion, a tiger, boarhounds a goat and other animals. I recall a leopard may have been also included.

    The Polar Bears and the other brown bears were used in a separate act. Hagenbecks tended to sell so called 'acts' for instance Lizzie the elepphant and the Lion Prince were sold to Fitzgeralds Circus in 1897. Lizzie rode a tricyle and Prince rode on her back.

    Teddy Bear was Wellington Zoo's first American Brown Bear. You have a treasure indeed in that image sad as it is.

  5. Thanks, Liz. You always know your stuff.