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14 Furry Facts About Bears

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You can find bears all over the world, in many colors and sizes. You may think you're a bear expert, but here are some facts you might have missed.

1. Winnie the Pooh is based on a real bear.

Pooh might be squishy and yellow, but the original Winnie was a black bear. During World War I, a Canadian soldier named Harry Colebourn purchased a baby bear for $20. He named her Winnipeg, or Winnie for short. After a brief stint as the troops' mascot, Winnie found a home at the London Zoological Gardens. All the children loved her, including Christopher Robin Milne, who named his teddy bear after her. His father, Alan Alexander Milne, went on to base the honey-loving bear off Winnie.

2. Smokey the Bear also has real-world origins.

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Smokey the Bear (whose actual name is just Smokey Bear) is based off an orphan bear rescued from a wildfire. In 1950, the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico were aflame. As firefighters worked to contain the fire, they noticed a lone bear cub lost in the woods. After getting caught in the path of the flames, he climbed a tree to safety. Although charred, he was rescued by the firefighters and brought to Santa Fe for veterinary care.

Soon the media picked up the story and concerned citizens began to call in to check on the little bear’s progress. The state game warden wrote an official letter declaring the bear the new face of fire prevention and conservation. His popularity grew so much that, by the 1960s, Smokey was given his own zip code (20252) to accommodate his huge amount of fan mail (only he and the president have this honor). Smokey lived the rest of his days at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

3. No one knows the original word for bear.

People in Northern Europe were once so scared of bears that they refused to refer to them by their actual name. It was suspected that uttering the word would summon a bear to come and wreak havoc. As a workaround, they simply called them bruin, or “the brown one.” The moniker later became bear and the original word was lost to history.

4. Grizzly bears and polar bears have been getting together.

Thanks to global warming, polar bears and grizzly bears have been inching closer and closer together. Since they are the most closely related of the bear species, the bears are able to successfully produce offspring. The result is a sandy colored bear, sometimes called a grolar or pizzly bear.

5. One bear recently saved a man’s life.

In 2012, Californian Robert Biggs was hiking near Whiskey Flats when he came across a mother bear and her cubs. After continuing his hike, he was suddenly attacked by a mountain lion. The man fought for his life, but was ultimately saved when the mother bear stepped in and ripped the lion off the man.

"I think the lion was stalking the bear's cub and I got in the way," the hiker told ABC. "The bear walked calmly back to her cub after, and I wrapped my arm up with a T-shirt and went gold panning before I went home."

He also refused to see a doctor despite his wife’s urging. "I poured some hydrogen peroxide on my arm, and it feels fine," Biggs said.

6. Africa used to have their owns bears.

Up until the 1870s, Africa was home to the Atlas bear. This species was similar to the black bear, but it was hunted to extinction. The bear had a reddish underbelly and ate mostly plants. Roman mosaics suggest the bears were used in gladiatorial arenas to fight experienced hunters or maul convicted criminals.

7. Lord Byron had one as a pet

When poet Lord Byron entered Trinity College, he was annoyed by the school’s strict no dog policy. In protest, he brought a tame bear instead.

It’s unclear where Lord Byron found a bear (possibly a traveling circus), but the school had no rules against the pet, so it was reluctantly allowed. The poet would stroll through campus with the bear on a chain leash and delight in the shocked expressions from fellow students.

8. Even bears have their vices.

Winnie the Pooh hit the honey pretty hard, but real-life bears have even worse addictions. Russian brown bears living on the Kronotsky Nature Reserve have been known to huff old barrels of jet fuel until they pass out. Bears jonesing for another hit will even go as far as to follow helicopters and inhale any fuel that hits the ground.

Bears are also known to have a taste for beer. In 2012, a family of bears ransacked a cabin in northern Norway and guzzled 100 cans of beer. In a similar event in 2004, a bear drank 36 cans of Rainier, but completely ignored the Busch beer (he sampled one and decided it wasn’t to his liking).

9. A Polish bear was made corporal in WWII.

Winnipeg wasn’t the only bear adopted into the army. During World War II, Polish soldiers came across an abandoned cub. They named him Wojtek and raised him as part of the platoon. The bear got along with the other soldiers famously and stopped a thief who tried to break into the ammunition supply. During the war, the animal helped transport supplies. He was even promoted to corporal by the end of the war.

10. Bears can delay giving birth.

Female bears will carry offspring for about nine months after mating and usually give birth in their winter den in January or February. Despite the long pregnancy, the babies will come out small and blind because they only had about six or eight weeks to develop.

After an egg gets fertilized, the egg will start to develop and travel toward the uterus. Once it arrives, the mother halts all development and lets the egg sit in her uterus while she fattens herself up. The egg is then reactivated in late fall when it can finally implant in the uterus.

This process allows for the mother to gain weight and prepare for the winter without the extra stress of pregnancy. When the baby is finally born in late winter, it has time to drink its mother’s milk and grow strong before heading out in the spring. The baby then has three seasons to get stronger before the next winter.

11. Bears are smart.

Bears have the largest relative brain size of any carnivore. One study showed that black bears could count just as well as primates. Using a computer touch screen, scientists had the bears choose between two images of dots. The color and number of dots would change each time. If the bear chose the correct number (whether it be the higher or lower of the two) it got a treat. With some trial and error, the bears could correctly pick the images each time.

Bears are also very resourceful and known for rolling rocks into traps to set them off.

12. Bears beat humans at our own competitions.

Besides hockey, bears have also found themselves in a number of other games. In 1949, boxer Gus Waldorf fought a bear that was equipped with boxing gloves and a muzzle. Despite having the disadvantage, the bear still won the fight (don't worry, everyone came out alive). More recently, Nathan's hot dog eating champion Kobayashi took on a bear in an eating competition. The bear didn’t know he was competing, but still managed to beat the champion at his own game.

13. The story of the Teddy Bear isn’t that cute.

Most Americans know the origin story of the teddy bear: Theodore Roosevelt was on a hunting trip and spared a bear’s life by refusing to shoot it. The act of compassion was so moving that it was immortalized in a comic strip and then later in the form of a plush toy. Unfortunately, the real story was a little more gruesome.

The old bear was discovered by a pair of hunting dogs, and after killing one of the hounds, the bear was knocked unconscious by the butt of the hunting guide’s rifle. The bear was tied to a tree and Roosevelt was invited to shoot the bear. Seeing the gory sight—a dead dog and a bloody, wheezing bear tied to a tree—Roosevelt was repulsed and refused to shoot. Despite this small "mercy," the bear was still killed and slung over a horse to bring back to camp.

14. They have a great sense of smell.

It’s no mystery that bears have excellent noses. The black bear can smell seven times better than a bloodhound and 100 times better than a human. They can smell food up to two miles away.

BONUS: Bear cubs are darn cute.

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b


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