A rare white bear was once a “must-see” tourist attraction in Victoria, right up there with the Empress Hotel and hanging flower baskets. On display in the Beacon Hill Park zoo for twenty-four years, it was the only Ursus Kermodei in captivity anywhere in the world.
The bear was confiscated from a man trying to smuggle it across the U.S. border in 1924 and placed in the custody of Francis Kermode, Curator of the Provincial Museum in Victoria. The six-month old female cub with white fur created a sensation.
At the time, few people realized white bears even existed in British Columbia. Scientists had not yet agreed on their classification. Dr. William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society unilaterally declared the bears a new species, naming them Ursus Kermodei after the Victoria museum curator. As payback for the naming honour, Hornaday hoped Kermode would send him a live specimen for his zoo.
When the cub arrived in Victoria, Hornaday pressured Kermode to send it to New York; he claimed 2,500,000 people would see it there annually, compared to a paltry number in Victoria. Hornaday didn’t get the cub and he was wrong about the new species.
Experts concluded the Kermode was a white color phase of the common black bear, Ursus americanus.
Soon after arrival, the cub escaped the hastily assembled chicken-wire cage inside the Beacon Hill Park deer enclosure and ran up a large fir tree. Food enticed her down several hours later. The first cage was soon replaced by a larger, sturdier, wood and chicken-wire cage with a dirt floor, a pole and a small house. Later, a “modern” cage, with a concrete floor and metal bars, was constructed.
In 1939, the Victoria Daily Times described “the world famous white bear at Beacon Hill Park” taking her first bath of spring. The newspaper noted she “went into hibernation a few weeks before Christmas, appearing only every three or four days for a little food.”
In 1944, the Kermode discovered how to lift a corner of the wire netting around the bottom of her cage to entice the chickens running loose nearby into her pen. She feigned sleep as they approached, then pounced and ate them, feathers and all. A Victoria Daily Times reporter concluded the motivation was “a chicken dinner appetite.” A pair of ducks swimming around the Kermode’s pond were not eaten. Whenever the bear moved near, the drake scared her off by ruffling his feathers and hissing.
Though many Park visitors happily yelled “Scratch your tummy, Ursus,” and threw food at the bear, others were against confining a large intelligent mammal in a “jail cell.” A 1944 letter to the Daily Colonist described the bear pacing her concrete floor until exhausted and claimed many people avoided the Park because of “this evil on our doorstep.” A second letter protested the bear’s “wretched life behind bars...” and wrote it was “incomprehensible that people can get any pleasure from the sight of animals shut up in cages, condemned... to solitary confinement until death brings them relief. We do not even treat our worst criminals so.”
The SPCA agreed, “The conditions under which the bear is living are very poor.” They recommended a wood platform and straw be provided so the bear could sleep clear of “wet cement.” Noting bears in the wild eat a wide range of foods, including salmon, ants, berries, grasses, roots, and other vegetation, the Society recommended an “occasional change of diet, including carrots and carrot tops” be provided.
Though the Kermode’s life in a small cage was impoverished and grim, it was vastly superior to the lives of all previous Park bears. They were held in two dark, wet, plank-lined holes in the ground. In 1891, Victoria’s first bearpits were constructed in the southeast corner of the Park. The Daily Colonist called the 12 foot deep pits “magnificent” and “constructed on the most approved principles.”
In the wild, bears are solitary animals with vast territories. Crowding two to five bears together in small pits was stressful and unhealthy; sick and dying Park bears had to be frequently replaced with fresh adults. A bear cub placed in the pits was quickly killed and eaten.
A drain pipe was constructed in 1898 from the pits to the beach at Dallas and Cook, but the pits remained wet. Each year, the Park Keeper reported the pits and bears in poor condition. Finally, in 1909, Park Superintendent D. D. England wrote: “The bears were killed... as they were in bad shape” and the pits filled in. Evidence of the pits location was still visible in the southeast corner of the Park in the 1960's, according to Park Administrator Herb Warren. In 2005, the drain continues to function at the bottom of the beach stairs.
When the Kermode died in December, 1948, many Victorians expected she would be stuffed and put on display in the Provincial Museum. Director Dr. Clifford Carl explained the skin was in poor condition and the Museum already had a group of mounted white bears. Nevertheless, later newspaper reports claimed she was stuffed, “wrapped in plastic” and hidden in the Museum tower. In 2004, the “Mammal Preparator” of the Royal British Columbia Museum, confirmed that report was false: “The Kermode bear from Beacon Hill Park is in our research collection as a skull and a tanned hide.”
An estimated 400 Kermodes--also called Spirit Bears--live in north-central British Columbia today. Though few people will glimpse bears in the wild, their images will flood the Province in the coming months. A fund-raising campaign called “Spirit Bears in the City” will bolt dozens of life-size fibreglass white bear statues to Victoria sidewalks in May, 2006. This sequel to the successful “Orcas in the City” campaign will display bear shapes covered with designs and colours. A second major campaign promotes the Kermode to be named mascot of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.