Animals in Literature

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Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear

In this story, students will learn about how a bear named Winnipeg (Winnie) became one of today’s most popular characters in children’s literature, Winnie the Pooh. Cole asks his mom, the great granddaughter of Captain Harry Colebourn, , to tell him a bedtime story about a bear. Cole comes to learn how he got his name through the retelling of events of a baby black bear that had been rescued by Captain Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian, who was on his way to an army base in England to help take care of the military horses. Throughout the story, students will learn to love and admire Winnie for her charm and special bond that she had with the soldiers of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade, and her later friend Christopher Robin.

Why use this book:

  • Showcases the significant impact that animals have on the well-being of people through loyalty, trust and helping to keep up morale. The book demonstrates the strong connection and relationships people have with animals, known as the human-animal bond.
  • Highlights the different roles animals can play in our lives and that some animals have jobs. This story could serve as an introduction to service animals and emotional support animals.

Animal Welfare Considerations:

  • This story takes place over 100 years ago during the First World War. How we view animals and our relation to them have changed significantly over this time, so some parts of this story are out dated and would likely no longer happen (finding a bear cub at the train station, taking a bear to war, physically interacting with a bear at the zoo, etc.). Have a discussion with students on why these situations would be seen as problematic today.

Ask your students:

  • Harry Colebourn was a veterinarian. Why do you think a veterinarian would be needed in a war?
  • Why do you think Harry bought Winnie from the trapper? Do you think it was the right decision? Why or why not.
  • How would you describe the relationships between Harry and Winnie?
  • Harry hesitates a few times during the story saying “I shouldn’t. I can’t” but “ultimately his heart made up his mind.” Why do you think Harry hesitated before buying Winnie from the trapper and before taking Winnie to war?
  • Why did Harry take Winnie at the zoo? How would you feel if you were Harry? How would you feel if you were Winnie?
  • At the end of the story Harry returns to Winnipeg without Winnie. Do you think this was the right decision? Explain.
  • Winnie was a mascot for the soldiers of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade. There were many animals just like Winnie who were also mascots and helped raise the spirits of the soldiers while keeping them company. Do you have any animals in your life that raise you or your family’s spirits? What do these animals do to help raise your spirits and/or keep your company?
  • Animals who participate in war are considered military service animals. Can you think of any other types of service animals? What are their main jobs? In what ways do these animals help the community and people?


  • The Real Winnie – As a class, watch the short videos “The Incredible True Story of Winnie the Pooh” (6:21) and “The bear who inspired Winnie-the-Pooh” (2:10) on the real Winnie. In partners or small groups, have students research the real Winnie. Have students compare and contrast the events of the book with the information they find, using a Venn diagram.
  • Diary Entry – In the back of the book, there are pictures of artifacts that highlight some of Captain Harry Colebourn and Winnie’s journey. One of the pictures includes an excerpt from Harry’s diary. As a class, go through this interactive online exhibit, created by the Toronto Metropolitan University, that contains pictures and exerts from Harry’s diary. After spending time exploring the online exhibit, have students take the perspective of Harry and write their own diary entry about a day spent with Winnie. Students can use details from the book and information from the exhibit.
  • Animal with Jobs – The Canadian Armed Forces has had many military service animals that assisted in the First and Second World Wars. Tales of Animals in War is an resource from Veterans Affairs Canada that features the role different animals have played in war. Some of these animals were mascots, just like Winnie, and some animals had other special jobs (working animals). Using the Tales of Animals in War as a starting point, have students research animals in the Canadian Armed Forces. Each student will pick and research one specific animal hero and create a photo essay highlighting their life and significance in the military.
  • Remind students that a photo essay is a series of photos that tell a story and often do not need captions, but can include a short description at the beginning or end. Encourage students to spend their time brainstorming and researching their animal hero so that they can accurately represent the animal’s life.
  • Family! At the end of the story, there is a beautiful illustration of Cole’s family tree, representing his connection to Captain Harry Colebourn and Winnie. Ask students: What makes a family special? Have students think about who is in their family and describe characteristics that bring them together. Some examples include, marriage, adoption, common bloodlines, strong emotional bonds, living in the same house, working together cooperatively, love and care for one another, etc. Reinforce the idea that every family is unique and that families can look very different.
  • Have students draw and colour a family portrait. Encourage students to include their family pets if they have them. Students can include illustrations of family traditions or special activities the family enjoys. Have students share their family portraits with the class. During their presentation, encourage students to describe who is in their family and what makes their family unique and special.

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*Thank you to Kendal Sasvary for her contribution to this book review.

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