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“Unsern Gueter und Treuer Lager Bär”: Prisoners of War Pets in Canada during the Second World War

Thu, April 11, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Madison

Abstract

In Spring 1944, forty German prisoners of war (POWs) employed in a woodcutting camp were walking along a lakeshore in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park when they came upon a mother bear and two cubs. Chasing the mother bear away, the POWs captured one of the cubs and brought it back to camp. “Mosche,” as the bear was later named, became, as one prisoner described, “unswern gueter und treuer lager bär” – our good and faithful camp bear – and spent the remainder of his life essentially a prisoner of prisoners.

Mosche’s experience was not unique. For the almost 40,000 German POWs, Enemy Merchant Seaman, and civilian internees interned in Canada during the Second World War, pets became an important coping mechanism for life behind barbed wire. While cats and dogs were the norm, POWs also brought monkeys with them from North Africa and adopted more “exotic” animals including chipmunks, gophers, racoons, birds, and the ever-popular black bear. Having grown up on adventure stories of the North American frontier, many POWs developed a fascination with bears that resulted in many cubs, like Mosche, to be forcefully adopted as camp mascots or pets. While larger camps often displayed these animals in zoo-like settings, the smaller and more-isolated bush camps treated bears more like traditional pets.

Focusing primarily on black bears, I will take the perspective of these animals to explore their experiences in POW camps, including where they came from, how their lives were affected, and what happened to them when the POWs left and the camps closed. Ultimately, I hope to show how these animals helped shape POWs’ experiences and understandings of Canada and wilderness.

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