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Great White Bear of Beacon Hill Park

For 24 years Beacon Hill Park was the home of a white bear! This is the bear's life and history as documented in:

Beacon Hill Park History
   by Janis Ringuette.

A white bear, Ursus Kermodei, is not an albino or polar bear. What is it? Read about the myths, history, facts & science of  BC bears in:

Beyond Spirit Bears
by Grant Keddie,
Human History, Former Curator, Royal BC Museum, Archaeology

1924 - Ursus Kermodei cub arrives

A six month old female white Ursus Kermodei cub was placed in a small make-shift cage in Beacon Hill Park in the summer of 1924.

According to a Royal B.C. Museum publication (2), the bear cub was captured by a man at Butedale (an outpost in Kitimat Channel in northern British Columbia), then sold to a man named Flowers, who tried to smuggle it across the U.S. border. (Corley-Smith, Peter, White Bears and other Curiosities, 1989, p. 54-55.) The Times, however, had a different story: “The famous white bear...[is the] only living specimen in captivity of the unique bear of Princess Royal Island,” a large island on the west coast north of Bella Bella. (Times, December 24, 1924, p. 1,2)

The Provincial Game Conservation Board put the cub in the custody of Francis Kermodei, Curator of the Provincial Museum in Victoria. The cub was the first live Ursus Kermodei specimen in captivity.

The Provincial Museum had acquired some dead white bear specimens in 1904--two cubs from Princess Royal Island and an adult male from Gribbel Island--which were mounted and on display in Victoria. Dr. William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society declared the white bears were not albinos or polar bears; they were a new species, which he named Ursus Kermodei after his collaborator in Victoria, Francis Kermode.

Hornaday, hoping Mr. Kermode would send him the cub for the New York City zoo, wrote a pleading letter on September 4, 1924. He said he would “perish of disappointment” if Kermode didn’t send him the bear. He tried several arguments: "Remember that I am fighting your battle for the supremacy of this species that has been named in your honor!"

"Of course, the people of Victoria will be interested in keeping the bear in that city, but let me point out to you the fact that here it will be seen by 2,500,000 people each year..." (Corley-Smith, p. 56-57) where its cramped and inadequate quarters roused something of a storm among local animal lovers. Kermode, claiming he had no funds to improve the situation, passed the matter over to the City Parks Board. They made some minor improvements and the bear, a female, lived out its lonely and restricted life, dying of old age in 1948. (Corley-Smith, p. 56)

The white bear was not an albino or polar bear and it was also not a new species. In 1928, Dr. E. Raymond Hall of the University of California, after examining skulls of five white bears from Gribbel and Princess Royal Islands, agreed with the American Museum of Natural History that the white bear was “a color phase of the Ursus americanus group--the others being black, cinnamon, brown and blue.” (Corley-Smith, p. 57)

The Kermodei cub made the Times front page when she escaped the make-shift chicken-wire cage and ran up a large fir tree at the northwest corner of the deer enclosure in December: Offers of food were made, but the bear was deaf to such blandishments and remained in his [sic] leafy [sic] quarters seventy or eighty feet above the ground for more than two hours.

Eventually, some tempting food drew him down and he was quickly returned to the pen. Yesterday evening he looked in a more attractive condition than for some time, the cold weather having dried up the wet floor of his cage and his coat was clean and glossy. (Times, December 24, 1924, pp. 1,2)

Hornaday didn’t succeed in acquiring the bear for New York City. Corley-Smith wrote that she continued to be held for months in a small pen in the deer enclosure,

In January, 1925, the Park Committee authorized up to $1000 be used to build a new cage. Photographs in Corley-Smith’s book show the bear in three different cages. The oldest photo shows the cub in a small chicken-wire enclosure. A larger second cage is made of wood and chicken-wire, with a dirt floor, a pole and a small house. The last cage was constructed of concrete and metal bars. (Corley-Smith, p. 55) At least Ursus Kermodei was not stuck down in a bear-pit.

1939 - Spring in the zoo

A photo of “the world famous white bear at Beacon Hill Park” taking his first bath of spring was published on April 1. The emergence of the bear heralded spring had arrived. The Times noted Ursus Kermodei “went into hibernation a few weeks before Christmas, appearing only every three or four days for a little food.” (Times, April 1, 1939, p. 7)

1948 - Ursus Kermodei dead

Kermodei bear in later yearsThe Park’s white Kermodei bear was found dead by Caretaker George Redknap in December. The bear had lived alone for twenty-four years in a Beacon Hill Park cage, from 1924-1948. She was the last bear kept in the Park. (Colonist, December 6, 1948)

(The photo shows the bear in 1948, a few months before she died. See 1948.) 

A Colonist article the following day described the removal of the carcass. Four men in a truck laid down a canvas, dragged her onto it and pulled it up a plank into the truck. She was taken to a lab “at the Legislative Buildings.” Many Victorians expected the bear to be stuffed and put on display in the Provincial Museum. However, “Dr. Clifford Carl, director of the Provincial Museum, said the skin, skull and a few other accessories would be saved, but that the bear would not be stuffed.” Dr. Carl explained the Museum already had a family of mounted white bears and the white bear was in poor condition. (Colonist, December 7, 1948)

It is still widely believed that the Kermodei bear was mounted, displayed and preserved at the Museum. Newspaper articles perpetuated this story, sometimes in surprising detail. This misinformation was printed in 1974: “For years [Ursus] remained stuffed in our former provincial museum until her fur began to deteriorate in the light. She was then removed to the curatorial tower of our present museum and wrapped in plastic.” (Colonist, The Islander,” June 30, 1974, p. 13)

In answer to a request for information, James A. Cosgrove, Manager, Natural History Section, Royal British Columbia Museum, e-mailed the following definitive statement by the “Mammal Preparator” on December 2, 2003:

The Kermode bear from Beacon Hill Park is in our research collection as a skull and a tanned hide. I looked at the hide carefully and there is no evidence that it had been mounted in the past and then converted to a flat skin. It is in bad shape as mentioned in the inquiry so I suspect that Clifford Carl's explanation is the right one. The other reports may have resulted from confusion with one or more of the Kermode bears from the mounted group. I looked at the Provincial Museum Reports from 1948 and 1949 and there is no mention of the bear in them so I can not add anything further regarding the acquisition and disposition of the specimen.

The bear cage in the Park was demolished almost immediately, as shown in a December Colonist photo. The caption explained: “Air powered drills and hacksaws are bringing to end the familiar concrete and iron-bar cage which was the home of Ursus Kermodei--Victoria’s famous bear--in Beacon Hill Park since 1924. White lady passed away in her sleep last weekend.” (Colonist, December 11, 1948, p. 23)

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