Through spring 2020, visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo can celebrate 75 years of preventing wildfires through this bilingual exhibit featuring the history of Smokey Bear.
Exhibit highlights include an iconic Smokey statue, vintage posters and photographs of the real Smokey Bear, who came to the Zoo as a cub and became one of its most famous residents.
Visitors can also learn about the innovative technology Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute scientists use to study how species interact with their environment and track how ecosystems respond to global changes—including wildfires.
This exhibit was made possible by the United States Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. Learn more at smokeybear.com.
Birth of a Legend
In 1944 the United States began a national wildfire prevention campaign to protect forest resources during World War II. The Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Committee chose a powerful yet friendly bear to speak for the forests: Smokey Bear.
Posters show Smokey’s character through the decades, offering friendly tips on the proper way to extinguish campfires and advice on how to be a good steward of the environment. Several of the iconic Smokey posters, created by Forest Service artist Rudy Wendelin, helped shape the public identity of this beloved character.
The Real Smokey Bear
In 1950, a black bear cub was found clinging to a tree in Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico after a devastating forest fire. At the time, he was estimated to be about 3 months old. The cub was dubbed “Smokey Bear,” inspired by the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign. After receiving treatment for wounds to his paws and hindquarters, Smokey was flown to Washington, D.C., where he became one of the most famous residents in the Zoo’s 130-year history. See the original press release of his arrival at the Zoo in the Smithsonian Archives.
As the campaign grew, Smokey Bear became a star and a must-see animal at the Zoo. Children sent the Zoo thousands of letters addressed to Smokey pledging their support for his junior rangers program. The volume of letters was so great, the United States issued Smokey Bear his own ZIP code—an honor bestowed only to him and the President of the United States. Although Smokey Bear the Zoo resident died in 1976, the character lives on through the campaign. His message—“Only You Can Prevent Wildfires”—is as relevant today as it was 75 years ago.