NavyBearwithSailor

Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command

Yes, the Navy actually kept bears onboard ships. And that's not all.

May 10, 2019 - 2:49 pm
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No, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you.

That’s a bear on board a U.S. Navy ship.

We’ve heard of keeping cats on board for the rats or even the occasional pup, but bears seem a little farfetched even for the Navy.

NavyBearUSSGannet
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute archives

Turns out, not only was there a bear onboard one Navy ship, there were several. You might even call it a trend -- at least in the early 20th century.

The U.S. Naval Institute’s history blog says the sailors onboard the USS Gannet deployed to Alaska in 1929 got it into their heads to request a ship mascot. And they already had one in mind.

Commanding Officer Arthur W. Radford allegedly agreed to the scheme -- but only if one of the crew took full responsibility for the furry new shipmate.

One machinist’s mate volunteered and the CO reached out to the Alaskan Department of Fish and Wildlife to get his ship a black bear.

As fate would have it, Alaskan authorities had just raided a ship from Seattle, where they seized a bear cub illegally kidnapped from Alaska.

The cub had already been exposed to humans and authorities were hesitant to return it to the wild alone. So they agreed to hand off the cub to the ship’s crew, as long as they promised to find a safe zoo for the cub once he or she grew up.

The CO got the San Diego Zoo to agree to take the cub off his hands once the crew returned to port, and the cub was made a sailor.

At least one other bear got his sea legs onboard the USS Connecticut around the same time, according to a photo archived at the Naval History and Heritage Command.

NavyBearwithSailors
Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command archives

The practice of keeping exotic animals aboard ships wasn’t unique to U.S. sailors. You could say it’s a time-honored tradition.

Some of those include the British Royal Navy’s polar bear Barbara, lions, parrots, dogs, peacocks, horses, pigs and more. The Royal Navy even had a “sailor’s zoo.”

Some of the animals were gifts from foreign governments to sailors or commanders and others were stowaways smuggled on board. Apparently, a CO or two could sometimes be convinced to authorize a quadruped comrade or two.

The tradition was still alive well into the 21st century, with the Royal Navy taking on a ring-tailed lemur in 2013.

The Teddy Bear in Chief himself, Theodore Roosevelt, oversaw the Navy during a period of animal mascot popularity on Navy ships (because of course).

Goats were long associated with the Navy as a source of food because they were smaller than cows and less picky about their own food. But as food supply to ships improved, goats transitioned to pets,” according to Smithsonian Magazine and “Bill the Goat” is still the official mascot of the U.S. Navy, though no more goats call ship decks home.  

“The monkeys, bears, dogs, cats and others spared the distress of close quarters and seasickness would probably thank those responsible for the change,” the Smithsonian wrote. “As would the sailors who no longer have to clean up after the navy's animal mascots.”

NavyBear1
Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command archives.

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