Between 1939 and 1947, Canada held, at its peak, some 35,000 prisoners of war (POWs) in camps scattered across the country. Some were German and Italian civilian internees and enemy merchant seamen, but the bulk of these men were German combatants sent to Canada to wait out the end of the war. Great Britain, facing the threat of a German invasion in 1940, elected to dispatch most of its POWs to the Commonwealth, and Canada continued to accept shipments of POWs through 1944. Extended periods of internment took both a physical and a mental toll, so prisoners took up a wide range of activities to help cope with their internment – activities that were supported and encouraged by Canadian authorities and international aid groups. Prisoners assembled sports teams and orchestras, put on theatrical performances, built elaborate handicrafts, and took educational classes to help pass the time. As this photo essay demonstrates, many also turned to pets for comfort and companionship. These pets included domesticated animals such as cats and dogs, as well as other, more unlikely companions.
The presence of pets in internment camps in Canada was up to the discretion of the camp commandant. There were no regulations prohibiting the presence of animals – wild or domestic – so few, if any, commandants had objections to prisoners keeping pets. Some prisoners acquired cats and dogs through sales orchestrated by camp staff or through illicit trade with guards, while others simply ‘adopted’ stray animals that wandered into the barbed wire enclosures. The photo postcard below, mailed by Wolfgang Wirth (standing, far right) to his family in Germany, shows one of the many dogs in Camp 133 (Lethbridge, Alberta).
Pets helped prisoners cope with their internment, providing them with much needed companions. Despite the presence of hundreds or thousands of other POWs, many prisoners expressed intense feelings of loneliness and isolation. Kurt Siebein, a veteran of the North African campaign, captured this sense of isolation in this painting below of a POW walking his dog through a seemingly empty Camp 133 (Ozada, Alberta) at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
Many prisoners dedicated their free time to obedience training and teaching their dogs new tricks. One prisoner at Camp 132 (Medicine Hat, Alberta) taught his dog Stroopy (believed to be the dog seen below) elaborate tricks like a “circus dog.” Mating pairs were also highly valued and prisoners bred animals to sell, trade, or give away to friends and comrades. One issue of the camp newspaper at Camp 133 (Lethbridge) had advertisements for puppies for sale alongside another that asked “Have you seen my hamster?”
While cats and dogs were in high demand, wild animals were also fair game in POW camps. Prisoners captured and ‘adopted’ native species like squirrels, gophers, raccoons, skunks, and various types of birds. Animals like the raccoon below, captured by prisoners at Ozada or Lethbridge, may have seemed mundane or uninteresting to the Canadian guards and camp staff but many of these species were new and exciting to prisoners.
Prisoners built cages and enclosures for their new pets and some camps eventually established their own “Lager Zoos” (camp zoos). The elaborate enclosure seen below was located within Camp 20 (Gravenhurst, Ontario) and included at least one monkey that prisoners brought from North Africa or acquired from sailors during their voyage to Canada. Prisoners also turned to international aid organizations, such as the War Prisoners’ Aid of the YMCA, for help expanding their collections and acquiring more ‘exotic’ animals. At Camp 30 (Bowmanville, Ontario), for example, prisoners pooled their money and, with the help of the War Prisoners’ Aid, managed to purchase a small alligator.
Dogs, cats, and apparently even alligators were in high demand, but there remained one species that prisoners across the country were fascinated by: bears. Most prisoners had grown up in Germany reading adventure stories of the American frontier and brought these romanticized notions of wilderness to Canada as prisoners. They soon discovered that most of Canada did not fit Karl May’s and James Fenimore Cooper’s depictions of North America and, despite their hopes, it appeared unlikely they would meet any bears, moose, or wolves during their time here.
Some POWs did not give up hope of encountering bears and they turned to the War Prisoners’ Aid for help. At Camp 20 (Gravenhurst), prisoners asked Director Dr. Jerome Davis for help locating and purchasing a bear and, with the commandant’s approval, Davis did just that. Nellie (shown below at right) arrived at Camp 20 in October 1941. She was later transferred to Camp 23 (Monteith, Ontario) in May 1942 and renamed ‘Nellie von Gravenhurst.’ She was soon joined by Suzi (left), who was christened the ‘Little Devil’ for biting a POW’s finger on her first day in camp. The pair were allowed to roam throughout the enclosure – usually under a POW escort – during the day, providing POWs with a source of entertainment and an important distraction from their internment.
In May 1943, Canada approved the employment of POWs to cut fuel- and pulpwood. Over the next three years, thousands were employed in bush camps in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. Bush camps had no barbed wire fences or guard towers and instead relied on the natural environment to keep curious POWs at bay. There was no objection to prisoners keeping pets in these small camps so long as the majority of prisoners did not oppose it or the number of pets did not become “excessive.” Prisoners, like the ones shown below working at a fuelwood cutting camp in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park, brought their dogs and cats with them from their internment camps, while additional animals were also obtained through illicit trade with civilian employees and guards.
Work in the bush meant that more POWs were seeing – and interacting with – wildlife in its natural habitat. Prisoners were now encountering animals like bears, moose, wolves, coyotes, deer, elk, skunks, and porcupines and it look little time before efforts were made to ‘domesticate’ them. Prisoners soon discovered that some species, like the young Great Blue Herons fed by prisoners working for the Great Lakes Paper Company near Valora, Ontario, were more receptive to domestication attempts than others.
Encounters with black bears were not uncommon for prisoners cutting pulpwood in northern Ontario, as is evident from the image below of men working for the Pigeon Timber Company near Neys, Ontario. Bear encounters were new and exciting experiences and while many prisoners were initially scared of these animals, the bears were generally more interested in the contents of the prisoners’ lunch boxes than the prisoners themselves. “They practically eat out of one’s hand,” one prisoner wrote in a letter sent to Germany. “You will think I am joking but it is a fact.” However, as one POW noted in a letter to his girlfriend, he did not recommend trying to pet them.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, prisoners began trying to ‘adopt’ bears, discovering cubs could be far more easily ‘tamed’ than their adult counterparts. Some prisoners managed to separate cubs from their mothers while other cubs were found wandering through the bush after their mother fell victim to hunters or guards (more on that later). There are no statistics for the number of bear cubs ‘adopted’ by POWs, but a number of bush camps in Manitoba and Ontario, like this Pigeon Timber Company camp near Neys, Ontario, are known to have kept pet bears.
Bear cubs, like this one at a Pigeon Timber Company pulpwood camp near Neys, were cute, relatively small, easy to handle, and not particularly dangerous. Photos show prisoners treated these animals much as they did dogs; prisoners led them on a leash, took them for walks, and taught them tricks.
When prisoners at a fuelwood-cutting camp in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park came across a bear and her two cubs in Spring 1944, they succeeded in capturing one of the cubs and spirited it away to camp. Christened ‘Mutz’ (a German word for bear), the cub became a cherished mascot, loved by POWs and guards alike. Shown below with one of the guards and the camp translator, Mutz generally had free reign of the camp and lived in a cage (visible in the background) built by the POWs.
Mutz, seen below with the German medical staff at Riding Mountain, became friends with the camp dogs, although he was known to play a little rough. Major Keane, the camp commandant, reported that “the little bear provided the biggest share of Entertainment in this Camp for both PW and Guards.” But prisoners soon realized bears became increasingly difficult to handle as they grew up. In 1945, Mutz forced his way into the kitchen and and attempts to remove him were unsuccessful. The guards called upon a park warden for assistance. With most of the camp looking on, the warden, deeming the bear a threat, shot and killed Mutz.
Although bears were much loved by their captors, Mutz’s fate emphasizes a stark difference between the treatment of cubs and adult bears. Prisoners were eager to see and engage with bears in the wild first-hand, but Canadian perspectives on these animals ultimately determined the animals’ fates. Hunting bears was encouraged in Ontario in the 1940s and, in bush camps, adult bears were seen as threats to one’s safety. Drawn in to the camps by the smell of food and garbage, bears were considered nuisances and, as this photo from an Abitibi Power & Paper Company camp suggests, pests: note what appears to be an insecticide sprayer being used by one of the POWs. As a result, some civilian employees and guards in bush camps ordered nuisance bears be shot on sight.
Fortunately, not all bears shared Mutz’s fate. When POWs were withdrawn from the bush in the spring of 1946, most bears kept in bush camps were released back into the wild. After life in captivity, it is unknown whether they were able to adapt to their newfound freedom. At Camp 23, prisoners arranged for Nellie’s release. In true Winnie the Pooh fashion, they lured her out of her den beneath a camp building with a container of honey and loaded her onto a truck. She was then driven into the woods near camp and left there. One POW later recalled that he never forgot the sad look she gave them as they drove away.
As for other pets, prisoners were extremely dismayed to learn they would not be allowed to bring their cats, dogs, squirrels, gophers, and birds back to Germany. Most of the native species like birds, snakes, and squirrels were released from the cages and set free, while some from Lethbridge were donated to the Calgary Zoo. Some prisoners simply released their cats and dogs, while others gave them away to camp staff or guards. A few camp commandants, like the one at Lethbridge, even arranged for adoption events with local residents in order that new homes could be found for the closing camp’s many pets.
Seventy-five years later, former prisoners still remember pets like Mutz and Nellie with fondness. They remember walking their dogs and teaching them tricks, and how the bears spent their days playing and climbing trees. Big or small, pets helped prisoners cope with internment in Canada, providing them companionship and distracting them, however briefly, from their time as a prisoner of war.
This photo essay is based on a paper I delivered at the 2019 American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) conference in Columbus, Ohio. Thank you to Ben Bradley for his help in putting this together and to Ian Jesse for organizing our ASEH panel.
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