How One Bear Fought for Our Forebears: The Polarising Effect of Animal Mascots on Human Conflicts

09/12/2013 13:32 GMT | Updated 05/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Around the same time that a snake was gobbling up a sleeping drunkard in India last week, several artists and dignitaries assembled for a wine and cheese evening in the safe environment of the Polish Embassy in London. The reason for this gathering was to celebrate the city of Edinburgh's recent decision to approve construction of a monument to a bear with a storied past.

Wojtek (English: Voytek), a 250lb Syrian brown bear, was adopted by the Polish army stationed in Persia in 1942. When the unit set sail on a British transport from Egypt to fight in the Italian campaign, Wojtek was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a corporal (II Corps, 22nd Artillery Supply Company) in order to secure his passage aboard ship. On arrival, the bear proved his worth at the Battle of Monte Casino by transporting ammunition for the troops. Apparently, during his service Wojtek never once dropped a single crate -- a remarkable record in light of his weakness for beer and cigarettes when socialising with the other soldiers. Following the end of World War II in 1945, Wojtek was transported to Scotland, where he spent his last years as a resident of the Edinburgh Zoo.

During the aforementioned meeting at the Polish Embassy, Ms Aileen Orr of the Wojtek Memorial Trust explained that the bear's tale parallels that of many expat Poles, who after fighting for their country were compelled to relocate to the British Isles. The Communist government installed in Poland after WWII by Stalin was not favourable to Poles who had fought on the Western Front. These unfortunates often found themselves imprisoned on their postwar return to Poland, or at the very least, shot in the head.

Spending the rest of your life in a cage might seem too strong metaphor for the life of an exile. Nevertheless, at least Wojtek the bear had a job at a time when it was difficult for even British citizens to find work, let alone Polish ex-military emigrants (who usually spoke better French or German than they did English).

Also aptly present at the embassy event was Mr Zbigniew Mieczkowski, a 96-year-old Polish postwar émigré who, against the odds, fashioned himself a successful existence in Britain. Having been deprived of his Polish landowner privileges, Mieczkowski initially engaged in manual jobs but later built up a lucrative business and went on to marry Miss Caroline Grenfell (she of noble English ancestry). During the meeting he inquired after stalled plans to construct a monument commemorating his former commander General Maczek, who led the Polish First Armoured Division -- which in 1944 liberated many towns in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Mieczkowski received assurance from the Lord Provost of Edinburgh that he will do his best to revive the project, so that General Maczek might have a monument as splendid as the one planned for Wojtek the Bear.

Politicians and activist of today ought to heed this tale: out of the 200,000 Polish soldiers who contributed to victory in WWII and wound up in the UK, it is a bear that is remembered and lauded in statuary. Perhaps there is a lesson here: if you want to get a campaign noticed and remembered, make sure it somehow involves animals.

In the present world of 'animal political correctness', I'm not quite sure how any Avaaz or Greenpeace campaigner would feel about sacrificing their cat, python, or goat for a press stunt, but nevertheless I'm sure there are some smart ways of including an animal factor in your campaign without jeopardising Noah's Ark.

Take the Arctic 30 story. I daresay that the activists aboard a Greenpeace vessel protesting against oil drilling in the Arctic Sea must have foreseen that they would be arrested by Russian security agents, charged with piracy, and thrown into a St Petersburg prison. In retrospect, it might have been better had one of them donned a polar bear outfit amidst the emergency. From what we know about human reaction to acts of animal cruelty, if Western Society had witnessed a polar bear being locked away in a cell, the whole Arctic 30 lot would be out in seconds.

I think I'd like to spread and share this 'get the animals involved' marketing idea, but one thing bothers me: a worry that some wrongheaded Americans will misinterpret the message and start retrofitting drones with kittens in order to make their unmanned killing operations more palatable to the press.