The Story of the Bear that Made Us Better Humans
Yellowstone National Park’s first grizzly bear of 2022 was spotted on March 7, and in Cody Yellowstone, that’s a very big deal. It means that spring is on its way, and soon after that, summer-season visitors will make their way to Cody Yellowstone from all corners of the world.
For most of those summer-season visitors, wild bear sightings are a novel experience. Many visitors have only seen bears in zoos or preserves, and their knowledge of wild bear behavior is limited. That lack of knowledge and experience has always been a unique challenge to the National Park Service (NPS). They must carefully balance the dual objectives of protecting wildlife and the safety of park visitors by educating travelers about bear habitats and communicating wildlife-watching guidelines.
One of the most enduring – and outlandish – bear-education initiatives concocted by NPS occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was when post-WWII optimism and prosperity swept the U.S., and Americans, particularly, were hitting the road to explore the country.
Welcoming record visitors to Yellowstone, the National Park Service was going through a period of reinvention at the time, but the organization had not quite gotten it right yet. The park’s abundant population of bears was becoming acclimated to humans because of their propensity for giving them human-food handouts, and dumpster-diving bruins enjoying a picnic were a common sight.
That’s where William Hanna and Joe Barbera — the same guys who brought us “Tom and Jerry” — came in.
Yogi Bear was the wise-cracking, tie-wearing, rule-breaking denizen of obviously fictional “Jellystone National Park.” While the name “Jellystone” was inspired by Yellowstone, there were few similarities between the world’s first national park and Jellystone. Yellowstone is wild, with occasional forest fires and blizzards and an array of wildlife far beyond the park’s bears. The park sees millions of visitors each year, and NPS works tirelessly to remind those visitors to keep their distance from wildlife. In Jellystone, the park is always sunny and never crowded.
Hanna and Barbera drew inspiration for Yogi, in part, from a 1953 Yellowstone visitor survey that indicated that while most visitors knew they shouldn’t feed the bears, many still did. And rangers at the time rarely fined them.
Their creation, Yogi Bear, was originally a supporting character in “The Huckleberry Hound Show.” Yogi’s mannerisms were inspired by the character Ed Norton in the “Honeymooners.” His facial characteristics reflected those of Yogi Berra, the Yankees’ catcher whose “Yogi-isms” — twisted and sometimes head-scratching phrases — are still popular today. Among them is the nonsensical catchphrase “Hey, hey, hey!”
Yogi Bear got his own television show in January 1961, and it quickly caught on around the world. We couldn’t get enough of the wise-cracking bear and his sidekick, Boo-Boo, whose carefree existence seemed to always include nabbing “pic-a-nic” baskets and evading the ever-diligent (but nearly always ineffective) picnic basket-protection efforts of Ranger Smith.
Yogi boosted visitation to Yellowstone in short order, and real-life rangers were regularly asked by kids (and sometimes adults!) about the cartoon bear’s whereabouts in “Jellystone.”
Capitalizing on his popularity, the National Park Service used Yogi for public service messages about the dangers of feeding bears and other wildlife. That campaign was so effective that Yellowstone soon saw a decrease in the number of bear-related “boo boos” to visitors.
Now well into his 60s, Yogi has lived more than twice the lifespan of a typical Yellowstone bear, which makes him a lot older — and certainly smarter — than the “av-er-age” bear. And hey, hey, hey…. now you know the story about the Yogi Bear and how he tried to make us better humans.
Or at least better Yellowstone National Park visitors.
And speaking of visiting, now’s the perfect time to start thinking about your great American adventure in Cody Yellowstone. There’s plenty to see and do here (including wildlife spotting!) — download your free vacation guide today!