He was literally up a tree. In 1950, a small black bear cub, surrounded by smoke and flames, scurried up a tree in the midst of a catastrophic forest fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. He tenaciously held on while his forest home turned into charred embers around him.
When firefighters found the cub, he was frightened and famished, but clinging to life with the same determination he'd used to cling to his perch. The brave bear was rushed to Dr. Edwin J. Smith, a practitioner in nearby Santa Fe. Dr. Smith was a small animal practitioner who had treated wildlife for the US Forest Service, but never a bear.
"Come to think of it," Dr. Smith said, "that was the first and last time I ever treated a bear."
The bear's front paws were badly burned. All the fur was scorched off his abdomen, and the skin over his stomach was inflamed.
"Without medical assistance, the infection would have killed him," Dr. Smith said, "but I treated him real good."
Dr. Smith applied salve to the cub's wounds and wrapped the burns. He changed the wrappings daily to avoid infection.
Dr. Edwin Smith and Smokey Bear
"He became my good little patient," Dr. Smith said. "He always wanted to sleep on my shoulder." After a few weeks the bear went home with a forest ranger, but whenever the cub revisited Dr. Smith it would run to him, wanting to be picked up.
"I was told he was an ornery little dickens and that he'd try to bite. But he never tried to bite me."
Since 1944, the Smokey Bear cartoon campaign has been telling us: "Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires." Few animals in public service campaigns have had such a lasting impact.
Word sometimes travels faster than a wildfire, and before long the unnamed bear cub had become a celebrity. Inspired by the advertising campaign, the US Forestry Service and the New Mexico Fish and Game Commission decided to christen him Smokey Bear, and he became the real-life embodiment of the symbol for forest fire prevention.
After his recovery, the real-life Smokey Bear took up residence at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Dr. Smith saw Smokey there in 1962, 12 years after treating him. The plucky bear cub had grown to 400 pounds.
Fifty years later, Dr. Smith continues to tell the Smokey Bear story.
"I went up to his pen and patted his front paws, and he seemed to respond to me like he knew me. I must have made some impression on him when he was a baby."
Smokey died of natural causes at age 26 in 1976. His remains are buried in Capitan, where there is a museum to honor him. The Smokey Bear Historical State Park include a visitor's center and a half-acre boardwalk featuring the various plants of New Mexico and the grave of Smokey Bear.
Dr. Smith retired to Pueblo, Colo in 1994. Since that time, he and his wife have volunteered their time to spread the word about forest fire prevention. Now in his 80s, Dr. Smith still regularly visits area schools, service clubs, and interagency groups to relate his unique story about Smokey. In recognition for their public service, the US Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters, and Advertising Council Inc honored Dr. Smith with the Bronze Smokey Bear Award at a ceremony and reception in Pueblo. The Bronze Smokey is awarded for outstanding contribution to local or statewide fire prevention efforts for 2 years or more.
In addition to the message he spread about the value of preserving our woodlands from forest fires, Dr. Smith gained experience treating Smokey that taught him a valuable lesson about the human-animal bond. "If you're good to animals, they'll remember you for a long time."
Apart from playing a historic role in Americana, Dr. Edwin J. Smith has created a legacy all his own. The brother of two practitioners, Dr. Kenneth Smith and Dr. Earl Smith, he opened Smith Veterinary Hospital in Santa Fe in 1946. The practice was eventually turned over to his son, Dr. Tom Smith. Tom was later assisted by a third generation of the family in the person of his daughter, Dr. Kathy Smith-Dobesh, who now runs the clinic with her husband, Dr. Mike Dobesh. All of the aforementioned are graduates of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University. Kelsey Dobesh, the couple's young daughter, may one day represent a fourth generation in the profession. Kelsey has already shown an interest in animals.