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Hip Hip Pooh-ray! Beloved Bear Can Stay
Shannon Maughan -- 2/23/98
British MP ignites a short-lived international incident
Winnie-the-Pooh, the bear of very little brain and a whole lot of muddle, must surely be scratching his head over the recent flurry of international attention regarding his welfare. The stuffed bear that inspired British author A.A. Milne's classic Winnie-the-Pooh, first published in the U.S. by E.P. Dutton in 1926, became an unwitting player in a transatlantic tug of war over his custody.

Since 1987 Pooh and his four friends -- Kanga, Tigger, Eeyore and Piglet -- stuffed animals dating back to the 1920s -- have resided in a climate-controlled glass case at the New York Public Library's Donnell Library Center in Manhattan. Seeing the toys in this "incarcerated" state recently prompted Gwyneth Dunwoody, a member of the British Parliament, to request that the stuffed animals be returned to what she considers their rightful homeland. The story landed in newspapers around the world, including the Calgary Herald, Deutsche Presse-Agenteur and the South China Morning Post, as well as reaching a number of other countries via Reuters and Associated Press.

"We first started getting phone calls about all this on Wednesday [February 4]," said Karen Lotz, publisher of Dutton Books for Children. "When I came in to my office on Thursday morning, I discovered I had press interviews scheduled throughout the day and that a television camera crew from the BBC was setting up at the Donnell Library."

Before long, New York City's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, joined the fracas, defending the Big Apple's conscientious care of the treasured bear and his pals. "Yes, he took the issue up as well," said Lotz. "He's planning to make May 4 Winnie-the-Pooh Day in New York City, which would include a parade. We haven't received any confirmation of this, but if it happens we'll be thrilled."

Meanwhile, New York Representative Nita Lowey has introduced a resolution in Congress condemning any attempts to send the animals back to England. And (as it has been speculated), it is perhaps not coincidental that this brouhaha occurred on the eve of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to the White House. Although Blair and President Clinton had many more important matters to discuss, Blair was pressed for comment and said of the animals, "I'm sure they're perfectly well-looked-after where they are."

Lotz is hoping that Pooh's list of friends in high places d sn't end with Blair, either. She has written to First Lady Hillary Clinton requesting honorary citizenship for Pooh so that he might have a stronger legal leg on which to stand. "Steps are being taken to legitimize him here," Lotz said. In return for citizenship, Lotz has pledged that Pooh will gladly assist Clinton in her national literacy campaign.

Why All the Bother?

How did a humble toy create such a stir? And why did so many reporters and officials bite at the story? Lotz offered an explanation that is shared by many: "With the situation in Iraq and all that is going on in the White House right now, people are hungry for a clean, good-feeling story. Pooh is an icon of eternal childhood. And for many people it's important to know where he is and that they still have access to him."

According to Lotz, Pooh's history clearly points to official U.S. ownership. Milne bought the toys for his son Christopher in the 1920s. The plush menagerie and the boy were soon immortalized in Milne's stories about their adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood. They also served as the models for Ernest H. Shepard's illustrations in the books. In 1947 Milne sent the animals to visit the U.S. for a promotional tour. "When the decision was to be made about returning Pooh to England," said Lotz, "Milne said that he wanted Dutton to have the bear. He even sent a birth certificate for him." In 1956, after Milne's death, Dutton purchased the animals from the author's estate for an undisclosed sum. Christopher Milne wholeheartedly supported the new owners, saying that he felt "the real Pooh is in my heart."

While Pooh's U.S. citizenship is pending, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Blair essentially ended the media blitz on Friday, February 6, with the statement, "We believe the U.S. will look after and care for these animals." And although the bear and his buddies will remain in their present abode, Lotz concurs with Christopher Milne's thoughts about Pooh's true home. "Pooh d sn't live in a glass case," she said. "Pooh lives wherever there is a book and a reader."
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