Top five fictional animals and their real life inspirations

Top five fictional animals and their real life inspirations

Animals are brilliant.

You can’t hear Echo singing her motorboat song in his picture but trust me she was.

Animals fascinate us. They provide us with comfort and love and yet we understand very little about them. We’re still learning about animals and children learn about our world from animals in children’s books. This has given rise to many popular animal characters but have you ever thought about the real life counterpart of these famous fictional animals? I’ve conducted some research and found the answers surprising.

1 Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and the rest of their friends have entertained children for many generations. First published in 1926 Winnie the Pooh has become a symbol of children’s literature. Yet Winnie the Pooh is a very strange name for a children’s character. Why is his last name Pooh? Winnie is a female name yet Pooh is very clearly a male.

Winnie the Pooh’s story begins in Canada in the year 1914. A Canadian solider called Harry Colebourn was on his way to England at the start of the First World War. As his train reached Whiteriver station Harry noticed a bear trapper on the platform with a bear cub. The trapper explained that he had killed the bear’s mother and was intending to sell the cub for profit. Perhaps feeling sorry for the bear, Harry brought the animal for $20 and made it the mascot of his regiment. The bear was called Winnipeg after Colebourn’s home town. The soldiers trained Winnipeg (shortened down to Winnie) like a dog to fetch items and perform other tricks. When Colebourn reached England he decided that it was safer for Winnie if he was donated to London Zoo rather than taken  to the trenches.

Winnie the Pooh and Harry Colebourn

While staying at London Zoo Winnie was visited by A.A.Milne and his son, Christopher Robin. The zoo keepers allowed Christopher to enter the pen with the bear cub to play while his father watched. (Health and Safety wasn’t a thing in those days). Christopher loved the bear so much he named his teddy bear after the creature. A.A.Milne then famously turned the stories Christopher would invent with the bear and his other stuffed toys (Tigger, Piglet and co) into books.

WInnie the Pooh and friends
From left to right: Kanga the Kangaroo, Tigger, Winnie, Piglet and Eeyore. Roo the baby Kangaroo was lost and the characters of Rabbit and Owl were created for the books.

There are two stories as to how Winnie acquired the last name Pooh. The first is that while on holiday Christopher and his father encountered a swan they called Pooh and A.A.Milne recycled the name. The second story involves Winnie the teddy bear. The teddy bear arms’ would sometimes become stuck in the air. When a fly landed on the bear’s nose A.A.Milne would tell his son that Winnie was saying “Pooh, Pooh” to dislodge the fly.

The Hundred Acre Wood that Pooh calls his home is also a real place. Ashdown Forest in England serves as Pooh’s home and several of the locations found in the books are visitable such as Galleon’s Leap and The Enchanted Place. (You can find a list of ten other visitable fictional locations here and here) Pooh the Swan eventually appeared in a Winnie the Pooh story but as Christopher Robin grew up he despised his link to the character and publicly criticised his father for using his real name.

Harry Colebourn survived the First World War and passed away peacefully in his sleep in 1947. Winnie the bear spent the rest of her life at London Zoo and after a lifetime of delighting children and adults alike passed away peacefully.

2 Dumbo


Disney’s Dumbo was inspired by the true and tragic story of Jumbo. Jumbo was captured in Sudan 1860 and arrived at London Zoo in 1865. Jumbo was named so because in Swahili Jambo means Hello and Jumbe means chief. The Victorians granted Jumbo celebrity status. He spent many years in London Zoo giving children rides much to their delight. The problem was Jumbo was very expensive to maintain and eventually he was sold to an American businessman called Barnum owner of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. There was public outcry when Jumbo was sold and Queen Victoria received a petition to keep the elephant in the zoo signed by hundreds of school children. Regardless Jumbo was shipped to America.


Jumbo died in suspicious circumstances. According to his owner, Jumbo tripped over a rail in a railway track while being loaded for transportation and impaled himself on his own tusks. A misdirected goods train then ran into Jumbo’s body. Other reports say that Jumbo was leading a smaller elephant called Tom Thumb to safety from an oncoming train when he was struck by said train and killed. A third story reports that the train hit Tom Thumb first, killing the animal, derailed and then ploughed into Jumbo. In all the versions Jumbo died. His owner cut the elephant open and separated the body parts so mourners had to visit multiple sites and pay multiple entrance fees. Jumbo’s hide travelled with the circus for several years before being donated to a museum. The hide was destroyed in a fire but the ashes were collected in a vase and placed in a private collection.

Needless the say the train in the Disney film was much more friendly.

Dumbo train
Choo Choo!

3 Leo the Lion

Even if you don’t know who Leo the Lion is you’ve likely seen and heard him. I’m referring to the lion in the Metro Goldwyn Mayer logo shown at the start of their films.


There have been eight lions to provide the iconic roar but only the last was called Leo. In order of appearance they are:

Slats (1924-1928)

Jackie (1928- 1956)

Telly (1928 – 1932)

Coffee (1932 – 1934)

Tanner (1934 – 1953)

George (1953 – 1958)

Leo (1957 – present)

There are lots of urban myths about these lions. In one tale, the lions were always intended to be silent but two burglars walked onset during recording and as the lion attacked them the sound of the lion’s roar was recorded. Another story states that a lion attacked one of it’s trainers while a third legend implies that Alfred Hitchcock was involved with the lions. I’m not sure how many of these stories are true but the lions do have a very interesting history.

The idea to use a lion as a logo came from a man called Howard Dietz. He went to Columbia University, whose athletic teams’ nickname was The Lions. The university also had a fight song called “Roar, Lion, Roar” which gave Dietz the idea to use a roaring lion. Ironically the lion Dietz worked with, Slats, is the only MGM lion not to roar on camera because the technology to add sound to film was still in development.

Jackie is the most interesting lion. She was the second lion used for the logo and the first to have her roar recorded. Jackie was given the nick name Leo the Lucky having survived two train crashes, an earthquake, a boat sinking, an explosion in the studio and an airplane crash. Reportedly it took rescuers several days to reach Jackie in the plane wreckage but she was unharmed. Although Jackie was described as “the ugliest cat you had ever seen” by her owner she was a big softy and according to one source she allowed a litter of stray kittens to stay in her cage during a storm and was found washing them the next morning.

Jackie the Lion's plane
Jackie the Lion’s plane.
Jackie the Lion playing with trainer
Jackie the Lion playing with her trainer

Telly and Coffee’s statuses as official MGM Lions is in dispute as they were mainly used for film tests. There isn’t a lot of detail about Tanner or George either, this lack of information may have given rise to the urban legends. Finally came Leo. Every MGM film I’ve seen as featured Leo and until researching this article I hadn’t considered there would be other lions.

4 Moby-Dick

Moby Dick book cover

When it was first released Moby-Dick did not receive favourable reviews. This might be because when it was first published Moby-Dick was missing vital sections and passages, rendering the story incomplete. Most noteabily the epilogue which solves a major plot hole was missing.

Two whales were the inspiration for Moby Dick. The first, called Mocha Dick, was an infamous ship sinker. The whale has been credited with sinking 20 ships and escaping 100 more. Sadly Mocha Dick was killed when protecting a mother whale and her offspring. According to The Knickerbocker magazine it took twenty harpoons in the back to kill Mocha.

The second whale only sunk one recorded ship but it’s the voyage of the crew afterwards that made the whale so infamous. The story of the crew was told in The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. The crew of the Essex tried to kill a sperm whale but the whale retaliated by ramming the Essex, forcing the crew into the smaller whaling boats. Only three boats escaped the destruction, one of which was lost on the journey to civilisation. The whale escaped and the remaining crew were left with a choice. They could either travel to the islands one thousand miles away which were rumoured to be home to cannibals or travel two thousand miles in the opposite direction to South America. The crew choose the latter but had to resort to cannibalism to survive their voyage. At their most perilous point the crew would draw lots over who was to die so their comrades could eat their flesh and survive. Thankfully the crew were discovered by another whaling ship before they perished.

5 Tarzan

Tarzan book cover

Yes, Tarzan isn’t an animal but he is closely related to the animal kingdom. Sometimes referred to as Tarzan, King of the apes, he was first published in 1912 and has maintained his popularity. As a child Tarzan ( or John Clayton Viscount Greystoke if you want to use his birth name) was shipwrecked on the coast of Africa and  raised by wild gorillas. When he is discovered by the crew of another shipwreck years later Tarzan has become the King of the gorillas but returns to England. After marrying one of his discoverers Jane Porter, Tarzan returns to the jungle preferring it over English society.

Tarzan is what sociologists refer to as a feral child, a child who has lived in isolasion from human contact from a very young age. Two feral children that predate Tarzan’s publication and may have been the inspiration for him are Victor of Averyro and Peter the Wild Boy.

Victor was discovered in France in the year 1800 by hunters who captured him in a forest. Victor was adopted by Jean Marc Gaspard Itard a medical student who tried to civilize the boy and teach him how to be human. Itard classed being human as 1) the ability to empathise with others and 2) the ability to speak. There was at least one incident of  Victor displaying empathy. While laying the table with the house keeper Madam Guérin Victor laid a place for Madam Guérin’s husband who had recently died. Madam Guérin started to sob and Victor, seemingly understanding his mistake, took away the empty plate. Unfortunately the only words Victor was able to grasp was lait (milk) and Oh, Dieu (Oh, God). The only issue with Victor’s case study is that almost all records of him are second or third hand accounts and historians are unsure how reliable the information is.

Victor the wild boy
Victor of Averyro

Peter was discovered in Germany near the town of Hamlin (the same Hamlin the Piped Piper visited in the fairy tale.) When Peter was captured he was in a similar condition to Victor. He had been living wild for a number of years with little contact with humans. He could not speak and walked around on all fours like a dog. Peter was shipped to London for the English court to marvel over and became a celebrity. Even King George the First took an interest in him. When the novelty wore off, Peter was moved to Hertfordshire and died when he was seventy years old. His grave is still visible today.

Peter the Wild boy
Peter the Wild Boy

According to a Man’s Adventure Magazine article the 14th Earl of Streatham, William Charles Mildin is also a contender for the inspiration behind Tarzan. Mildin was stranded in Africa for fifteen years and survived by befriending a family of apes. According to the magazine Mildin ran away from his home and survived the shipwreck by clinging to driftwood. Unfortunately there is little evidence to back up the article.

It has been suggested that the author of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, used elements of himself in the character. Burroughs had the same sense of moral code as Tarzan and was inspired by heroes of the day like George Washington Williams (not relation to the George Washington) who tried to help the people of the Congo.


Lets end this list on  positive note. Check out the videos below of humans and animals at their best.I hope you enjoyed this article and I’ll see you next time.

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