Ray Bell; Game Officer Nursed Smokey Bear Back to Health After Forest Fire

From Associated Press

Ray Bell, the game officer who cared for Smokey Bear after the cub was rescued from a forest fire 50 years ago, has died.

Bell died Thursday of cancer at his home in Truth or Consequences, N.M. He was 89.

An employee of New Mexico’s Game and Fish Department, Bell was stationed in the Capitan Mountains when a savage forest fire broke out in May 1950.

When a firefighter brought a 6-week-old black bear cub with singed hair and burned paws into the fire camp on May 9, 1950, Bell, a pilot, flew the bear to a veterinarian in Santa Fe for medical attention.


“I put the little fellow in a box, about like a shoe box,” Bell recalled in an interview some years later.

After the veterinarian finished treating the injuries, Bell took the cub home, where his wife Ruth and daughter Judy helped nurse him back to health.

The cub had trouble eating, however. The Bell family finally solved the problem by having him suck a mixture of honey, milk and baby food from their fingers.

The Bells cared for the cub for two months. Bell later recalled that he was a “mite domineering” over the family pets, eating out of the dish of the family’s cocker spaniel, Jet, and was also a bit of a ham.

Bell said the cub originally was named “Hot Foot Teddy.” But he was renamed Smokey and became the living embodiment of a fire-prevention program created by the U.S. Forest Service.

The cub was taken to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., later that summer, where he grew into a 400-pound bear. Smokey lived there for 26 years before his death in 1976.


Bell was born Oct. 3, 1911, in Frederick, Okla., and went to Yeso, N.M., as a baby with his family. After working as a cowboy and rodeo contestant, Bell joined the state game department in 1940, but entered the Army Air Corps during World War II, serving as a tail gunner and electronic technician on B-29s.

He rejoined the game department in 1946.

In 1957, Bell became the first state forester in the newly created forestry department in New Mexico. He became director in 1958 and served until his retirement in 1971.

Throughout his life, Bell was known as the one who brought Smokey out of the forest fire. He devoted his life to speaking to various organizations and schools about preserving the nation’s forests and was a mainstay in promoting the Smokey Bear Museum in Capitan, N.M.

In addition to his daughter Judy, Bell is survived by a son, Donald R. Bell of Las Cruces, N.M.; five grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren; and a sister.