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From burro to Bruno: Tales from the live mascots of Brown

First live bear mascot came to Brown in 1905, continues today as lasting symbol

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On November 25, 1905, a crowd of Brown students gathered to cheer on the University football team as they played against Dartmouth in Springfield, Massachusetts. 

Among the crowd were members of the University Celebration Committee. Tasked with building school spirit for the game, the Celebration Committee solicited a live bear from Roger Williams Park named Dinks, set to make an appearance that day in the stadium.

The Brown-Dartmouth game wasn’t the University’s first attempt at bringing a live mascot to a sporting competition. 

In 1902, a real estate executive named Isaac Goff offered a burro, a small donkey, to represent Brown at its annual football game against Harvard. At the time, Brown had no official mascot. During the game, the burro was frightened away by laughs from the crowd, and the animal failed to gain a place as the University mascot. 

On game day against Dartmouth in 1905, three years after the burro’s ill-fated appearance, Dinks met a similar fate. When prompted to enter the stadium, the bear retreated to a corner of his cage and refused to leave. But unlike the burro, who made the journey to Massachusetts alone, Dinks was brought to the stadium alongside his mate, Helen.

After Dinks refused to leave the enclosure, Helen rose and left her cage in Dinks’ place. Spectators noticed the incident, and upon entering the field, Helen was given a standing ovation. Though Brown lost the game 24-6, Helen’s triumphant reception soon led to a search for a bear to reside permanently at the University as the campus mascot.

Following Helen’s appearance at the Brown-Dartmouth game, at least a dozen additional bears — named Bruno — would represent Brown at football games and rallies. Beloved by students, the living mascots would often be housed and fed through the collective efforts of Brown undergraduates.

This winter marks the bear’s 119th year as a mainstay of Brown that has inspired songs, student names for art pieces and the four towering bear statues positioned throughout campus. The tradition of bringing live bears as mascots to represent the University at sporting events lasted from Helen’s appearance in 1905 until around the early 1960s.

Though the tradition of maintaining a live mascot ended around 60 years ago, their stories from Brown live on in University and city archives today. 

Bearing witness to mischief

As beloved members of campus, the University’s bears made headlines in The Herald on multiple occasions as the center of episodes of mischief and controversy.

Bruno III, who served as mascot in the 1920s and 1930s, was a notorious troublemaker throughout his tenure. He was held back from attending football games on several occasions because of stomach trouble — an article in The Herald from 1928 noted that the bear had “a tendency to become disagreeable when suffering an attack of indigestion.”

Despite the bear’s erratic stomach, Bruno III was beloved by the campus community and was known for his fondness of people. But his affectionate demeanor, according to the article, “was the cause of great concern to the Providence Police force,” leading him to be kept under constant surveillance during public appearances. 

Among Bruno III’s antics was his escape from the field during his first football game. The bear, scared of crowds, ran away from his holding during the game. According to The Herald, the bear climbed a tree next to the stadium and “playfully tossed down branches while his pursuers vainly tried to bring him down.” 

Bruno III sat in the tree until later that evening, when police officers were able to get the bear back down. He was sold following the incident, and a Brown student dressed in a bearskin suit entered the field in Bruno’s place for the remainder of the game. 

“Less spectacular, perhaps,” wrote the reporter describing the student mascot. “But much easier to control.”

In 1955, a different bear was rescued by Providence police. This time, they were called to investigate an attempted kidnapping of Bruno.

On Oct. 19, 1955 at approximately 1 a.m., a group of students from the University of Rhode Island snuck into Brown’s football stadium and set off an electronic alarm above Bruno’s cage. 

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The alarm prompted the three URI students to make a getaway, though they were intercepted by Providence detectives Al Fines and Edward Carroll while in an automobile around ten blocks north of Pembroke campus. 

According to one Providence Journal reporter, the three students “first feigned innocence, but later admitted to police that the ‘awful siren’ was enough to send anyone running.”

With the bear-napping averted, Bruno was able to attend the annual Brown-URI football game that same Saturday. 

Brown students, in defense of their beloved mascot, were quick to suggest punishments for the URI students to the police. Officers told the Providence Journal that the student’s suggestions were “beyond the limits of our laws.” 

Bringing students together

During periods of University history, groups of students would look after the bear mascot. Starting between the late 1920s and the 1930s, a campus honorary society named Owl and Ring was tasked with guardianship of the mascot, being officially granted the post in 1939.

At times, members of the Owl and Ring paid for Bruno out of their own pockets, with the bear costing $100 in 1937. Recognizing the cost of housing the bear, estimated at $50 at a minimum for the season, the society launched a fundraising campaign. Members of the society canvassed fraternity houses and collected money in donation boxes, starting a “bear fund” that would continue for at least a decade.

When Owl and Ring was disbanded in 1941 by the Cammarian Club, the campus senior society, for failing to live up to its various duties, other groups took up responsibility for the bear. 

The Brown Key, a junior honor society founded in 1930, began raising money for the bear fund around the early 1940s. Through the Brown Key, students came out in crowds at football team rallies to support the cause. The bear fund continued to raise money to cover the costs of Bruno’s room and board on campus, as well as the bear’s transport and lodging during away games through the late 1940s.

In exchange for their donations, students often took advantage of Bruno’s notoriety for their own enterprises. 

Advertisements in The Herald describe Bruno-themed charms and party mugs sold during the 1940s and 1950s. One writer reported in December 1947 that business representatives at The Herald even sold “authentic” autographs of Bruno to raise money for the paper. 

Departing from campus, entering University history

Many of the campus mascots would retire following their tenure at the University. Occasionally, a mascot would pass while in the school’s possession. 

One of the earliest live mascots, Bruno II, was known by students for his “very large appetite,” according to one Herald article from 1928.

Bruno II was kept on a strong leash because of his appetite. But according to the news report, Bruno’s “appetite got the best of him and he proceeded to break his chain” while in his holding on campus.

After escaping, the bear wandered in search of food. During his search, the curious Bruno came across a chemical laboratory at Brown. Bruno’s body was later found in the laboratory. In the bear’s autopsy, examiners reported that Bruno “had tested almost every chemical in the laboratory.”

Another bear, Bruno V, passed away in December 1939. Bruno V was just weeks away from his planned move to Slater Park Zoo, the same retirement destination as tree-climbing Bruno III. 

According to a Dec. 5 report from The Herald, two students heard the bear’s distress and “ran to get a gun to end the animal’s suffering,” though they arrived at the scene too late. Bruno V’s death was “totally unexpected,” according to then-Owl and Ring president Robert M. Smith ’40, despite the mascot facing similar illness twice before while at Brown.

News of Bruno V’s passing was met with campus-wide mourning, and a State funeral for the bear was announced in the Providence Journal on the same day of The Herald’s report.

Services for the bear’s funeral began the afternoon after his death was announced. Students gathered at 1 p.m. in the middle of campus to pay their respects to the bear. Then, the campus flag was lowered to half staff, and Bruno was rolled on a station wagon by a funeral procession across College Hill.

Other bears had happier ends to their stories.

Bruno IX, one mascot who had retired from his service, was found at Roger Williams Park in April 1949 by Providence Journal reporter Frank Pemberton, who remarked that the bear had befriended the park superintendent’s horses, Daisy and Happy. Bruno would live out his retirement at Roger Williams. During warmer seasons, the bear would continue to see visitors in the park, which was open to University students. 

Ending a tradition

By the mid 1960s, Brown had stopped using a live bear at campus games. Two University alumni recall the last mascot, a bear cub that attended football games alongside a student mascot in a bear suit.

The live bear tradition discontinued “for reasons having to do with animal cruelty,” Class Historian Helene Kenvin ’62 said. “Not that anyone was cruel to the bear, but that was no way for a bear to live … I don’t think we were as aware of PETA considerations back then.”

Despite concerns about hosting a live bear for football games, the alumni recalled students’ adoration for the bear during their time at Brown.

Mike Cingiser ’62 said that at football games, onlookers would “jump up and down and cheer” for the bear during its appearances.

“Everyone loved the bear,” Kenvin recalled.

Though the tradition of keeping a live bear for football games has long since disappeared, the bear mascot continues to bring together current students and alumni as a symbol of Brown.

Jennifer Betts, assistant director for the John Hay Library and University archivist, told The Herald that the bear has evolved from a mascot specifically for athletics to a larger symbol of the University. She pointed to the various appearances the bear makes on campus, depicted in multiple illustrations and statues of the mascot.

Today, the bear “is important to current students and alumni,” Betts said. “It’s something that they hold really dear.”


Neil Mehta

Neil Mehta is a designer and senior staff writer at The Herald covering the Diversity beat. He is a sophomore from New York studying public health. 



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