Due to be released May 8, 2020, to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE Day, ‘A Bear Named Wotjek' is being developed by Iain Harvey, executive producer of the 1982 television adaption of Raymond Briggs's children's story.
The short film was nominated for an Oscar and has become a cultural institution in the UK, with Channel 4 broadcasting it every Christmas — wreathing viewers young and old in smiles and tears alike. A team of around 30 animators is expected to work on the project, which could take up to a year to complete.
Wojtek's real-life tale is likewise touching and heartbreaking in equal measure.
In the spring of 1942, while traveling to Tehran to join Allied British and Soviet forces, Polish soldiers purchased a bear cub from a young Iranian boy — they named him Wotjek, a Slavic name meaning ‘Happy Warrior'. He subsequently travelled with the soldiers to Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
When the time came for the Polish army to ship out to Europe, Wotjek was formally enlisted into the Polish army as a private — complete with pay book and serial number — to allow him to accompany his unit. He was later promoted to corporal.
His involvement in the military wasn't merely titular — during the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek helped in the war effort by carrying 100-pound crates of artillery shells, without dropping a single one. In recognition of his efforts, a bear carrying an artillery shell became the the official emblem of the Polish Army's 22nd artillery Company.
This bear, Wotjek, fought nazis with the Polish army in WW2 pic.twitter.com/7OD0op7SFS— the modern folk (@themodernfolk) August 30, 2018
After World War II, Wojtek was transported to Berwickshire in Scotland with the rest of the 22nd Company and stationed at Winfield Airfield. He quickly became popular among civilians and the press too, and the Polish-Scottish Association made him an honorary member.
He was eventually demobilized in November 1947 and moved to Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his life, frequently visited by fellow veterans.
Other instances of animals being involved in warfare have been less successful.
In 1942, as America was entering World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt struck upon a novel ideal — strapping small, timed bombs to bats and airdropping a ‘bomb' containing over 1,000 bat-equipped bats in Axis strongholds.
The bats would flee the ‘mothership' mid-air, then scatter and roost among buildings below — due to the highly flammable building materials commonly used in both Germany and Japan at the time, bat bombs had the potential to destroy entire cities, with lower civilian casualties than traditional bombs.
However, during an initial test run, the creatures prematurely sprung loose, roosted under a fuel tank, and incinerated the facility.
The US Central Intelligence Agency's ‘Acoustic Kitty' program, launched in the 1960s, was even more catastrophic.
Under its auspices, cats were trained to spy on the Soviet Union and Soviet embassies in Western countries.
Veterinary experts implanted a microphone in a subject cat's ear canal, a small radio transmitter at the base of its skull and a thin wire into its fur, theoretically allowing the feline to inconspicuously record and transmit sound from its surroundings.
The first 'Acoustic Kitty' test-run saw a wired-for-sound moggie being sent to intrepidly eavesdrop on two individuals sat in a park outside the Soviet compound on Wisconsin Avenue, Washington DC.
The cat was released nearby, but almost immediately ran into the path of a taxi and was unceremoniously slain. Subsequent tests were also failures, due to problems with distraction, and cats' acute and frequent hunger.
The project was canceled in 1967 — former CIA officer Victor Marchetti said the project cost at least US$20 million.