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Today in history... Herculean search ends in joy and relief!

12:00am | & News

A half-ton grizzly bear had been on the loose in the wilds of Scotland and everyone was very worried... for the bear!

For this was no ordinary bear, but a tame 'gentle giant' who had gone walkabout while filming a TV commercial for Kleenex tissues. Thankfully, on September 13th, 1980, the near month-long adventure was over for Hercules when he was finally reunited with his overjoyed owner Andy Robin.

Standing 8ft 4ins and weighing close to 50 stones, the tame four-year-old grizzly had been filming for a 'Big Softy' advertising campaign for Kleenex on the island of Benbecula, between North and South Uist in the remote Outer Hebrides. During a break in filming on August 20th his owner allowed Hercules to enjoy one of his favourite activities by going for a swim.

But the giant bear was only used to a swimming pool and once in the sea he just kept going until he was lost to sight. Frantic with worry, his owners helped organise a search involving the police and hundreds of local volunteers. After three days with no sightings, and with the terrain almost impossible to cover, the search was scaled down then called off, but his owners Andy and Maggie Robin, who lived near Dunblane, refused to give up. 

A professional wrestler, Andy had bought Hercules as a cub in 1976 from The Highland Wildlife Park, near Aviemore. The park had no facilities to house newborn cubs, so agreed to sell one to Andy for £50. He intended to train the bear for a wrestling routine similar to one he had seen years earlier in Canada.

Raised by hand, Hercules quickly became part of the family, although he was already 30 stone at a year old and still growing. He responded well to training and formed a strong bond with his adoptive 'parents', especially Andy who gradually introduced him to the UK wrestling circuit, where he was a huge draw. After appearing on the ITV World of Sport programme, he also featured in various TV programmes and advertising campaigns.

When he 'escaped' on Benbecula local people were initially scared he would attack and kill livestock and maybe even people, although the Robins insisted he was tame and didn't even like raw meat! Sure enough, there were no reports of attacks, but there were no sightings either as the days ran into weeks.

Then, on September 13th – 24 days after he had gone missing – Hercules was sighted by a crofter on North Uist. He quickly alerted the authorities and Hercules was shot with a tranquiliser gun, netted and flown beneath a helicopter back to the specially built touring coach where Andy was waiting. As soon as he arrived he was given an antidote to the powerful tranquiliser drug and slowly massaged back to consciousness.

Andy reckoned the bear had lost more than 15 stone in weight, but as soon as he was awake he began consuming 120 pints of milk and dozens of eggs. Islanders brought milk from miles around, Hercules having won a place in their hearts for not attacking anything during his time in the wild. Over the next few weeks he made a full recovery, but was anxious not to let Andy out of his sight for too long, having clearly decided he was a bear who liked his home comforts!

News of his island escapade quickly spread around the world, earning international stardom for Hercules and bolstering his film and TV work. He went on to secure high profile roles in films including the 1983 James Bond movie "Octopussy", even moving to California for two years as American TV and film roles flooded in.

Hercules also became more and more 'human' in his behaviour patterns, emulating his owners. In 1997 he suffered a serious back injury while filming, but Andy refused to have him put down and instead nursed him back to health over a six month period, using swimming as therapy. Sadly it was only a temporary reprieve and the big gentle bear gradually lost the use of his hind legs, finally dying from old age in February 2000 at the age of 25 – around the natural lifespan for a grizzly.

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