🔒Here are 100 wacky, cool and totally true things you never knew about the Houston Zoo

Fact No. 45: The zoo made headlines in 1984 after admitting it displayed a rubber snake in its reptile house

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2015 Getty Images

Color postcard, with scenes of animals at Hermann Park Zoo, Houston, Texas, circa 1920. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

A hundred years ago, the Houston Zoo was founded. In celebration of the institution’s centennial, we dug through history books and archives to unearth some wild and wonderful facts about the Houston Zoo.

Scroll below for a glimpse of the zoo through the years. Happy reading friends!

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MORE: Lions and zebras and bison, oh my! Archived footage offers glimpse of the Houston Zoo through the years

  1. A bison named Earl prompted the City of Houston to set aside space for a zoo.
  2. Earl’s story in brief: In 1920, the U.S. government thinned the bison herds in the national parks and donated one of the animals, Earl, to the City of Houston.
  3. For a time, Earl was kept in a pen at Sam Houston Park -- the city’s first public park and the site of a burgeoning, albeit, informal zoo of sorts. Among the many animals kept there were rabbits, raccoons, eagles, a black bear, an owl, Capuchin monkeys and prairie dogs.
  4. Shortly after Earl was placed in the park, a deer was donated to keep him company. Earl’s arrival, welcome as it was, prompted many to realize the makeshift menagerie was simply growing too large for the small park.
  5. Animals were housed at the zoo even before the earliest exhibits opened to the public in 1924.
  6. In 1922, after acquiring several birds, snakes, and alligators, the city moved all its animals -- about 40 in total -- to a fenced area in Hermann Park, beginning what we now recognize as the Houston Zoo.
  7. Hans Nagel became the city’s first zookeeper in 1922. He was charged with caring for the animals.
  8. The Houston Zoo’s original name was The Houston Zoological Gardens.
  9. The Houston Zoological Gardens opened to the public on Dec. 1, 1924.
  10. Though the zoo opened in 1924, it was incomplete and several structures were still under construction.
  11. Most of the early zoo exhibits consisted of wooden cages and open-air pens.
  12. The first four buildings completed were the the bird house, the primate house, the elephant enclosure and a general animal shelter building.
  13. By 1925, the city had spent $10,000 acquiring animals, and the zoo encompassed 30 acres of Hermann Park.
  14. As of 1925, Nagel acquired hundreds of birds, dozens of reptiles and 400 other animals, including the Asian elephants Nellie and Hans.
  15. On the zoo’s behalf, the South Texas Commercial National Bank purchased Nellie from the Ringling Brothers Circus when it passed through San Antonio. When Nellie saw the circus leave without her she reportedly trumpeted and cried. Nagel spoke softly to her, fed her an apple and stayed by her side during the train ride to Houston.
  16. Nellie made several appearances at Rice football games in 1924 and became quite popular with students.
  17. In an effort to secure funds to buy Nellie a mate, Nagel marched Nellie through downtown Houston with a basket attached to her. Within about two weeks, Nagel and Nellie had collected $2,700, which was used to purchase the bull elephant Hans (Nagel named the elephant after himself).
  18. A news article described Hans as one of the largest bulls in captivity. He remained a major zoo attraction until his death in 1979.
  19. Nagel trained many of the zoo animals in a circus-like setting and often held shows for zoo visitors.
  20. During the zoo’s early days, Nagel allowed zoo patrons to hold, pet and even ride the animals.
  21. Nagel himself was known to saddle and ride zebras in and around the park.
  22. He also lent out the elephants and camels to local businesses for publicity campaigns.
  23. Nagel and his wife adopted a baby chimpanzee after it was abandoned by its mother. The couple named the tiny chimp Nolan Jesse Nagel, transformed their den into a nursery and cared for Jesse as if it were a human child. Jesse drank from a bottle, wore diapers and slept in a bassinet.
  24. In 1926, the City of Houston awarded Nagel for his heroism after the seemingly fearless zookeeper rescued a visitor from Houston’s then-famous Bengal tiger, El Tex. El Tex had lunged at the visitor, a North Dakotan named Bert Wilson who had foolishly entered the tiger’s enclosure whilst carrying a trained rat in his pocket, and Nagle jumped into action, fatally shooting the animal and saving Wilson’s life. Wilson’s wounds required 39 stitches. El Tex was stuffed.
  25. In another show of heroism, Nagel once administered critical first aid to a biology student from Sam Houston State College who had been extracting venom from poisonous snakes when he inadvertently pricked himself with his own hypodermic needle and began exhibiting symptoms.
  26. Nagel’s audaciousness is evident in the stories that survive him, including the somewhat murky tale of his untimely passing. On the evening of Nov. 17, 1941, Nagel was patrolling the area near the zoo, as he was wont to do from time to time, his German Luger pistol holstered at his side, when he noticed teenagers in a parked car idling in a dirt road in Hermann Park. Nagel hid behind a hedge and continued observing the teenagers when police officer Harold M. Warren came upon the scene and ultimately confronted Nagel. Warren exited his patrol car and asked Nagel if he wanted to return with him to the station so the pair could discuss whose business it was policing the park. When Warren reached to handcuff Nagel, the zookeeper pulled back and attempted to draw his gun, but the officer drew first and shot Nagel six times, killing him.
  27. The Houston Zoo has its own resident ghost. Nagel’s restless spirit reportedly patrols Hermann Park to this day. By some accounts, he often frequents the Houston Zoo’s commissary, where, over the years, zoo employees have observed strange phenomena, including a shadowy figure and a disembodied voice.
  28. In 1926, an aviary and monkey facility were built.
  29. The massive aviary was designed by Mexican-American sculptor Dionicio Rodriguez and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was critically damaged by Hurricane Carla in 1961. The structure was later converted into a flamingo habitat.
  30. The elaborate concrete faux bois tree sculpture at the center of the aviary inspired a painting called Bird Haunt c. 1928 by Houston artist and teacher Ola McNeil Davidson. The painting of the aviary is now lost.
  31. The zoo’s iconic reflection pools were also completed in 1926. The pools were intended to replicate, on a much smaller scale, the Reflection Pool at the heart of Hermann Park.
  32. By 1938, a lion house, an elephant house, a deer and a buffalo house and a sea lion pool had been built.
  33. Nellie the elephant died in 1941 at age 56. Nagel was at her side when she died.
  34. In the 1940s, the zoo had a well-known collection of albino animals.
  35. Peacocks, storks, geese pheasants and other birds wandered the walkways of the zoo in the 1940s.
  36. By 1947, the zoo had amassed over 900 animals.
  37. In an attempt to provide more room for its growing animal collection, the zoo expanded to 43 acres in 1947. The major changes associated with the expansion were completed in 1950 and included a 700-car parking lot.
  38. In the 1950s, the zoo’s reflections pools were reworked when the “Monkey Mansion” (now the Wortham World of Primates) was built. The three miniature pools were converted into the single long pool that you can currently see at the zoo.
  39. The zoo train was added in 1954. City Council voted for its inclusion after seeing the success of the train at the San Antonio Zoo.
  40. The first train was a truck tractor with two coaches which carried thirty people each. It did not run on tracks. Rather, it had rubber tires and toured the zoo at two miles per hour.
  41. The zoo train had proven so popular, that by 1958, tracks had been laid for the “Hermann Park Special,” which toured the entire park, not just the zoo.
  42. In 2008, the Hermann Park Conservancy took over operation of the train and founded a $4 million upgrade which included several more stops around the park.
  43. “Big John” Glaze was the train engineer for 40 years until he retired in 2009.
  44. When, in 1983, cold weather froze the Houston Zoo’s garden of fresh bamboo, a critical source of food for 9-year-old lesser (red) panda Yin, dozens of Houstonians volunteered shoots from their own yards. Yin begrudgingly ate frozen bamboo until the zoo acquired fresh stalks.
  45. The Houston Zoo made headlines in 1984 when it admitted a Texas coral snake barely visible under a log in its display case in the Reptile House was actually a rubber replica. The display did not state that the snake was a dummy and zoo officials did not say so either until a tipster called a Houston newspaper and said the snake had not moved in nine months. Curator in charge John Donaho told United Press International: “We have had live snakes in the exhibit, but they don’t do well. They tend to die. Rather than kill snakes, we put out a rubber one for people to be able to see what they look like.”
  46. In 1985, a male cobra took a bite of his cage mate, a female banded Egyptian cobra. The female snake suffered a severe and unusual reaction to the venom -- its head swelled to twice its normal size and it was bleeding between its scales. The female cobra was saved by an injection of human anti-snakebite serum. Zoo officials believe the male cobra mistook the female cobra for prey and tried to eat it. Officials decided to keep the cobras together in the hope that they would breed.
  47. In 1987, a pack of wild dogs killed 13 animals at the zoo, including most of the kangaroo section. The dogs killed several pygmy goats, a gray kangaroo, six wallabies, including a two-month-old wallaby in its mother`s pouch, two Patagonian cavies (large South American guinea pigs) and one four-horned sheep. A llama was bitten in the leg. The dogs penetrated gaps in an old fence to access the animal enclosures. One wallaby and one cavy (guinea pig) survived the attack by escaping over the enclosure’s fence. They were captured loose in the zoo. The dogs were caught and turned over to the city Health Department’s Animal Control Division.
  48. In 1988, veteran zoo employee Ricardo Tovor was working alone in a corridor behind a new large cat exhibit when a 450-pound Siberian tiger named Miguel broke through a wire-enforced window, grabbed Tovor and pulled him into the enclosure. At daybreak, the keeper saw Miguel picking up Tovor by his head. Miguel was forced into a cage and Tovor’s body was recovered from the enclosure. He died of a broken neck and a crushed chest. In spite of calls to kill the tiger, Zoo Director John Werler decided against killing Miguel, citing tigers are endangered.
  49. Another strange incident occurred just two weeks later when a man, 27, climbed on top of an artificial rock above the tiger area, beat his hands on his bare chest and growled/taunted the tigers 20 feet below. According to Houston police, the man was “incoherent, appeared intoxicated and gave no explanation for his actions.”
  50. The zoo began administering an admission fee in 1989.
  51. Eleven animals died in a fire in 1990. The fire apparently began in a gas heater and swept through their cages overnight. Killed in the fire were four Bolivian titis, three golden lion tamarins, two prevost squirrels and two Malayan giant squirrels. Several of the animals were part of endangered species breeding programs.
  52. Houston zookeepers were surprised in July 1991 when elephant MeThai gave birth to female calf Kimba overnight. Zoo officials were not sure she was pregnant given her trim figure and anyone who did suspect MeThai might have been pregnant did not expect her to give birth for some time. Kimba fell ill and died in 2004. MeThai, now 53, still lives at the Houston Zoo.
  53. The John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo opened in 2000. The child-friendly area features a petting zoo and a realistic bat cave.
  54. A west zoo entrance was constructed off Cambridge Street in 2000 in order to reduce traffic congestion inside the park. The entrance has several ticket booths and a semi-circular plaza designed to accommodate school bus drop-offs.
  55. The zoo was operated by the City of Houston until 2002, when the zoo transitioned into a non-profit organization that operates in partnership with the city.
  56. The Zoological Society, a nonprofit organization associated with the zoo, raises money for the zoo by operating the onsite food and gift concessions.
  57. Several historic sculptures are located throughout the zoo, including Brownie, 1905, by Italian artist Louis Amateas, The Great Adventure/Dolly’s Ride, 1994, by Houston artist Ann Armstrong, Rolling Bear Cubs, 1937, by William M. McVey and Leap Frog, 1976, by Victor Salmones.
  58. The aforementioned Brownie is one of the first publicly owned sculptures in Houston and was financed by the children of Houston through a penny drive. The bronze elf sculpture has been stolen and recovered twice. It is currently located in the the zoo reflection pool.
  59. Other sculptures of note include a life-size, steel African elephant, a bronze orangutan, and bronze lions.
  60. The Houston Zoo cares for the University of Houston’s mascot Shasta the Cougar. Shasta came to the Houston Zoo in December 2011 after a hunter illegally shot and killed his mother. When the five-week-old cub arrived at the zoo, a partnership was formed between the University of Houston and the zoo to designate Shasta as the official mascot of the university. Today, Shasta lives at the zoo with female cougar companion Haley.
  61. In 2016, one of the Houston Zoo’s lemurs appeared on the cover of the April issue of the National Geographic magazine.
  62. A 28-year-old western lowland gorilla named Holli broke out of the gorilla exhibit in 2017 and entered the adjacent hog exhibit. Holli was returned to her proper home and no hogs or gorillas were hurt in the incident.
  63. In 2017, a rambunctious baby elephant named Joy squeezed underneath the lowest cable on the fence surrounding the elephant enclosure, and entered a secondary enclosure area used by the zookeepers, Joy’s mom Shanti was not as thrilled. In video of the incident, Shanti can be heard trumpeting her displeasure. Keepers returned Joy to the elephant exhibit within minutes of her great escape.
  64. A video of two women fighting over a parking spot at the Houston Zoo went viral in 2018. Linda Padilla, who recorded the video, told KPRC 2 that dozens of vehicles had been circling the parking lot looking for spots. A woman got out of a vehicle and ran to an available spot in an attempt to hold it. The brawl began when another driver tried to take the spot. The video shows the women punching each other and pulling each other’s hair. Padilla said “I think I saw more action out in the parking lot than with the animals. The animals were just chillin’.”
  65. The Houston Zoo designed the Texas black bear reporting signs that are used all over the state.
  66. Home to over 200 species and some 800 individual birds, the Houston Zoo boasts one of the largest bird collections of any U.S. zoo.
  67. You can buy art created by the zoo animals.
  68. You can also pay for special video messages featuring the zoo animals and their keepers. The videos make great birthday gifts.
  69. During Hurricane Harvey, the zoo helped rescue a sea turtle found in Sharpstown. The storm likely displaced the turtle, which first responders later named Harvey.
  70. Students at these universities get free admission to the zoo: University of Houston (including satellite campuses), Rice University, St. Thomas University, and Texas Southern University.
  71. The Houston Zoo offers Twilight Safaris, two-hour night tours designed for families with the young children. Twilight Safaris are $30 per person and are held after hours. Families can also camp out at the zoo overnight.
  72. The zoo’s Wildlife Carousel made its debut on May 1, 2004. The carousel contains 64 hand-carved wooden animals and weighs approximately 36,500 pounds.
  73. Zoo guests have the opportunity to feed its Masai giraffe family at the Giraffe Feeding Platform. Giraffe Feedings happen daily at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.
  74. The zoo has 14 native plant gardens to help save monarch butterflies. Zoo staff tag and monitor the butterflies. By tracking their migrations patterns, the zoo hopes to develop plans to help save them in the wild.
  75. Through an animal manure compositing program, all the waste generated by the zoo’s elephant herd and large hoof stock animals is composted for gardening.
  76. The Houston Zoo also composts the food scraps generated from meal preparation at the Cypress Circle Café and from various animal meals.
  77. The zoo is open 363 days a year and is only closed for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
  78. The zoo offers several animal encounters. For a fee, visitors can feed and interact with the zoo animals. Notable experiences include sea lion painting, elephant bathing and a cheetah walk.
  79. Today, the Houston zoo encompasses 55 acres of Hermann Park.
  80. The zoo cares for over 6,000 animals representing over 700 different species.
  81. You can enjoy a live look at the zoo animals any time you want, courtesy of these nifty webcams.
  82. A popular tourist attraction, the Houston Zoo draws an estimated two million visitors each year. The zoo boasts it is the second most visited zoo in the country and the “most-attended cultural attraction in the region.”
  83. Opened in 2019 on the site of a former duck pond, the Kathrine G. McGovern Texas Wetlands exhibit features three native Texas species -- bald eagles, whooping cranes, and American alligators. The habitat is designed to flood and slowly release water to the bayous during heavy rain.
  84. The American Alligators in the Texas wetlands exhibit are named Snap, Crackle and Pop. Ben and Jim Posti won the honor of naming the trio at the 2019 Zoo Ball.
  85. In 2020, the zoo debuted South America’s Pantanal, a 4.2-acre multi-species environment. The habitat features giant river otters, jaguars, capybaras, dart frogs, howler monkeys, an anaconda, and macaws.
  86. Each year the zoo collects and recycles thousands of pounds of holiday lights. Since it began the collection program in 2016, the zoo has recycled more than 24,000 pounds of string lights.
  87. Over 400 adults volunteer at the zoo each year. Learn how to apply to become a volunteer here.
  88. The zoo supports 49 wildlife conservation projects in 27 countries.
  89. KPRC 2 featured one such conservation project in the 2015 special “Saving Gorillas: Journey to Rwanda.” KPRC 2 anchor Andy Cerota accompanied a team from the Houston Zoo to Rwanda to document how the zoo saves gorillas in the wild. Watch the special here.
  90. In 2016 then-KPRC 2 anchor Rachel McNeil and her family accompanied the zoo to Madagascar to document the zoo’s conservation effort on the island. Watch KPRC2′s “Saving Madagascar” special here. McNeil was so inspired by her trip, she was eager to emcee the zoo’s annual Feed Your Wildlife Conservation Gala, Madagascar: Land of Lemurs in October 2017.
  91. In 2017, KPRC 2 accompanied the zoo to the southeast Asian island of Borneo to document the zoo’s efforts to help save several native species there from extinction. Watch KPRC 2′s feature “Saving Wildlife: From Houston to Borneo” here.
  92. In 2018, KPRC 2 once again partnered with the zoo to produce the special “Saving Wildlife: Texas,” which explores how the zoo is working to save animals in the Lone Star State, including sea turtles, whooping cranes, Houston toads, and bats. Watch the special here.
  93. On Oct. 23, 2020, KPRC aired the one-hour feature “Saving Wildlife: Giants of the Pantanal.” In 2019, KPRC’s Andy Cerota and crew traveled with the Houston Zoo to South America’s Pantanal, the largest tropical wetland in the world, to see some of the largest species on the planet, and highlight how the zoo is helping save these animals in the wild. The special won the Lone Star EMMY in the Environment/Science – Short Form or Long Form Content category. Watch the special here.
  94. Since the 1990s, the zoo has helped breed Attwater’s prairie chickens, one of North America’s most-endangered birds. Known formally as the Tympanuchus cupido attwateri, the prairie chicken -- technically a grouse, not a chicken -- is unique to Texas and Louisiana Gulf coastal areas and used to be a common game bird. The Houston Zoo runs its breeding program on the grounds of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, on a plot of land that resembles their birds’ natural habitat of the coastal prairie.
  95. Since 2007, the Houston Zoo has worked hard to ensure that the Houston toad doesn’t disappear. About 600 toads live permanently at the Houston Zoo. These toads have a critical job -- to make more Houston toads. In 2021, the zoo released over 750,000 eggs, 150 tadpoles, and 450 toadlets into the wild.
  96. All five species of sea turtle found in the Gulf of Mexico are endangered: Kemp’s ridley, green, loggerhead, leatherback, and hawksbill. The zoo partners with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help save sea turtles in the Gulf. In 2021, the zoo provided medical care and support for over 100 injured or stranded wild sea turtles.
  97. Outside of St. Vincent, an island in the Caribbean, the Houston Zoo is the only place in North America with a captive breeding colony of St. Vincent amazons. The zoo has a long history with the parrot species and is the longest serving captive breeding facility. In 1972, the zoo became the first organization in the world to successfully reproduce the species, which is one of the most challenging birds to breed in captivity. The zoo currently houses 10 St. Vincent parrots.
  98. The Houston Zoo is opening a new exhibit in celebration of its centennial. The Galápagos Islands exhibit will open in 2023 and will “immerse visitors in the Islands’ starkly beautiful environment; highlight the Zoo’s ongoing field work with giant tortoises, birds, and marine animals; and serve as a jumping-off point for educational experiences, including eco-travel.”
  99. Three longstanding exhibits were closed in 2020 to make room for the Galápagos Islands exhibit: the Kipp Aquarium, the Tropical Bird House and the Fischer Bird Garden.
  100. Houston Zoo membership can get you a discount at over 100 zoos around the country.

Whoa, there! Congrats! 🎉 You made it to the end of our admittedly exhaustive list. What better way to celebrate than with a pop quiz? Insiders, head here to test your Houston Zoo knowledge.

MORE: Do you have a zoo story you NEED to share? Houston Zoo wants to include your memories for its centennial celebration and you could win BIG

Information for this article is from “Houston’s Hermann Park, A Century of Community” by Alice M. Scardino Bradley, “The Houston Zoo” by MuseumsUSA, the Houston Zoo’s website, the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, “Spare Time in Texas: Recreation and History in the Lone Star State” by David G. McComb, “Dogs kill Houston Zoo animals” by United Press International, “Snake fake” by United Press International, “Baby elephant surprises zookeepers” by United Press International and “Eleven animals die in zoo fire” by United Press International.

Do you have old Houston Zoo photos? 📷 We’d love to see them! Share them in the gallery below or at Click2Pins.com.

About the Author

Briana Zamora-Nipper joined the KPRC 2 digital team in 2019. When she’s not hard at work in the KPRC 2 newsroom, you can find Bri drinking away her hard earned wages at JuiceLand, running around Hermann Park, listening to crime podcasts or ransacking the magazine stand at Barnes & Noble.

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