Are you ready for a ghost story?
Early in 1922, after the Houston Zoo moved from City Park downtown (now Sam Houston Park) to a small two acre site in Hermann Park, the animal population began to grow. Houstonians were regularly donating their exotic pets, including monkeys and small mammals.
The city’s first Parks Superindentent realized he needed an experienced zookeeper and found the candidate in late June 1922, just a few months after the Zoo’s first wooden containment structures were constructed – Hans Nagel.
At the Houston Zoo, Nagel quickly became a larger than life personality holding audiences spellbound with his big cat training demonstrations in “The Arena,” what’s now the cinereous vulture exhibit near the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat.
Hans Nagel was a media star before Houston barely understood the meaning of the term. Even newsreel cameras recorded his demonstrations.
But not everyone was enchanted with his fame. Nagel reportedly had an ongoing dispute with the Houston Police Department officers who routinely patrolled Hermann Park.
While the origins of the dispute are murky at best, in the 1920s Nagel held a commission as a ‘special police officer.’ But as one newspaper reported, the commission was revoked in 1929 by then-Mayor Walter Monteith at the request of the City Park Commission.
Whether the revocation of the commission was the source of his conflict with the park patrol officers, the dispute festered for years and finally boiled over on a quiet Monday afternoon in November 1941 when Nagel confronted a park police officer who had spotted him behind a hedge in the park observing three teenagers in a parked car.
According to witness statements, the officer asked the teens if they knew they were being watched. As Nagel emerged from the bushes, the officer directed Nagel to his patrol car for a trip downtown to discuss ‘whose business it was policing the park.’
When he attempted to handcuff the zoo manager, Nagel resisted and reached for his holstered side arm, a 9mm Luger. But the officer drew first and Nagel was felled by six shots. A grand jury later acquitted the officer, citing self-defense.
But there are today some Houston Zoo employees who blame noises, whispering voices, and the odd behavior of some electronic devices in the Zoo Commissary and the Denton Cooley Animal Hospital on Nagel’s restless spirit.
We’ll share some of the ghostly encounters in the next blog. In the meantime, we’ve assembled a team of brave and hardy Zoo Ghost Busters to search for Hans Nagel’s ghost. Stay tuned as we seek out what causes things to go bump in the night at the Zoo.
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