In the 1930s there were few in the U. S. who did not know the name Frank Buck. Born in Gainesville, Texas in 1884, by the 1920s Buck’s world wide travels and animal collecting were becoming well known and with the publication of his book”Bring ‘em Back Alive” in 1930 he was the stuff of legend.
With the arrival of Hans Nagel, the Houston Zoo’s first ‘head zookeeper’ Houston had it’s own version of Frank Buck. Nagel had learned the fine points of exotic animal capture after jumping ship during officer’s candidate school in Hamburg, reeled out of Hamburg harbor by an animal collector working for the famed Hagenbeck Gardens.
After dodging capture by German authorities on desertion charges in New York, Nagel ranged from Mexico to Montana training horses in between expeditions to Australia, South America, Asia and Africa, capturing and selling animals.
He continued his expeditions after signing on as head zookeeper, acquiring Zoo specimens with trips to Indonesia and Africa. On these adventures, Nagel would trade for animals, or would capture them himself, vowing to “bring back anything that creeps, crawls, or flies.”
But one adventure was almost his undoing. The trip to the Yucatan began innocently enough, touted in a Houston Chronicle photo montage in 1929. The clipping below is from the scrap book of Nagel’s then assistant and later Zoo Manager Tom Baylor, donated by Baylor’s grandson David.
The plan was for Nagel and a crew of four to take the 28 foot long sloop Fortune on what was touted in the photo caption as the “first privately financed expedition from a Southern city to a foreign country for the purpose of getting specimens for a municipal museum.”
Accompanying Nagel on the trip were (clockwise from top left) Captain A. R. Hines, Nolan Sanford, Kenzie Fitzgerald, and Winthrop W. Strode.
The trip was widely reported. The Galveston County Daily News in a May 13, 1929 story headlined “Houston Party on Expedition to Jungles” reported the preparations for the voyage were being “speeded up” to meet the departure date.
The story identified Captain Hines as curator and taxidermist for the Houston Museum of Natural History, Winthrop Strode as navigator, and Nolan Sanford as ‘Houston Chronicle staff.’ The story went on to say that the adventurers would enter ‘almost unhabited jungle’ where they expected to “find a world of reptiles and birds almost undisturbed by man.”
The Ogden (Utah) Standard Examiner reported Nagel’s trio would collect “reptiles, birds and tropical animals for the city’s museum of natural history” and that the sloop was being donated at no cost to the city.
Despite high expectations, the trip almost ended in disaster. The sloop was blown off course by a hurricane. According to one report, rescue parties searched for four days before the team ”showed up” at Padre Island.
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