The Houston Zoo opened in Hermann Park in the 1920s and acquired its first ghost just two decades later. The adventurous, German-born lion-tamer Hans Nagel was the institution’s first zookeeper. During his tenure, Nagel, a media darling who’s wild antics were fodder for local newspapers, would become a well-known figure about town.
He met his untimely end in 1941 when he was shot and killed in Hermann Park under strange circumstances. Some say his spirit still roams the park grounds.
Nagel’s life before the zoo is something of an unknown. He was of Dutch ancestry and born in Germany although he allegedly reported to immigration authorities in 1932 that he was born in Tobin, Texas, according to the The Houston Public Library’s archives. Whilst abroad, Nagel trained at the Hagenbeck Animal Company.
Nagel joined the zoo as its first zookeeper in 1922 as the City of Houston was moving its animals from Sam Houston Park to a larger space in Hermann Park, according to Barrie Scardino Bradley’s “Houston’s Hermann Park, A Century of Community.”
By 1925, Nagel had acquired hundreds of animals for the zoo, including the Asian elephants Nellie and Hans, the latter of which he named after himself, according to Barrie Scardino Bradley’s “Houston’s Hermann Park, A Century of Community.”
Nagel trained many of the zoo animals in a circus-like setting and often held show for zoo visitors. He was also know to saddle and ride zebras in and around the park.
The eclectic zookeeper’s stunts made headlines more than once. Reportedly, when he witnessed prowlers breaking into the zoo late one night, he chased them while firing shots into the air and intercepting any further progress they would have made into the zoo grounds, according to the The Houston Public Library’s archives.
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, according to the Texas Archive of the Moving Image.
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, according to the The Houston Public Library’s archives.
Nagel’s audaciousness is evident in the stories that survive him, including the somewhat murky tale of his untimely passing. Nagel died under curious circumstances in a shooting incident labeled a “jurisdictional dispute.”
According to Barrie Scardino Bradley’s “Houston’s Hermann Park, A Century of Community,” on the evening of November 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 stations 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.
Charged with the shooting death of the famed zookeeper, the officer was ultimately acquitted by a grand jury on grounds of self-defense.
Nagel’s restless spirit supposedly 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.