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.