The life of Hans Nagel in Houston could make one heck of a movie
Updated 11:11 am, Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Most Houstonians probably aren’t aware the #Houston Zoo could be haunted by its former first zookeeper and lion tamer, who was shot and killed under questionable circumstances.
In the coming weeks, as Halloween festivities hit a fever pitch, we look back at one of the city’s most popular hauntings.
Hans Nagel was a German man employed by the city of Houston in 1922 to work at the zoo. He acted as the face of the park, wowing visitors young and old with his ability to tame wild beasts on-site. He took animals that were unwanted and earned their trust, training them to awe zoo patrons.
“He was of Dutch ancestry and born in Germany although he allegedly reported to immigration authorities in 1932 that his birthplace was Tobin, #Texas. He trained at the Hagenbeck Animal Company in Germany,” according to the Houston Public Library’s archives. Born in 1892, he had already had plenty of life experience by the time he came to Texas.
He was a media sensation and was popular fodder for newsreels, according to the Houston Zoo’s official blog. His weekly lion taming shows were recommended entertainment. This is when zoos were less concerned about conservation and education. They were places for stunts, excitement, and occasional bloodshed.
His animal-training style, which was more circus-like than respectful, is off-putting to animal lovers. He once transported a bear of undetermined size in the backseat of his car to Houston all the way from Port Arthur. Nagel also saddled and rode a zebra, winning a bet among friends that he could do it.
The doctors at Hermann Hospital knew Nagel well, as he was a frequent guest.
In 1924, he was hospitalized for three weeks from an alligator bite. In 1925, he was laid up by a raccoon and a monkey. (We’d love hear that story.) In 1928, he was stepped on by a 5-ton elephant. In 1931, he was opened by a leopard. Later, Caesar, a 450-pound lion, would have killed Nagel but for the quick rescue efforts of his assistants. Other times, Nagel was injured by a badger, porcupine, zebra, tiger, bear and various venomous vermin. According to a Houston Chronicle report on Nagel in 1988, Nagel fought a large python at its own game.
“Pythons have murderous teeth. I grabbed him behind the head. The pressure around my neck was getting tighter and tighter. Finally I decided to use a method of my own. I bit him,” he told a reporter about the incident.
Nagel carried a pistol at his side at all times and was known to use it to scare off human intruders at the zoo.
According to the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, by 1925 the zoo housed some 400 animals, and Nagel was named its director soon after. Most of them were wild-caught by Nagel.
“Nagel was awarded a gold medal by the city of Houston for his heroics in saving a visitor from being mauled by the zoo’s Bengal tiger,” according to the archive. It was a visiting park official from North Dakota that was saved from the tiger’s jaws by a shot from Nagel’s trusty pistol.
Given his stature in the community and role at park, he was given a commission as a “special police officer” by the Houston Police Department, according to the zoo. He was the de-facto wild animal catcher for the city for a period.
“A call required him to capture a bobcat that was roaming the banks of Buffalo Bayou near River Oaks, eating stray poodles. At other times he roped an escaped bull elk on Bissonnet and lassoed a loose lioness in Montrose,” wrote freelance writer Fred Maier in 1988. Tomball residents petitioned Nagel to remove some large nuisance alligators from Dead Man’s Lake. This widely-publicized expedition involved the added perils of quicksand and “snakes as thick as your leg.”
All of it was taken from him in 1929 after a dispute with officials and what some called several abuses of power. As a Houston Zoo staffer wrote in October 2012, the story of how Nagel met his end is shady at best.
“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 the officer attempted to handcuff the zoo manager, Nagel resisted and reached for his holstered sidearm, 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.
At the time, it was called a “jurisdictional dispute,” though the concept of a grown man peeking in on teens possibly necking in the park is creepy enough.
“These days we are much more conscious of the animals’ well-being, and Nagel’s style is obviously not how things are at the zoo now,” says the Houston Zoo’s Jackie Wallace. You also won’t find zoo staff carrying a 9mm Luger at their side either.
If you are one to believe in ghosts, it would make sense that his restless spirit was doomed to roam his earthly stomping grounds. Some say that at night the ghost of Nagel haunts the Houston Zoo’s commissary — which wasn’t there when he died — where employees have reported eerie happenings and strange shadows. Word is that the commissary is not too far from where Nagel was killed.
A few reports have his voice heard late at night, no louder than a whisper. He’s been seen by zoo staff standing against doorways only to quickly disappear.
Maybe Nagel can’t leave the zoo, even in death, as he feels such a strong connection to the institution he helped create nearly 100 years ago.
Houstonians that visit the zoo should probably keep an eye out for the zoo’s ghostly keeper too. That creaky door or strange voice could be Hans greeting you as a zoo patron.