Hans Nagel, sweaty and dirty from the dust rising off the arena floor, clutched his whip and pitchfork and waited as his next act loaded into the tunnel. The crowd surrounding the Houston zoo’s arena leaned in closer, eager for drama and blood. Soon a young leopard named Odiva emerged with her father. The older cat ran through a seamless routine of tricks, but when Nagel tried to get the snarling Odiva to perform, she leapt. He parried with his miniature pitchfork. Back on all fours, Odiva slowly inched closer, and then “a long, lithe, beautiful spotted streak flashed from the ground toward Nagel’s throat,” a reporter later wrote. A cloud of tear gas puffed into Odiva’s face from a small gun hidden in the butt of Nagel’s whip, and she leapt away—but not before leaving a long, deep cut in Nagel’s chest and a mangled left hand. Barely flinching, Nagel forced Odiva through the rest of her paces. Only after the act was over did he allow himself to be taken to the hospital. And he made sure to tell reporters everything. “That Odiva, she’s certainly a hard-boiled sister, if there ever was one,” he said.
Much the same might have been said about Hans Nagel. Standing a mere five four, with a thick German accent, Nagel was a spark plug of a man known around the country for his talent running the Houston Zoo (then called the Hermann Park Zoo) and training animals. Through force of will, political savvy, and incandescent charm, he built the zoo into one of the top ten in the country by 1930, and he leveraged every scar he earned to keep the animals fed and the zoo top of Houston’s collective mind as it struggled to survive the Great Depression.
According to official documents, Nagel was born in Germany on July 7, 1891. The flamboyant zookeeper loved to tell stories, and one of his favorites was about how he came to America. Details are hard to verify, but Nagel told reporters he grew up in the shadow of a Prussian officer father who enrolled him in a military academy. Nagel ran away, only to be marched back by his father and humiliated in front of the other cadets. After his second escape attempt, when Nagel was fourteen, his father enrolled him in Germany’s naval academy instead. Nagel fled once more to work for Carl Hagenbeck, the world’s leading exporter of wild animals. He would never see Germany or his family again. For the next several years, he tracked and trapped animals across the wildest parts of the globe until officials caught him in a German-held part of Africa and jailed him as a naval deserter.
As Nagel told it, he was imprisoned on a steamer headed to Germany by way of New York, where it was slated to deliver three hippos to a zoo. Nagel promised he wouldn’t jump while the steamer was docked, so the captain gave him the run of the ship. Once the vessel arrived, Nagel waited while the animals were unloaded, and as the ship began steaming toward the mouth of the Hudson, he grabbed a life preserver, leapt, and swam to the Jersey shore.
Although it’s not known whether Nagel really jumped off a ship, documents indicate he did enter New York illegally as a young adult. After spending some time outside Niagara Falls as a farmworker, Nagel traveled to Texas and Mexico and reportedly became an itinerant cowboy, breaking wild horses. Eventually he made his way to the German communities of Central Texas. In 1913 he married a young woman named Louise Frieda, and the couple settled in the area of Caldwell, west of College Station. Nagel worked at various times as a mail carrier, farmer, and janitor.
But he seemed destined to continue working with wild animals. The Victorian-era obsession with Belgian hares was going strong, and in 1918, while president of the Washington County Rabbit Raisers, Nagel met fellow cuniculturist Clarence Brock, Houston’s first official parks supervisor. Brock offered Nagel a job at the nascent Hermann Park Zoo, and in 1921 Nagel moved to Houston to become the assistant zookeeper. He graduated to head keeper in 1923.
In the early 1920s, the new zoo was on a tear to find animals. For years, anything that hopped, ran, skipped, or squiggled found its way into a zoo cage, including a wayward armadillo crossing Main Street, alligators that strayed within reach, and exotic pets people got tired of cleaning up after—even a docile albino coral snake that a six-year-old picked up and popped into a jar.
Nagel’s chance to distinguish himself came in 1924, when Houston acquired an elephant. A local bank director was friends with circus legend John Ringling, and he negotiated the purchase as a gift for the city. Nagel and the bank VP traveled to San Antonio to bring Nellie, a 32-year-old female, back by rail.
A member of Ringling’s 36-member herd since she was four, Nellie walked to the train between two other elephants but boarded alone. Distraught, the elephants squealed and moaned to one another as workers chained Nellie inside the car and shut the doors. Nagel stayed with her the entire ride. In the days and weeks that followed, Nagel repeatedly told reporters about Nellie’s anguish—how he had talked to her, feeding her an endless stream of apples while she moaned and cried, trails of tears streaking down her huge cheeks. Houston, save Nellie, Nagel pleaded. Buy another elephant.
The zookeeper proposed a dowry fund and helped organize a large fundraiser for the day before Valentine’s Day, 1925. He and Nellie walked all over Houston—downtown, to neighborhood parks, even to schools—alongside volunteers with donation buckets. Finally, with more than $2,000 raised, Nagel traveled to New York to bring Jello—a nine-year-old male elephant—back to Houston. Jello, renamed Hans in honor of the zookeeper, married Nellie in a public ceremony, with Nagel officiating. Nellie wore a delicate white veil while Hans (the elephant) wore black and a formal white collar.
The national press services picked up stories of the zookeeper’s exploits, and Nagel quickly became a well-known figure. But he soon showed the country he wasn’t just a soft animal lover. In 1926 Nagel led a visiting North Dakota park supervisor named C. A. Wilson on a tour of the cat house. Wilson thought he’d play a trick and carried a live rat into the cage of El Tex, a Bengal tiger weighing hundreds of pounds. Scenting the rat, El Tex blocked Wilson’s path, and Wilson slapped the tiger on the nose with his hat. The beast leapt. As El Tex clawed at Wilson, Nagel whipped out his pistol and put a bullet into the tiger’s heart. The rat died during the excitement, Wilson survived with 29 stitches, El Tex was skinned, and Nagel was awarded a custom-made gold medal with an enameled tiger’s head holding a diamond in its mouth. He wore it nearly every day over his heart.
Nagel’s adventures continued to stack up: He directed the execution of a rogue circus elephant that had killed a woman in Corsicana. He broke a bucking zebra. He roped a seven-hundred-pound elk in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. In 1925 Nagel had opened a brand-new arena—reportedly the only zoo arena in the country—for big-cat training shows, which he kept up through the thirties to generate revenue during the Great Depression. He also went on numerous hunting trips to collect specimens for the Museum of Natural Science, then housed on the zoo grounds.
Nagel’s personal life, however, brought heartache. In the early 1930s, feds charged the zookeeper with violating U.S. law as an undocumented immigrant. Fans and well-connected friends sent hundreds of letters to Washington, and Nagel gained legal status in early 1932. He and Louise divorced soon after, and in September, he married Alice Kelso of Galveston, a tall woman with a wide smile and a love for animals. They wanted kids—Nagel and Louise had had a stillborn baby girl in 1914—and their marriage announcement in the newspapers invited all of Houston’s children to attend the ceremony. But they remained childless. Then an opportunity arose: in mid-1939, the zoo’s first baby chimpanzee was abandoned by its mother. The Nagels adopted him and named him Nolan Jesse Nagel. They obtained a birth certificate and raised the chimp like a child in their home—until tragedy struck. That December, during Nolan Jesse’s regular Saturday visit to the zoo, a keeper took the chimp from Alice and held him too close to the bars of another chimp’s cage. The adult mauled the baby, killing him. Nolan Jesse, dressed in a green hand-knitted suit and cap, was buried on zoo grounds near the old museum building, with a brass plaque marking the site. “He was just like a baby,” Nagel told a reporter. “My wife and I are pretty broken up about it. I had high hopes of educating and training him.”
Meanwhile, the zoo had its own Depression-era problems. With little city funding, the shiny new facilities that had helped make the institution a top-ten zoo nationally in 1930 were falling into disrepair. The animals had food, but not always enough. Nagel used his influence to get donations from private individuals and even paid for food out of his own pocket.
Nagel and the other zookeepers held police commissions, and Nagel made headlines several times for arresting people suspected of trying to harm the animals. But the zookeeper, so zealous about his commission that he wore police khakis nearly every day, sometimes exceeded his jurisdiction. He once tracked a suspected gas station burglar (actually the owner’s son) to his home, only to be shot by the owner. The Houston Police Department complained, and in 1940, Nagel was limited to monitoring only within the zoo grounds.
Everything came to a head in the late afternoon of November 17, 1941. Nagel hid in the bushes watching two young men and a female student nurse talking in a car parked just outside the zoo. (Nagel had had trouble with kids causing mischief in the park, and although later retellings would label him a peeping Tom, the zookeeper was likely worried about vandalism.) A police officer named Harold Warren pulled up. Nagel came out and told him to mind his own business, and Warren got out of his car, his gun in one hand and handcuffs in the other.
The men argued, and Nagel slapped his hand toward his gun holster. Warren responded by emptying the six bullets of his .44 Smith & Wesson into Nagel’s body. One pierced the top of the El Tex medal before entering just above Nagel’s heart. Warren later testified that Nagel kept walking toward him while the bullets hammered into his body.
Officials examining Nagel’s body determined his gun never left the holster.
The trial lasted one day and the jury deliberated for less than two hours. Friends led the sobbing Alice from the courtroom before the jury acquitted Warren of murder.
Houston has a reputation for ditching its inconvenient history to make way for progress, and Nagel is no exception. Zookeeping is a vastly different field today, and the modern Houston Zoo is nothing like what it was when Nagel ran it. The arena is gone. So is the old cat house. And Nolan Jesse’s grave can no longer be located. Today’s Houston Zoo is privatized, charges admission, and is kept open by private donations and support from the city, not by the crazy antics of an impassioned German determined to shed blood if necessary to keep the doors open and the animals fed. But perhaps Nagel isn’t entirely gone. Some employees believe he still walks the property, in the commissary, near the edge of the zoo where he was killed. It’s almost as if, in death as in life, Nagel’s heart is still in his beloved Houston Zoo.