Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Vintage Houston Zoo

Houston Zoo | Bayou City History | a blog

'Off hand I can't think of an uglier, more poorly designed feline exhibit in any American zoo. Does anyone know when it was built and by whom? All I know is Tom Baylor was the director in the 50's when the sea lion pool was built.'

On the edge of downtown in the early 1900s, Sam Houston Park was home to the city’s first zoo – a collection of rabbits, raccoons, Mexican eagles, black bear, a great horned owl, capuchin monkeys, prairie dogs, and an alligator pond. In 1920, the Federal government donated a bison to the City of Houston. The bison, named Earl, was added to the growing collection of zoo animals at Sam Houston Park and sparked a civic debate as Houstonians began talking earnestly about improving and expanding the zoo.

In 1921, the City purchased an assortment of snakes, birds, and alligators and in 1922 erected a fence around a tract of land in Hermann Park to house the collection. In short order the City hired the first zoo keeper, Hans Nagel who was responsible for the care of the Zoo’s 40 animals. By 1925, Nagel had become zoo director and the Zoo’s population had grown to 400 animals including Asian elephants Nellie and Hans. The zoo grew to thirty fenced acres and included a monkey house and a pool built for three donated sea lions.

As the years passed, the City added animals, keepers, and exhibits. Between 1925 and 1938 a museum, lion house, and an elephant house were built. By 1938, the Zoo represented an investment of approximately $50,000, roughly equivalent to $750,000 by today’s standards. In the immediate post World War Two era, from 1950 to 1960 the Zoo added the Reptile House, bear, large cats, and giraffe exhibits and completed the sea lion pool, Duck Lake and the Central Concession building.

The period from 1960 to 1970 saw a revived era of construction and expansion with the construction of the Zoo’s first Children’s Zoo, the Small Mammal House (now the Natural Encounters Building), and the Tropical Bird House. Between 1970 and 1976, under the guidance of then-director John Werler, education became increasingly emphasized and a group of 125 volunteers was organized to interact with guests and provide information about animals and exhibits.

The 1980s brought construction of the Kipp Aquarium and the Denton Cooley Animal Hospital. Between 1985 and 1988, the Zoo completed construction of the African lion, Indochinese tiger and small cat exhibits. The Brown Education Center was dedicated in April 1988.

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