The Texas Story Project.
Hans Nagel was a hero. He was an aristocratic cowboy that was able to fend off both government officials and bloodthirsty pythons.
Beloved by his city, he became the first director of the Houston Zoo in 1925 at only 33 years old. He went on to expand the zoo's collection (already 400 animals strong) exponentially. He was, without a doubt, one of the most wildly charming men to walk the Earth. A German immigrant (though he would later claim to immigration officials he was born in the town of Tobit, Texas) with a restless soul that could only find solace in the flat plains of Houston, Texas. Unfortunately, Hans Nagel has become merely a footnote in the pages of history when his life and adventures could fill an entire book of their own.
Although the early life of Mr. Nagel has been lost in the mist of time, what we do know is that he ended up on the boat of a very prestigious animal collector. By the time he had arrived in Houston, he had already seen more of the world and its creatures than most see in their lifetime. This made Hans the perfect candidate for the position of head zookeeper at what would soon become the Houston Zoo. Hans Nagel became a beloved figure in the city. Houston was the perfect backdrop for his life—a city that was quickly growing in both size and diversity. Hans and his (presumably) heavy german accent would fit right in.
Hans was not known for fitting in, though. He was wild, jolly, and boisterous with a heart of gold. He was well known for his weekly lion-taming shows. Every week, people would cram into the seats to watch him tame the king of the jungle. While Hans loved his animals dearly, they did not always show him the same affection. Hans was maimed, bitten, kicked, scratched, and generally harassed by his beloved animals countless times. Some highlights include being sat on by a five-ton elephant, barely escaping from an enraged lion during one of his shows. My personal favorite is his account of being slowly strangled by a fully grown python, which prompted him to simply bite the creature until it released him.
This is a fantastic example of Hans's unyielding bravery—a brand of bravery that often seemed to border on madness. A great example is the time Hans received a gold medal from the city when he saved a visiting zoo official from the jaws of the resident Bengal tiger using his trusty .45 Luger [pistol]. Nagel was also Houston's resident animal wrangler. He once lassoed a lioness that was on the loose, and he even took an expedition into an area known as "Dead Man's Creek" full of quicksand, mosquitoes, and alligators. Any man willing to trek into the place known as Dead Man's Creek is certainly braver than I.
Hans had the restless spirit of a wandering ranger, yet in Houston he had found a place where he could truly feel at home. It was a place that walked the line between farm filled frontier town and burgeoning oil-fueled metropolis. The man who spent his weekends in an arena with lions, and went on expeditions deep into the steamy jungles of Africa and Asia adding new specimens to his zoo's quickly growing collection, also wined and dined with some of the richest and most influential men in Houston.
For me, Hans Nagel encapsulates what Houston was in the '30s. He has the vivacious, adventurous, and entrepreneurial spirit that has become the defining feature of the Bayou City. Hans was an eccentric. He always stuck out and that is what made him so magnetic and lovable. I would say the same goes for Houston. In a state filled with dusty back roads and places where you can walk miles without encountering any evidence of human habitation, there is a sprawling metropolis filled to the brim with colors, life, and oil. So what's the point of all this? Simply to give the lion taming cowboy known as Hans Nagel a little recognition.
Jacob Blackman is a student at St. Catherine's Montessori in Houston. He has always loved the Houston Zoo, and once he started researching the history of the zoo, he knew the story of Hans Nagel (the first zoo director) needed to be shared with the world.
Posted December 21, 2017