Houston winters rarely approach the category of water-pipe-busting hard freezes. Yes, it’s happened but thankfully not that often. Still, when you’re caring for 6,000 exotic animals, some of whom find 50 degrees uncomfortable, winter preparations are essential. The Houston Zoo begins winter weather preparations early. Tropical birds are particularly sensitive to cold weather so some bird habitats are wrapped in heavy plastic and others get wind breaks and keepers make sure gas heaters and heat lamps are all in working order.
But in the Houston Zoo’s early days, keeping animals warm and comfortable during the winter involved rather low tech methodology – lots of hay for some animals, wood burning stoves for others – as this Houston Press clipping from November 1936 indicates.
Yes, that is a monkey sitting on a box in front of a pot bellied stove. The raccoons seen at the top of the photo are being housed in the warm second floor of the Museum of Natural History which was on Zoo grounds at that time. The Galapagos tortoise in the photo bottom left is nestled in a bed of hay having been removed from his outdoor exhibit at the first hint of cold weather and held over the winter indoors. Although tropical birds were not included in the Houston Press’ photo montage, zookeepers in the mid 1930s employed a similar tactic to today’s Zoo to keep the macaws warm, wrapping heavy fabric curtains around the bird’s containment fencing instead of the thick fiber reinforced plastic tarps we use today.
The photo montage was accompanied by a bit of poetry, written by Houston Press photographer Francis Miller. He had been working for the Press for 9 years when this article was published, filling mutiple roles as photographer, reporter, and even layout artist. Miller went on to garner no small amount of fame as a LIFE magazine photographer, working in LIFE’s Washington, D. C. and Atlanta bureaus. It was Miller who photographed President Lyndon Johnson’s beagles on the White House lawn in 1964, employing rubber bones, dog treats and a harmonica to capture their expressive faces. Miller retired from LIFE magazine in 1968 and passed away on November 5, 1973 at the age of 67, leaving behind a body of work that is still revered and sought after today.