The maintenance and expansion of the Houston Zoo in the early 1920s has been characterized by one former Zoo facilities director as requiring an effort equivalent to the 12 tasks of Hercules.  Fred Maier wasn’t exaggerating when he wrote those words for a Houston Chronicle feature article on the occasion of the Houston Zoo’s 75th anniversary.

Hans Nagel, the Zoo’s first ‘head keeper’ all but slept with his animals.  The Zoo’s budget in the mid 1920s was barely $2,000 a year.  Acquiring animals required a combination of begging, borrowing and mounting expeditions, occasionally with borrowed equipment, to ‘bring ’em back alive’ from the wild.

But the day famed animal dealer and adventurer Ellis Joseph showed up in Hermann Park with a wild zebra for the Zoo was a decidedly different occasion.

By the mid 1920s, Joseph had built a reputation providing animals for zoos around the world. He’d embarked on his career at the age of 18.  By the 1920s his roster of clients included Carl Hagenbeck’s Hamburg Zoo.  You may remember from earlier posts that the ship captain who fished Hans out of Hamburg harbor after he went AWOL from the German navy was headed to Africa on a Hagenbeck safari.

Whether there was an ‘old boy’ connection between Nagel and Joseph related to Hans’ first Africa trip is admittedly speculation. What we do know is that Joseph felt comfortable enough that day in Hermann Park to make a friendly wager with the Zoo’s head keeper.

The bet? That Nagel could not saddle and ride the zebra.  Unaware of Hans’ past experience as a bronco buster, Joseph watched in disbelief as Nagel rode the pitching zebra across the Park and a film camera captured the moment.  The prize for Nagle was the saddle seen on the zebra’s back in the photo below. As we’ve said before, the era of the 1920s was a different age and a demonstration such as this would never be considered by a modern zoological institution.

From left to right, Hans Nagel, the recently saddled zebra and an unidentified man (Ellis Joseph?) in Hermann Park. From the collection of Gale Rendon to whom we owe a deep debt of gratitude. We’ll examine other vintage photos from the Rendon family collection in future posts.

Thanks to a Houston gallery owner and a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Texas’ film history, this film can be seen today. Story Sloane, owner of Sloane Gallery at 1570 South Dairy Ashford in Houston recently added the vintage nitrate film taken that day in Hermann Park to the online collection of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI).  See the film here, find out more about TAMI and their growing collection here, and how you can support their work.

A post script. We don’t know the exact date of Hans’ zebra bet and ride. But the April 25, 1925 issue of the Rice University student newspaper carried a brief story headlined ‘Hans to Mount Zebra’ on its front page and set the date of the ride as Monday, April 27.



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