Is It Really Hans?

As you may have read over the past couple weeks, we are pretty sure our Commissary building is haunted by the ghost of Hans Nagel, the Zoo’s first Director. He was a very colorful character that had an untimely demise right here on Zoo grounds in November 1941…and where all this happened was a little too close to our Commissary building for comfort.

The Commissary is where we prepare all the food for our animals, which has to be done very early in the morning so they can get fed – animal nutrition staff get there between 5 and 6 am.  They have told creepy ghost stories for years about what they’ve seen and heard, so some other Zoo staff decided to see for ourselves: we became amateur ghost hunters!

Several groups of ghost hunters, including staff from the Birds, Natural Encounters, Purchasing, and Interactive Marketing departments took shifts overnight to see if they would hear, see, or feel the presence of Hans. In addition to our eyes and ears, we collected audio recordings on a number of different nights. After listening to them, we heard some creepy things that weren’t audible during the night to our ears…have a listen to see if you hear them too!

Read more here about Hans Nagel and why he haunts the Zoo:


Houston Zoo staff, Elephants and people in the Niassa Reserve in Mozambique.

Well, I have been here in the Niassa Reserve with the Niassa Lion Project for three days now and we have had some of the best wildlife viewing  from right outside the tent.  I am here to assist with conservation activities and to find ways the Houston Zoo can deepen their relationship with this unique and awesome community-based conservation project.

Houston Zoo employees Angie and Renee outside the camp on the Lugenda River, with elephants behind them.

Wildlife viewing is a given when visiting field-based conservation camps, but no one could have prepared me for the show we were in store for here. Earlier today, 30-40 elephants were just outside our tent. They sounded like a group of bulldozers as some of them crashed around in the trees and bushes.  We sat and watched them with local teachers that had come to camp from nearby villages to help us prepare for some conservation activities we will be doing with the villages in a few days. Elephants often raid crops in their villages and kill village members that attempt to stop them, so we were happy to share in this rare peaceful experience they were having with these elephants.   I was delighted to see that they seemed to watch them with the same amount of intrigue and amazement as we did.  I think this was the first time they saw them without feeling any kind of fear.  

Daily routine of bringing water up from the river for drinking, cooking and bathing.

The Niassa Lion Project is actively trying to reduce all wildlife conflict in the Niassa reserve.  They work with the local communities to provide solutions.  The are currently testing non-lethal methods to deter elephants.  In fact, They have a Mozambiquan, Mbambu Marufo, doing his masters on bee hive barriers.  Elephants are afraid of bees and try to avoid them at all costs.  This method of control has been used sucessfully in other parts of Africa, but no one has tried it here in Mozambique yet.  Mbambu used to be a park warden and has seen lethal control methods used and fail in the past on elephants, so he looks forward to testing this method and hopes it will provide a peace for both the animals and the people.

As we tuck in to sleep here in the Niassa Reserve, I listen as the elephants crash around in the bushes and vocalize loudly outside the tent.  I then hearmen from a nearby fisherman’s camp yelling, screaming and banging objects together to keep the elephants from coming in their direction.  I suddenly experience first hand the importance of Mbambu’s research.

Thatch shaded tent with elephants moving about in the brush

At the beginning of this year the Houston Zoo funded Mbambu Marufo to attend a human wildlife conflict training in Kenya.  He wanted me to thank everyone at the Zoo for making this possible for him.  The training has been invaluable for him and he uses it to protect species on a regular basis.

Young conservationist from Mbamba Village learning how to radio collar a lion

More to come from Niassa…


International Vulture Awareness Day at the Houston Zoo

This post written by Samantha Montgomery & Jessica Clark

While the black and turkey vultures we see here seem so abundant to us, there are many species worldwide that range from threatened, to facing extinction. Every year zoos and institutions around the world celebrate International Vulture Awareness Day to educate the public on the plight of the vulture. Last December, the Houston Zoo celebrated IVAD by helping to raise money in support of the efforts of the Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project. We held keeper chats, vulture feedings, crafts, face painting, family friendly educational activities, and will do so again Saturday, November 10th.

Here at the zoo we will also have a wide variety of items for sale with all money raised going to CVCP. As something a little different for all you trend setters and one-of-a-kinders, look online for our vintage inspired dresses with a modern flair. Graciously handmade by San Antonio designer Crissy Baker, co-owner of Nerd Alert Designs whose work is rapidly gaining fame. Crissy’s designs have recently been featured on, in The San Antonio Express News, and worn by Chloe Dykstra on Epic Meal Time (The Crispy Tauntaun episode). These unique and trendy bird inspired designs, available only in the Nerd Alert Designs store, are sure to make a fashionable statement and are for a great cause! With so few available don’t miss out before these charming frocks fly the coop!

One of the important goals of CVCP is to provide safe, clean carcasses for the vultures to feed on at “vulture restaurants” for their 3 critically endangered Asian vulture species; Slender-billed, Red-headed, and White-rumped. With such a great number of the large mammal populations plummeting, and the use of the chemical diclofenac in livestock, a good meal is hard to find. Diclofenac is fatal when consumed by vultures who feed on the carcasses once the livestock dies. So when a meal becomes available, it may not always be safe.  At these designated restaurants about $200 can buy a clean carcass free of diclofenac, and ensure a safe meal. With a safe method of providing reliable food efforts can be continued in other areas such as breeding and population studies. Cambodiais currently the only Southeast Asian country to show an increase in their vulture populations, so they must be doing something right!

(Photo from WCS)

Last year, the bird department here at the Houston Zoo raised enough money to ensure at least a few safe meals, and this November 10th we hope to do so again. We will continue our work spreading the word on the hardships facing vultures, and teach people about the vital role they play in our world. Education is the first step we can take to help bring these endangered species back from the brink of extinction.

Be sure to join us for the celebration, but it doesn’t need to be Vulture Day to swing by and say hello to our resident vultures here at the Houston Zoo. Just inside the Fischer Bird Gardens are the King Vultures. Natives of South America, these forest dwellers are bright and colorful beauties. While our male is a fun and frisky 4 years old, our female is at least 31 years old!

                Across the zoo located near the elephant bull yard are the Cinereous Vultures who range all across Asia and the 2nd largest vulture species in the world! Our male, Mozart, is 21 years old, and our female, Alex, is 28!

                Can’t wait until Saturday, November 10th to show your support? Check out all the hard work the Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project and WCS are doing and donate directly.

Cheetah Lure Course

Post written by Sarah Riger

One of the main purposes for providing enrichment to our animals is to get them to exercise mentally and physically. The lure course that we use with our Cheetahs exercises both. By weaving a line of string through the exhibit that is attached to a small motor we are able to pull a lure (usually feathers, or fabric) and provide the Cheetahs with something novel to chase. When the Cheetahs catch the lure they are given a bone, or chunk meat as a reward. The Cheetahs are able to stalk, chase, and catch something like they would in the wild. This picture is of our Cheetahs, Kito & Kiburi, when they were younger chasing the lure.

Cheetah Lure Course
Cheetah Lure Course

Who is this ghost?

As the Houston Zoo’s amateur ghost hunters continue their search for Hans Nagel’s ghost, let’s take a moment to look at the man and the story behind the ghost story.

Born in Germany in 1892, Nagel was the son of a military officer.  Pushed into officers training school as a young man, Nagel went AWOL and jumped ship in Hamburg harbor. Fished out of the water by an animal collector under sail for Hagenbeck Gardens, Nagel soon found his calling working with wildlife.

His world travels were interrupted in New York when the German government arrested him on desertion charges.  As the story goes, Nagel outwhitted his captors and swam the Hudson River to New Jersey where a friendly railroad brakeman helped him catch a train to Texas.

By the time the Houston Parks superintendent hired him as the Zoo’s first head zookeeper, Nagel had worked ranches from Mexico to Montana and won worldwide admiration for his expeditions to Australia, South America, Asia and Africa, capturing and selling animals.

An early 1920s edition of the Morrison & Fourmy City of Houston Directory indicates Nagel and his wife lived at 117 Saulnier Street when Hans began working at the Zoo.  Comparing current city maps to a 1920 map of Houston by Texas Map and Blueprinting Company, it appears the house was in the area of  what is now occupied by Allen Center.

But we do know that Mrs. Hans Nagel was occasionally engaged in Zoo events.

This June 13, 1935 Houston Chronicle clipping from the scrapbook of Nagel’s assistant and later zoo manager Tom Baylor shows that Louisa (identified as Mrs. Hans Nagel in the photo caption) occasionally filled in at the Zoo in a public relations role.

Here, Louisa (on the left) awards  $10 to Mrs. Thomas Ascardi and her 11 year old daughter Claire who are being honored with the top prize in a zebra naming contest.

The contest, and the public debut of Taboo and his mother, drew a large crowd to the Zoo that day.

Meanwhile, Nagel continued his expeditions to collect animals for the Zoo, including one voyage to the Yucatan that almost ended in disaster.  We’ll look at his far flung adventures in our next post.

Okapi Crisis Update

Below is an update on the Okapi Crisis that occurred on 24 June 2012. For those of you who may not know about the attack, here is some background information:

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve, located near the Epulu station in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri Forest, was attacked by a group of poachers known as Simba rebels. They were seeking revenge on the Institute in the Congo for Conservation of Nature (ICCN); whose headquarters base at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, for recently shutting down their illegal poaching and mining activities. The outcome of this attack was tragic leaving six people dead. Everything of value, from computers to vehicles were stolen or burned. All food and medical supplies were taken, leaving the village with nothing to eat. The 14 Okapis stationed at the reserve, serving as ambassadors for the country’s flagship species were killed. Over 30 villagers from Epulu were taken hostage to assist the poachers in transporting the stolen goods. Fortunately most of the Okapi Conservation Project’s (OCP) staff and locals were able to escape into the forest unharmed. Also, the villagers taken hostage were released and are beginning to return to the village.

The Houston Zoo, among other institutions responded immediately to raise funds in  support of the Okapi Conservation Project. The funds that the Houston community donated so generously as well as donations from around the world have helped this project and the local villagers to get back on their feet after the devastating attack in June.

Here are some highlights of the progress the project has made in the past several months:

–          Debris removed and all facilities were cleaned up

–          Completed masonry and roofing work on guard housing blocks at Zunguluka guard post.

–          Re-opened airstrip.

–          Re-stocked the Health Clinic including the purchase of a new microscope.

–          Repaired damaged doors and windows in OCP facilities.

–          Provided food relief to OCP and ICCN staff and families in Epulu and Mambassa.

–          Provided medical care support for OCP and ICCN staff and families wherever they are presently based.

–           Provided financial support to families of rangers killed in action and an injured ranger and his family.

–          Provided funds to OCP staff to replace household items stolen during the attack.

ICCN Rangers meet with OCP Staff to discuss next steps (photo courtesy of

–          Replaced technology items (computers/printers) for OCP staff.

–          Agro-forestry Team assisted with upland rice harvest, collecting 50% of the seeds which will then be redistributed to other farmer’s cooperatives in March 2013. 

–          Assistance given to women’s associations in the form of vegetable seeds, garden tools, yarn and sewing lessons.

–          Assisted 180 farmers with bringing their produce to market.

–          OCP educators organized a conference in the town of Bunia on the dangers of deforestation for nearly 50 government officials, and gave a lecture on same topic to over 500 high school students.

–          Provided financial and logistical support to the joint operation being carried out by ICCN rangers and FARDC troops and supported ICCN patrols throughout the Reserve.

Over the next several months, the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) will be conducting the following: 

–          Provide monthly food relief to OCP/ICCN staff and families.

–          Finalize construction of two housing blocks (four families) at the Zunguluka guard post.

–          Re-establish satellite internet communications at Epulu Station.

–          Provide school supplies, to be distributed as needed, to principals of 25 schools around the Reserve.

–          Provide bean seeds and tools to farmer’s cooperatives in Mambassa for the October planting season.

–          Support micro enterprise by providing six sewing machines to women’s association.

–          Continue repair of damaged OCP facilities and replacement of household items

–          Begin making cement blocks for rebuilding of ICCN Headquarters.

–          Provide support for joint ICCN/FARDC patrols in the central and northern sections of the Reserve.

–          Educators to follow up with customary chiefs on initial meetings and to plan actions for 2013 that are supportive of community needs and protect the integrity of the Reserve.

–          OCP educators will hold a conference in the town of Isiro involving government and military leaders to discuss issues related to protecting the northern area of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

For more information about the progress of the Okapi Conservation Project, please visit their website:

We love Okapis!!!

As a supporter of the Houston Zoo, you not only help provide our exhibit animals with A+ care, but you also help support wild animals and local communities all around the globe. Without your support efforts like the Okapi Crisis Relief would not be possible. We thank you for everything you do to help protect people, animals, and habitats around the world!

Turtle Tuesday

So our Turtle Tuesday blog is a bit behind because we had so much going on last week that we had to wait to share all of the info with you!

Last week we were out conducting surveys of our typical ~75 miles of beach, and at the end of our survey on Bolivar Peninsula we came across a very sick, stranded Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. The turtle had most likely washed up during high tide and was so weak that the waves flipped him upside down. When we reached him he was barely alive. We were able to take him back to NOAA’s rehab facility in Galveston and give him fluids and some vitamins. He survived comfortably in the wonderful care of NOAA staff for several days, but unfortunately he was too sick to pull through. Although the turtle passed away of unknown causes (a necropsy will be performed to find out what internal issues there were) we were happy to have given the turtle a last chance at life, and hopefully a comfortable good-bye.

Often times stories like this can make conservationists and anyone involved with wildlife discouraged and frustrated. Thankfully, there are stories like the one below that restore our hope.

Meet Doug.

Doug-a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle saved and released by the US Coast Guard

Doug is a sub-adult Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Doug was rescued (and aptly named) by a crew of US Coast Guard staff in August of 2012 who found the turtle floating through a channel near Sabine Pass.  The turtle was severely injured and sick. Thanks to these men, the sea turtle was rescued from the channel and taken back to their field station. NOAA was alerted of the turtle and immediately took it to the sea turtle facility in Galveston to be rehabilitated. If the US Coast Guard had not stepped in to save Doug, he would most certainly not have pulled through. The turtle was later found to have severe wounds to his carapace (shell) and a massive lung infection.

This is a “before” picture of Doug when the USCG saved him in August of this year.

Over the course of several months, Doug, and several other sea turtles were rehabilitated by NOAA and given the A-OK by our head vet, Dr. Joe to be released offshore. Why do these turtles need to be released out in the middle of the Gulf you may ask? Well, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles typically forage for food offshore. So, by releasing them away from people and boats and near their food source, we hope to increase their chance of survival.

Our sturdy vessel which brought us safely through some very choppy water!


So, we assembled our group of 4 healthy Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that were ready to be returned to the water, NOAA and Houston Zoo staff and the US Coast Guard. Thankfully, the men who originally saved Doug were able to accompany us on our adventure offshore to release the very same turtle they were instrumental in saving.

Doug the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle and his USCG rescue team!

Through very choppy waters, a bit of seasickness and a lot of fun, we arrived after an hour trip through the Gulf to a perfect sea turtle haven. Each turtle was photographed, and we recorded the water depth and GPS points for the release. Other than Doug, we had 3 smaller Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that needed to be released. All 3 turtles came to the rehab facility after having an interaction with recreational fishermen (i.e. they were caught on hook and line). Unfortunately, one of the turtles was a repeat offender! Using information collected from the turtle’s flipper tag, we determined that this turtle had been caught not once but TWICE off of the same jetty while eating bait from the fishermen. We hope that he will stay offshore and continue to forage for sponges and crabs far away from human disturbances.

USCG releasing a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle into the Gulf of Mexico

All 4 turtles were released successfully and swam away like they had never even been in captivity! It was wonderful to see a successful conservation story come full circle, and the involvement of the US Coast Guard of Sabine Pass was instrumental not only in saving 1 sea turtle’s life, but providing us the means and expertise to release 4 endangered species back to their rightful home.

If you would like to learn more about & help Texas sea turtles please visit:

More photos of this release are available on our Facebook page:

A lazy day…with polar bears!

Another update from Peter Riger, our VP of Conservation who is with a Houston Zoo travel group in Churchill, searching for polar bears.

Today was a lazy day, with Polar Bears!

Same schedule as yesterday but we simply were interested in finding Polar Bears. The weather is changing a bit and we had both sun and snow flurries on and off all morning. We also had Polar Bears of course which we “visited” with for 4-5 hours. Later in the day when it seemed as though the bears, who had been napping on and off, would not be waking up anytime soon, we headed off towards Hudson Bay for a drive around the Wildlife  Mgmt. Area but with the winds blowing and temperatures dropping, only caught sight on a Bald Eagle and waterfowl before heading in at 4pm. Our other group managed to see bears and arctic hare as well.

Both evenings have ended with presentations about the history of the area. Last nights was by a local Metis (Metis are one of the Aboriginal people in Canada who trace their descent to mixed First Nations and European heritage from the early 1800’s) about growing up in the region, the fur trade in the 40’s and 50’s, local culture and living with Polar Bears when they would come through town back then. Tonight’s was from a Parks Canada Ranger on local archaeology and history of the region.

There is a chance the Northern Lights (the Aurora Borealis) will show itself if the clouds clear and it is cold enough although it is a little early in the season. If you want to be woken up to see them at 3 or 4am you just leave a sign on your door that says Please Disturb – and somebody will.

Tomorrow is a helicopter excursion, for those who requested it as an extension, over the area and edge of Wapusk National Park. Others are spending time in town before we head to lunch near the Bay as a pod of Beluga Whales were seen there today, another late season strange occurrence this year.

Carousel Trivia

Have you ridden a carousel lately?  We hope so, but if you haven’t, be sure to come by the Zoo and ride on our carousel, a unique, hand-carved and painted work of art.  The Wildlife Carousel has both animals you can find at the Zoo and also pays homage to animals from the great state of Texas. Bet you didn’t know that one of the characters is the only armadillo known to exist as a carousel figure!  For you trivia nuts out there, here are some more facts and figures about our Wildlife Carousel:

  • The entire carousel weighs approximately 36,500 pounds.
  • The carousel’s so-called jumper system is what makes the animals go up and down.
  • The jumper gear ratio of 4.33:1 makes the figures go up and down 4 1/3 times for every revolution.
  • A crank connected to the jumper system raises the carousel figures 10 inches up and down per revolution.
  • The carousel platform (floor) is sanded wood with four coats of polyurethane.
  • The big over head beams on the carousel are called “sweeps.” The sweeps are clean, straight grain Douglas Fir beams that are painted and varnished.
  • Each carousel figure is a hand-carved wooden figure, made up of between 60 to 80 blocks of wood, primed with alkyd primer and painted with Japan Oils.
  • The figures are covered with up to eight coats of clear enamel that contains mildew resistant additives.
  • How do you care for these wonderful animals? The answer might surprise you. Scuff marks on the figures and the chariots are removed with a gel-type hand cleaner – the same kind of hand cleaner car mechanics use to clean grease off their hands!


Here's Looking At Whooooo

More from our Vice-President of Conservation, Peter Riger, who is leading a trip to Churchill!

We are on a fairly set schedule the next few days. Simple goal: Get out to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area and Natural Habitat Adventures Tundra Rovers, head close to the shoreline of Hudson Bay and find a few polar bears to watch. The short 20 minute drive from the center of Churchill gets us there and out on the tundra by 8am.

The vast tundra (before the snow and ice come!)


The area is vast and the polar bears are not just hanging out waiting for a visit so you spend a little time driving in these massive vehicles on a limited number of trails set for them but it is only a matter of 30-45 minutes before a polar bear sauntered by on his way to somewhere. Given our great viewing the night before, we joked we would find the group a snowy owl and red or arctic fox along the way as well. Snowys are difficult to find this time a year and we are closer to arctic fox than red fox habitat but both can be seen at certain times of the year in different areas.

Snowy owl resting on a rock

The first ground bird we came across were willow ptarmigan (a type of grouse, pronounced Tar-mi-gan) who prefer the safety of low growing willows, followed up by rock ptarmigan about 30 minutes later. These apparently like to stand on rocks. Along the way there were a polar bear or two in the distance before we stumbled upon promise #1: snowy owls, not just one but two. This is quite a find so late in the season as they typically head south to more comfortable climates. I may have mentioned yesterday it us about 5-10f warmer than normal this week in Churchill so things are hanging around. Our guides caught a glimpse of a beluga whale on Monday as well, something very rare for this area in October.

Rock Ptarmigan

The snowy owl was followed by lunch “on the tundra” which was followed by me trying to get everyone’s attention to look to the left at the red fox trotting by us but confusing our guests three seconds later by telling them to look straight ahead at the arctic fox coming right at us.

Red Fox

The smaller arctic fox was not happy about seeing a red fox only 20 feet away and then realizing there was a massive vehicle in front with 15 pairs of human eyes staring at both him and the red fox. They both went their separate ways but the chances of encountering both species in the same place at the same time is just ridiculous.

Arctic Fox

There is much more out here than the Kings (and Queens) of the Arctic.


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