Looking Back with Mary Ann Chambers

From the small fence to the now size of 55-acres, the Houston Zoo has grown exponentially not just in size but in the number of species that call the zoo home. Starting out with a small collection of a few species to 6,000 animals of 900 different species, Houstonians like 75-year-old Mary Ann Chambers can recall a time when the zoo was only a fraction of the size of what it is now.

“I can remember as a young child going to the zoo either with my mother or great uncle, and it was always such a treat to see what I thought then was a large variety of animals,” Chambers said, who is a resident at St. Dominic Village and was born in Roscoe, TX. “Of course, I know now from the early ‘40s is that it was probably much smaller than what it was now, but it’s been a while since I’ve been out there.”

Mary Ann Chambers. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.

In January of 1989, after being accredited by the then-known-as American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA), the zoo initiated a public admission fee of $2.50 for adults and 50 cents for children. In 2000 the zoo opened the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo and continued to improve throughout the years with the addition of various species such as the komodo dragons and jaguars. And in July 2002, the Houston Zoo became a private non-profit organization with a 50-year lease and operating agreement from the city.

“What impressed me most was how much it grew,” Chambers said. “When I was a little girl, I would go to the zoo and it would seem big and yet we’ve had such wonderful additions to it so to me that’s always been important.”

The 1990s also saw the $1.2 million renovation of the Janice Seuber McNair Asian Elephant facility, as well as extensive renovations of the Aquarium and Tropical Bird House. Many of these improvements were financed through the popular Zoo Ball parties.

“What was significant to me were the elephants because they’re such large animals and yet they move with so much grace,” Chambers said. “My great uncle loved animals and going to the zoo as a child was such a treat, so I think that’s where I got my love for animals. True, animals are not like humans, but we all age similarly.”

Click here to read about what other residents had to say.

Looking Back with Annette Reynolds

Vosswood Nursing Home resident Annette Reynolds is not an average Houstonian. 94-year-old Reynolds was born in 1920, and her father even read George H. Hermann’s will; if the name sounds familiar it’s because he was responsible for presenting a very famous piece of land to the City of Houston – Hermann Park!

Reynolds remembers visiting the zoo in its early days during the 1920s. For her family, going to the zoo was a Sunday treat.

“The first time I went, that I can recall, would be when I was seven years old in 1927,” Reynolds said. “My mother used to say, ‘Now, we’re gonna get dressed because we’re going to the zoo tomorrow!’ Oh, my brother and I would be so excited. It’s helpful to a city to have a beautiful zoo, and I know many people who visit Houston and they make it a point to visit the zoo.”

Formerly referred to as the Hermann Park Zoo, it was a city-operated zoo and free to all visitors until 1989. The first staff member was a German zookeeper named Hans Nagel, who quickly built up the collection and became the first zoo manager/director.

Conveniently located in Hermann Park, the Houston Zoo brings fond memories for residents who would also hold special events at both the zoo and the park, such as Reynolds.

“As a child, my birthday parties were held in the front part of Hermann Park,” Reynolds said. “I remember my son’s birthdays at the park, and we’d have them at the zoo too. I know that we couldn’t live without Hermann Park.”

(From left to eight) Annette Reynolds pictured with her friend, Jean Whitaker.
(From left to right) Annette Reynolds pictured with her friend, Jean Whitaker.

The Houston Zoo has come a long way since its early days and has even more ambitious plans for the next decade. None of this would have been possible without an incredible staff, board and volunteers to implement all these changes and renovations.

“Of course, back then it wasn’t nearly the size as it is now,” Reynolds said. “But I saw a lot of improvement at the zoo growing up; it was very small but the zoo has been done up really nicely. The whole appearance of the zoo has improved tremendously, and I think they [the staff] have done wonders with the zoo.”

We think so too, Mrs. Reynolds!

Click here to read about what other residents wanted to share.

Looking Back with Lynn Gillespie

One common memory that residents can recall is the change in size of the Houston Zoo – the zoo has vastly grown from that first bison and continues to develop new changes and exhibits such as such as the Gorillas of the African Forest (opening Memorial Day weekend). Born and raised in Houston, 72-year-old Lynn Gillespie grew up not too far from the zoo and her childhood love for the zoo continues to this day.

“Our zoo is spectacular,” Gillespie said, who is the administrator for independent & assisted living at St. Dominic Village. “I take my kids to the zoo all the time. In fact the last time I went was Zoo Lights in 2013 with my daughter, and it was fabulous.”

Lynn Gillespie. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.
Lynn Gillespie. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.

Gillespie said when she was a child there was not an aquarium or a bird house, but that all changed when our third and longest tenured director John Werler joined the Houston Zoo in the late ‘50s. During Werler’s time the zoo added a small mammal house (later expanded to become Natural Encounters), a tropical bird house, Children’s Zoo, rhino exhibit, large cat exhibits, vet clinic, and aquarium. The Brown Education Center was dedicated in 1988, a gift from the former Zoological Society of Houston.

“During my time, I want to say the most significant things happening at the zoo were the opening of the bird house and the bear exhibits,” Gillespie said. “Just things opening at the zoo is what made a splash on the papers since it was so small at the time more so than now.”

In December 2010 the zoo opened the first phase of the African Forest immersion habitat. This six-acre, $40 million project includes chimpanzees, white rhinos, giraffe, and kudu antelope as well as a large African-themed restaurant, gift shop and trading post.

“What I remembered most as a child were the monkeys,” Gillespie said. “As a child I think I remember there only being one or two different species of monkeys. I think the zoo has done such a great job on the educating the public of what area and what region of the country each animal comes from.”

In 2000 the zoo opened the $6.5 million John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo and continued to improve with the addition of several other species such as the okapi and spectacled bear.

“I remember when the zoo brought in the petting zoo, and that must’ve come when my children were little because we used to have birthday parties out there,” Gillespie said. “That was the most significant thing to my children, but I do remember spending a lot of time at the seal pool and looking at elephants and hippos with them too. It was just always a lot of fun going to the zoo.”

Click here to see what other residents wanted to share.

Looking Back with JoAnne Driscoll

Very few people can say that they were a member of three important zoo organizations. Born in Pittsburgh, 79-year-old JoAnne Driscoll, a resident at Treemont Retirement Community, was an active member on the docent council, raised funds as a Zoo Friend, and served on the Zoological Society of Houston. It is easy to say that Driscoll holds a special place in her heart for the Houston Zoo.

“My kids grew up at the zoo,” Driscoll said. “I had grown up with the zoo in Pennsylvania, and been out of a zoo for several years now. It was great to be in a city to take my daughter to the zoo, and it was always a favorite place of mine. I’ve got a long history with the zoo, and it’s always been one of my favorite things.”

Driscoll recalled that as a member of the docent council for 11 years, one of her favorite activities was to visit the contact yard located in the Children’s Zoo. She was a Zoo Friend for 15 years and a member of the Zoological Society for 11 years.

“I really do think that the time and days I spent associated with the zoo was really some of the happiest times I’ve had in Houston,” Driscoll said.

JoAnne Driscoll. Photo courtesy of Treemont Retirement Community.

From the small fence to the now size of 55-acres, from city-operated to privatization, and from small collections of a few species to 6,000 animals of 900 different species, it is easy to say that the Houston Zoo has come a long way since that first bison. Over the years these changes are what Houston residents recall the most, which is one of many things the zoo has to celebrate for its 100th year anniversary in 2022.

“The zoo was very different from when I was taking my kids there,” Driscoll said. “I was there when the zoo went from a city zoo to a private zoo, and the best change is that there are more animals because I love that we’re getting a group of gorillas, but there is also more money to feed and take care of all these animals.”

In July 2002, the Houston Zoo became a private non-profit organization with a 50-year lease and operating agreement from the City of Houston. This public/private partnership has proven to be mutually beneficial for everyone and allowed the zoo to undertake the most ambitious scope of improvements in its entire history.

“One of the biggest changes from the transition was when the zoo was focusing primarily on education and conservation, and Rick Barongi from Disney was brought in as the director and reintroduced the element of entertainment,” Driscoll said. “I think in this world we live in, it’s important to educate people but to also make it entertaining to stick with them, so that they can come back and remember everything. I think that it’s been a good thing.”

Click here to check out what other residents wanted to share.

Looking Back with Charlotte Taylor

St. Dominic Village resident Charlotte Taylor, who is 88 years old, may not be Houston-born, but she and her husband shared a love for the zoo just like any native Houstonian would. Born in Beaumont, TX, she recalled some of the fond memories she has of the zoo, and spoke about how her husband was involved with then-director John Werler.

Charlotte Taylor. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.
Charlotte Taylor. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.

Coinciding with all the zoo improvements and renovations in the 1960s and ‘70s was the arrival of the zoo’s third and longest tenured director, John Werler. A well-known celebrity in town and appearing in weekly TV shows with all his favorite reptiles and other critters, Werler and his Swedish-born wife, Ingrid, ran the zoo as a family and were loved and respected by all. He was one of the longest serving zoo directors, retiring in 1993 after 30 years.

Werler was a talented individual who published his definitive book on Texas snakes just before he died in 2003. Taylor recalled a time when her husband and Werler were close colleagues.

“My best friend Ingrid was married to John, the then-director at the time,” Taylor said. “I think it was the snake house that brought us to the zoo because my husband loved snakes and he and John Werler had been in charge of the snakes at the Bronx Zoo in New York. Once, my husband found a snake and brought it to John. Before you know it, my husband’s name was on a plaque for contributing.”

The 1950s saw a boom in construction as the zoo added a primate house, bear moats, feline house, hippo pool, giraffe house, waterfowl pond, sea lion pool and concession area. The first major indoor exhibit building was the reptile house in 1960.

“I really liked walking down the reflection pool, it was beautiful,” Taylor said. “But my kids really liked to go look at the snakes with their dad. My husband was going to night law school at the University of Houston, and on the weekends it was zoo-time.”

Taylor’s daughters plant a “chocolate” tree at the Houston Zoo. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.

While Taylor has not had the ability to visit the zoo in recent years, the same passion her and her husband had for the zoo is passed down to other generations within the family.

“My youngest grandchild is eight, and for the last four years I know his father has taken him to the zoo every Sunday,” Taylor said. “Just the two of them.”

Click here to check out what other residents wanted to share.

A Look Back into the Past with Houston Residents

To think that it all started with a bison named Earl that was donated by a traveling circus in 1922. A fence was then erected in Hermann Park to house various assortments of snakes, birds, and alligators purchased by the City of Houston.

The Houston Zoo will turn 100 years old in 2022, and while we still have several years to go, you can only imagine all the stories and memories that go with that kind of a milestone. With all these vast changes, improvements, and new exhibits such as the Gorillas of the African Forest (opening Memorial Day weekend) over the years, it is pretty easy to say that the zoo has come a long way since that first bison.

I had the chance to speak with several Houstonian residents, both native and from other cities, and they all had special things to say about our wonderful zoo.

“I would look to my husband and say ‘We got to do this again soon,’”81-year-old, Boston-born, St. Dominic Village resident Ann Palmeira said. “You always looked forward to a ‘next time’ every time you visited the Houston Zoo.”

Ann Palmeira. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.
Ann Palmeira. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.

Click on the blogs below to read about some residents’ fond memories from visiting the Houston Zoo.






Remembering M'kubwa

After a 10 year absence, the Houston Zoo will be getting gorillas once again, in 2015. Just 10 years ago, though, a beloved resident of the Zoo, our last gorilla, passed away. His name was M’kubwa, affectionately known as Mac. And at the time, he was the only Grauer’s gorilla (or Eastern Lowland gorilla) in North America –the only 3 others in the world were in Belgium at the Antwerp Zoo – and one of the oldest male gorillas in any zoo.


Lynn, now the Assistant Curator of Primates here at the Zoo, worked with Mac as a keeper starting in 1987, right after he came to the Houston Zoo from Oklahoma City. As she worked with him, she realized he needed somebody to connect with, as gorillas are very social. All interactions were protected, meaning there was always a barrier between Mac and his keepers, but safe interactions could occur between them.

“We would have playtime in the morning, as I waited for his pools to fill up,” Lynn remembered. “One day, he worked himself up into a frenzy of play, unexpectedly doing a headstand. He surveyed me upside down before toppling over and then doing it again.”

M'kubwa getting an enrichment item - enrichment is a way to keep life interesting for animals through work or play. In this case, Mac's reward was inside a PVC pipe with holes, and he had to figure out how to get it out.
M’kubwa getting an enrichment item – enrichment is a way to keep life interesting for animals through work or play. In this case, Mac’s reward was inside a PVC pipe with holes, and he had to figure out how to get it out.

Mac was alone for most of the time he was here at the Zoo in the sense that he didn’t have gorilla companions, but his keepers were his group. His keepers also gave him company by introducing other species into his exhibit, trying everything from a Lilac-breasted roller, a pair of hornbills, & aquarium fish to Lowe’s guenons and Colobus monkeys. Mac accepted and was interested in these other creatures but demanded their respect.


Mac’s building, long since demolished, was old, and it echoed. Mac took full advantage of the echo by pursing his lips and producing a song-like, haunting vocalization reminiscent of a howl, which his keepers loved to hear., Rhonda,  one of Mac’s keepers, turned his night house (where he slept) into a gorilla photo gallery and learned that he loved to watch videos of gorillas. Gale, yet another keeper, gave him paint, which he thoughtfully applied to canvases, and chalk to draw on the floor with.

“His life with us as an ambassador for all gorillas was marked by affection, great attention to his comfort and contentment, and above all, respect for his dignified and wise gorilla nature,” said Lynn.

As we prepare for our next phase of African Forest, once again bringing gorillas to the Zoo, M’kubwa is on our minds more than ever. Soon, we’ll have two groups of gorillas, a bachelor group and a family group, that will share a lush, wooded habitat, with winding platforms up in the trees so guests can experience these amazing creatures face to face.

For more information on the plans for Gorillas of the African Forest, visit https://www.houstonzoo.org/gorillas.

There's a hippo on a what?

Over the Houston Zoo’s 90 years, we’ve answered many calls for assistance from law enforcement agencies and animal care agencies.  The Zoo answers the call from our area sheriffs’ departments (Harris, Montgomery, Brazoria) for  exotic animal emergencies. We also have a long history of assisting the Houston SPCA with exotic animal cases providing expert evaluations of animals’ conditions and assisting with veterinary care.

But the call the Houston Zoo received on a December morning in 1986 was unique.

Houston Zoo Mammal Curator Richard Quick considers his options during a ‘hippo’ round up south of Houston in December 1986.

No, your eyes are not fooling you. This is not trick photography.  Yes, that is a young hippo standing on the front porch of a house south of Houston.

Former Houston Zoo Children’s Zoo Curator John Donaho tells us that for a time in the 1980s a circus maintained its winter quarters near Alvin. At the time, there was nothing terribly unusual or unique about that.  Houston’s relatively mild winters had made the area attractive as winter quarters for various circus operators since the 1890s.  The Christy Brothers Circus made its winter home near the city of South Houston from 1920 to 1930.

But John says when the phone rang that December morning, the Houston Zoo staff learned this call for help was a bit different. This circus had hippos and they had managed to escape their containment and were roaming free after eluding the best efforts of the circus staff to round them up.

After getting the OK from Houston Zoo Director John Werler, Houston Zoo Mammal Curator Richard Quick enlisted John and several other Zoo staff and the team took off for Alvin.  As John recalls, it took  the Zoo staffers and several members of the circus staff more than 4 hours to collect all the hippos and return them safely to their winter quarters.

We don’t know if the Zoo staff listened to Christmas music on the radio on the way back to Houston.  Maybe they all joined in a chorus of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.”

Werler’s World

A Houston Chronicle op-ed on Sunday, February 10 included a bit of previously unknown history about the Houston Zoo and the late Zoo Director John Werler.

Janice Van Dyke Walden’s op-ed (Camp Strake property deserves to remain a natural oasis amid suburban growth) included the notation that “the first Canebrake rattlesnake to be registered in Montgomery County was presented in 1964 by an Eagle Scout to Houston Zoo Director John Werler, caught at Camp Strake.”

For those who worked with him and for those who knew him, it isn’t surprising that the discovery would have been ‘presented’ to John.

Born in Oldenberg, Germany in 1922, John came to New Jersey with his parents at the age of 3.  Graduating from high school in 1940, John was a biology major at William and Mary College and served in the Coast Guard during World War II from 1941 to 1945 stationed on Kosrae Island in Micronesia, now the Federated States of Micronesia.

Fascinated by the study of herpetology from an early age, upon discharge from the Coast Guard in 1945 John took his first zoo position at the Staten Island Zoo as a reptile keeper.  In 1947, John moved to the San Antonio Zoo as Curator of Reptiles. He became assistant zoo director in 1954 and came to the Houston Zoo as general curator in 1956.  He was appointed zoo director in 1963 upon the retirement of then-Zoo Director Tom Baylor.

Over his long career, John wrote numerous papers in scientific journals, published The Venomous Snakes of the Pacific for the tenth Pacific Science Congress, and also wrote Poisonous Snakes of Texas for the Texas Parks and Recreation Department.

Should you have one of these or are fortunate enough to find one, please hang on to it.  It’s as informative today as it was in the early 1960s when it was published.

John knew the subject matter well, having had several encounters with the venomous snakes of Texas during various collection expeditions.  One such experience was recounted in a Houston Post story by Marge Crumbaker on June 13, 1965 (below).  John was attempting to place a 4 foot rattlesnake in a cloth bag during an outing near Matagorda when the snake struck the little finger of his left hand.

As he told Ms. Crumbaker, on the two hour car trip from Matagorda to Hermann Hospital, John administered his own first aid using a snake bite kit. When Ms. Crumbaker interviewed him, he was in his sixth week of recovery.

Sisters of the Skillet and other diversions

The Houston Zoo was a popular destination for Houstonians almost from the day it opened in 1922.  As word of head zoo keeper Hans Nagel’s ‘showmanship’ began to spread, attendance steadily climbed.  His Sunday afternoon big cat training demonstrations in The Arena drew large crowds through the ’20s and into the ‘Great Depression’ days of the early 1930s when Zoo admission was ten cents for adults and five cents for children.   That might not sound like much, but remember the average personal annual income in 1933 was slightly over $1,500.

So, if you didn’t visit the Houston Zoo during your free time in the early ’30s, what did you do?

Well, you could take in a movie at one of the downtown movie palaces.  If the movie ticket was a budget buster, there was always the radio. And that’s where the title of this post comes in.

Sisters of the Skillet, performed by Ed East and Ralph Dumke was a popular NBC radio show from 1930 to 1938. From 1930 to 1931 it was sponsored by Lava soap.

As part of the marketing plan for the show, the sponsor printed and distributed a pamphlet giving youngsters directions for creating Shadowgraphs – shadow puppets. Here are two samples if you’d like to try this at home.



In 1931, when Sisters of the Skillet was popular there were 5 radio stations on the air in Houston – KPRC (which carried Sisters of the Skillet as an NBC Red Network affiliate), KTRH, KTLC, KFLX, and KXYZ.

If shadow puppets weren’t your style, maybe you were lucky enough to know someone who had one of these.

Lindstrom Tool and Toy Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut made mechanical toys and games from pressed steel and tin from 1913 into the 1940s when war era metal rationing stopped production for a time.

 The game shown here, from the early 1930s was a simple pinball style game.  A player fired off 7 marbels one at a time from the spring loaded shooter on the left side. Players wanted to get their marbles in the ‘horseshoe’ in the middle of the playing field to double their scoring possibilities.

When Sisters of the Skillet got to silly, and shadow puppets lost their alure, a friend with a Gold Star game could save a rainy day.

In upcoming posts we’ll explore the history behind some of the art work on Zoo grounds and explore the John Werler scrapbook.

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