WICHITA FALLS MUNICIPAL ZOO

Whitney A. Snow
Miss Sugar.
Miss Sugar, an Indian elephant, was the most popular attraction at the short-lived Wichita Falls Municipal Zoo. Local schoolchildren spearheaded the effort to acquire the elephant, and local philanthropists Joe. J. Perkins and his wife contributed the necessary funds to make the purchase. The Wichita Daily Times called her "the largest and most popular flapper in Wichita Falls." Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

WICHITA FALLS MUNICIPAL ZOO. In November 1927 the local chapter of the Lions Club began lobbying the city council to create a zoo in Wichita Falls. Provided that the bulk of expenses came from public donations rather than city coffers, the council members were amenable, and, due to its proximity to the Wichita River, Scotland Park was ultimately chosen as the site on which to build. Before the ovular zoo and its aviary were completed, people far and wide started donating animals which the city housed in a hangar at Call Field. Not until April 1928 were virtually all of the animals transferred to the finished zoo. By late July of that year, the zoo had some 300 animals, the most popular of which was Miss Sugar, an Asian elephant.  

Local schoolchildren had long attempted to raise money for the purchase of an elephant, but of course the result was little more than pocket change. Impressed by their efforts, Joe J. Perkins and his wife supplied the bulk of the money needed to buy an Indian “trick” elephant from the Horne Zoological Arena in Kansas City, Missouri. The Wichita Daily Times called her “the largest and most popular flapper in Wichita Falls.” Her presence led to a surge in visitors, and zoo officials, hoping to cut back on expenditures, used this to their advantage by encouraging people to bring snacks to feed the animals. When Jack Dempsey, formerly of the Dallas Zoo, became the new manager of the Wichita Falls Zoo in March 1929, Miss Sugar played a large role in his advertising plans.

Publicity came in myriad forms. One of the most lasting stories derived from the escape of a seven-foot alligator into the Wichita River. Hours later, an animal trainer lost part of a finger while recapturing it. Even though the gator was returned to its pen, locals talked for years about a monster gator in the river. It became a local joke in which folks were warned not to go swimming. Other instances were more threatening to the city, when, for example, a boy’s foot was bitten after he stuck it in the coyote cage. In exchange for the installation of railings around cages, the young man’s father agreed not to press charges. A close call, the threat nevertheless frightened city council members, many of which had come to see the zoo as a liability.

When the Great Depression began, the zoo fell on hard times. Thanks to births and continuing animal donations, the facility puttered along until 1933 when the city council members decided that, due mainly to food expenses, it was no longer economically viable. More than $60,000 had been spent on the zoo, and it had yet to turn a profit. On April 24, 1933, the city took action and started getting rid of some animals which were still on loan from the Horne Zoological Company. When that company had failed to respond to a notice, Wichita Falls held an auction, and the Fort Worth Zoo purchased the lot—eleven animals, including a tiger, five baboons, a hyena, a kangaroo, and others—for the paltry sum of $70. In essence, city officials obviously deemed this tiny sum preferable to the large cost of feeding these eleven animals. In July the zoo inadvertently caused more financial hardship when a city truck, one which had been picking up food for the animals, backed into Lucille Smith who was walking on 6th Street. Smith, represented by attorney Ralph Mathis, proceeded to sue Wichita Falls for $25,000. 

By the summer of the following year, most animals had been sold or given away. Exceptions were a handful of monkeys, two bears, and Miss Sugar, all of which had become semi-mascots of the city. Sentimentality, however, only went so far. The bears were given away. As to Miss Sugar and the monkeys, their food demands were considered too expensive. Ultimately, the city sent them as “loans” to the Fort Worth Zoo in September 1934. With their departure, the paper noted, “Wichita Falls no longer has the least hint of a zoo.” 

A few days later, local journalist John Gould wrote, “The Wichita Falls zoo has passed into history, and we are among those who are shedding no tears over its disappearance.” His main objection to the zoo had centered on a reluctance to see any wild thing caged. Likely, most city officials felt they were well rid of the zoo but for entirely different reasons—economic ones. Local sentiment remained mixed. Some had seen the zoo as an economic drain and had resented paying taxes to support its maintenance. Others truly grieved the zoo’s closing and missed the animals they had come to know and love. Over the following years, the zoo all but disappeared from public memory and was rarely mentioned in the newspaper.

Wichita Falls Municipal Zoo Historical Marker.
A Texas Historical Marker, located in Scotland Park in Wichita Falls, tells the story of Wichita Falls Municipal Zoo. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

In July 1940 Miss Sugar made nationwide headlines for trampling James R. Brown, a forty-two-year-old keeper at the Fort Worth Zoo. Eye witnesses claimed that Miss Sugar went berserk and pounded Brown with her feet before another elephant, Queen Tut, interceded. Immediately following the attack, keeper Harry Jackson used a rifle to shoot Miss Sugar four times and she died. The event shocked the residents of Wichita Falls. Ever since arriving, Miss Sugar had displayed troubling behavior. Most notably, she had a habit of using her trunk to strike the trainers. Fort Worth Zoo officials, suspecting that Miss Sugar’s grumpiness had been caused by chronic stomach troubles, ordered an autopsy, but the results showed nothing unusual. Many of the associated newspaper headlines mentioned that Miss Sugar had a history of violent behavior and had exhibited it while in Wichita Falls.  In its report of the incident in the July 12, 1940, issue, the Wichita Daily Times simply stated that trainers “had trouble with the animal during the last months of her stay….”

By the early twenty-first century, few Wichita Falls residents were aware that the city once had a zoo. Fewer still remained who had visited the zoo as children. The zoo, which had animals ranging from tigers and lions to baboons, may have only existed for six years, but it affected the lives of its founders, employees, donors, and patrons. In remembrance of the zoo, a historical marker was erected in Scotland Park in 2017.  

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Dallas Morning News, June 28, 1929. Historical Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. Moorhead Daily News (Moorhead, Minnesota), July 13, 1940. Wichita Daily Times, November 21, 1927; March 14, 20, 26, 27, 1928; April 2, 9, 1928; July 2, 9, 15, 1928; August 5, 12, 1928; March 11, 1929; April 25, 1933; July 20, 1933; September 18, 20, 1934; July 12 1940.

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Handbook of Texas Online, Whitney A. Snow, "WICHITA FALLS MUNICIPAL ZOO," accessed November 16, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/gbw03.

Uploaded on September 11, 2018. Modified on September 12, 2018. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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