San Antonio’s first zoo not moved but scrapped and sold

Leonor Wertheimer

This week, both the question and the answer were provided jointly by two black-belt researchers who brought up the endlessly misunderstood origin story of San Antonio’s zoo.

“Nobody gets it right but Ed Gaida,” said Sarah Reveley, known for her interest in the Alamo, among other areas of research. Gaida, author of “The Sidewalks of San Antonio” and “Just for Fun: Jimmy Johnson’s Playland Park,” has done a lot of research in the city archives, where he said he has “come across original documents which indicate that the zoo in San Pedro Park did not move to Brackenridge (Park), as three websites indicate.”

“Apparently the city did not buy it,” said Hector Cardenas, president of the Friends of San Pedro Springs Park, historian of the San Antonio Fire Museum and compiler of the San Pedro Springs Park Chronology that says the zoo there “moved to Brackenridge Park” in 1915. “Ed said we got it all wrong and he has proof.”

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That proof includes a handwritten letter to the city from a proprietor, unsuccessfully offering to sell the zoo.

Recently, Cardenas and Gaida teamed up for a history presentation at the San Pedro branch library that included the real story of the zoo: City government never had much of a grip on how the zoo should be run as a privately owned attraction on city land. With a budget crisis looming, one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions was sold to an out-of-state wheeler-dealer in the exotic animal trade.

In 1911, the Alamo was barely emerging from the controversy over whether and how it was to be preserved. Ray Lambert, who imagineered Brackenridge Park’s showier attractions — the Japanese Tea Garden, a swimming pool, riding trails, the Mexican Village covered here last week — was four years away from being appointed parks commissioner. San Pedro Springs Park was still the showplace, served by streetcars that stopped every 10 minutes, and the zoo was still its biggest year-round draw.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t problems.

Residents of North Flores Street had presented the city with a petition to do something about the zoo, which they said produced an unpleasant odor that was reaching their grand homes. There was also the periodic drive from City Hall to enjoin the zoo from charging an admission fee. Every few years, someone would remember that the park was supposed to be free for all to enjoy … and would tell the zoo manager to stop asking for money to see the exhibits of live animals in the Zoological Gardens and stuffed creatures in its museum.

This would have been reasonable if the city had owned the zoo, but it didn’t.

The zoo was a concession – like the park’s saloons and chili stands — whose proprietors paid fees and sometimes rent for the right to ply their trade on city property. To add to the murkiness surrounding the zoo, it was technically outside the park, although on city land. Although the exhibits, cages and other fittings were owned by the concessionaire, it operated with the permission of the city. That’s why in 1898, the city could ask the zoo to move its cages back 200 feet, to claim for the park a nice stand of trees, separating them from the zoo with a new fence.

Best known of the zoo impresarios — known variously as managers, superintendents or proprietors — was David Menk (also spelled “Menck”), who made a living out of the zoo from 1888 to 1904. For the modest price of 10 cents for adults and 5 cents for children, visitors could see native Texas animals “with a few bears, African lions and monkeys,” according to an interview with 82-year-old Menk in the San Antonio Express, July 23, 1940.

With Joseph Norton, Menk started the zoo with the city; its only requirement was that proper cages and other buildings be erected. During Menk’s time at the zoo, the city “made several attempts to force (him) to eliminate the admission price,” all of which blew over. Nevertheless, he quit zookeeping (Norton was already out of the picture) and moved into the insurance field for the rest of his career.

He was succeeded in 1905 by Jacob Amreihn (also spelled “Amrhein” and many other variations), who told the local newspapers he was a former head animal trainer for the Barnum & Bailey circus, although records indicate he worked in Baltimore saloons through the 1890s. Whatever his preparation, Amreihn proved to be good at promoting his attraction, getting lots of ink with stories about how fierce his animals were (some of them had killed some of their capturers) and becoming a prominent member of the local business community.

Sadly, his wife, Ella Langer Amreihn, died at age 33 at the end of their first year in San Antonio, leaving him as a single parent of three children: Leona, 13; Frank, 9; and Bellwood, 3. He bought a double plot for them in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, perhaps knowing he’d be joining her soon.

It was announced that the popular zookeeper was supposed to present Mayor Bryan Callaghan Jr. on Dec. 24, 1907, with a fancy walking stick from the staff and concessionaires of San Pedro Park. Instead, his daughter handed Callaghan the gift. Amreihn died Jan. 7, 1908, having written a will the previous year that gave the zoo a complicated future.

https://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/San-Antonio-s-first-zoo-not-moved-but-scrapped-16435434.php

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