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High Strangeness at Haunted Zoos

People usually go to zoos to see the animals, and ghosts are perhaps the last thing on people’s minds when they come to these places. Yet, in many zoos it appears that the animals are not all one is likely to see, as among the menageries of natural wonders on display are sometimes sights of, shall we say, more supernatural variety. Here we will take a tour of some of the most haunted zoos around, where among the wildlife can be seen ghosts both human and otherwise.

Perhaps one of the most well known and oddest of the haunted zoos is the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Opened on September 18, 1875, the the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, originally named the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens, is the second oldest zoo in the United States, after the Philadelphia Zoo, and although starting as a rather modest affair housing mostly birds and small animals, it has grown to be one of the largest and most respected zoos in the country. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens has had a rather long history, originating from the the Society for the Acclimation of Birds, and is notable for keeping the last known specimens of the now extinct passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet, as well as for its extensive breeding and conservation programs for a wide array of endangered species. It is also noted among paranormal enthusiasts for its rather bizarre ghostly inhabitant.

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens

For years zoo guests have claimed that while walking out on the more isolated and thickly wooded trails that meander through the park they have been stalked by a spectral lioness, which comes so close that they can hear its paws thumping on the ground, as well as its heavy breathing, chuffing, and even low growls. Sometimes this ghostly lioness, which has been reported as appearing at all hours both day and night, is seen peering out through the foliage, with eyes said to glow green in dark, before vanishing into thin air. At other times the witness hears the phantom beast behind them, only to turn and see nothing there. Some disconcerted visitors who have been stalked by the phantom lion have claimed that if they try to run away it will keep up, but it is not known to actually ever attack.

The ghost lioness allegedly is only ever seen in the most remote areas of the park in thick vegetation, and only by guests walking by themselves. Despite its unsettling habit of creeping up behind people it is said to be mostly shy, and will either vanish or merely gaze at the witness with its glowing eyes from afar if confronted or looked at. It also purportedly refuses to appear when anyone else is around, exclusively only showing up to frighten people who are completely alone. These reports are strange because no one can actually figure out why the ghost of a lioness should even be there at all. According to park staff there has never been a lioness involved in any sort of tragic or traumatic death on the zoo grounds, although it could perhaps be from one who died peacefully of old age, and just refuses to leave. While certainly unsettling, the ghost lioness of Cincinnati Zoo has been claimed by some to be not a scary force of evil, but rather a form of protector and guardian of the zoo. Whatever is going on here, a ghostly lion is certainly something you don’t see every day.

Speaking of old zoos, the Philadelphia Zoo, which has been mentioned is the oldest zoo in the United States, is also said to be haunted. Opened on July 1st 1874, just 14 months before the Cincinnati Zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo was rumored to have been built on an Indian burial ground (never a good sign), and has several areas that are said to be rather heavily haunted. The building called The Solitude House, which was once used as the reptile house and erected in 1784, actually predating the zoo around it, is said to have an array of strange phenomena. The sounds of phantom footsteps, voices, and old fashioned music sometimes emanate out of nowhere, often from the dark basement, and there is said to be the apparition of a woman wearing a white dress who lurks about the stairway. Some guests have complained of being tapped or having their hair pulled by unseen hands, and there is a ghostly male voice that purportedly tells people to go away, which is thought to belong to the spirit of John Penn, who is the one who originally constructed the building.

Another haunted building at the zoo is the Shelley Building, which houses zoo administration offices and classrooms for various educational programs. Doors in the building are said to slam shut on their own, and a ghostly face allegedly has a habit of peering in through the windows. There is also the Pennrose Building, a former laboratory and veterinarian facility prone to lights flicking on and off by themselves, roving cold spots, and is supposedly inhabited by a spectral woman that can be seen wandering about. Rounding out the zoo’s more haunted locales is a place called The Treehouse, which was once an animal pen but is now used for various events, and is plagued by ghostly footsteps and a thick, palpable sense of dread that descends over those who come here. Besides these places, shadowy apparitions and anomalous noises, human, animal, and less identifiable ones, have been spotted and heard all over the zoo grounds by both zoo staff and guests alike. This supernatural activity has made the zoo popular among paranormal researchers, and was the topic of an investigation done by a 2010 episode of the Syfy channel’s popular paranormal investigative series Ghost Hunters.

The focus of another episode of Ghost Hunters was the Alexandria Zoological Park, in Louisiana. Established in 1926, the zoo had humble beginnings, starting mostly with simple animals and discarded pets, such as rabbits, goats, and deer, which were kept in plain, unadorned cages. One of the people instrumental in making the zoo a success and an actual zoo worth visiting was the former director named Robert Leslie Whitt, who was responsible for renovating the zoo’s attractions and transforming the once simple attractions into a quality facility with beautifully designed themed habitat areas such as the “Louisiana Habitat” and the “African Experience,” which were highly ambitious projects.

Alexandria Zoological Park

Unfortunately, Whitt passed away in 2008, before the last of the projects could be completed. However, many believe that he has never really left. His ghost has been seen all around the zoo, and he is often reported as talking to people as if nothing has happened and he is not dead. There are many reports of anomalous sounds, such as disembodied grunting and a sound that is similar to cement being dragged across the ground, all when no one is around. Animals in some of the enclosures, in particular the monkeys, have been known to suddenly go into an extremely agitated and excited state for no discernible reason. Some of the ghostly phenomena attributed to Whitt seem to match up with the rather prankish personality he apparently had in life. Guests have described having their ears tickled, and some witnesses have claimed to have heard intimidating growling noises coming from enclosures holding relatively harmless animals. Paranormal investigators have claimed to have recorded numerous Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) at the zoo. Is Whitt still hanging around working at the zoo he loved so much in life? Who knows?

The U.S. State of Texas is home to at least two haunted zoos. First is the Houston Zoo, where a German immigrant named Hans Nagel began working in 1922 as an animal trainer and tamer, and quickly became rather popular among zoo guests. His charming demeanor, amazing affinity with animals, entertaining demonstrations, and spectacular lion taming shows made Nagel a hit with crowds, and he became quite a celebrity at the time, eventually becoming the director of the zoo. He was also the official animal control officer for Houston for some time, dealing with animal disturbances from animals both wild and domestic with aplomb, and he was also considered a hero for once saving a woman from being mauled by a tiger, which he dispatched with the pistol he carried with him at all times for the purposes of fending off or scaring away any dangerous human trespassers.

It was perhaps this overzealous desire to act as the park policeman that led to his fate. In November of 1941, Nagel was hiding in some bushes observing some suspicious teenagers who had parked their car on zoo property. As he watched, a real policeman arrived, noticed that it was all rather creepy, and told Nagel to leave, as it was not his job to police the park or spy on people from behind bushes. When Nagel refused, the officer went to detain him but Nagel drew his pistol and was shot when the policeman retaliated. Nagel died from a full 6 gunshot wounds, and the officer responsible was acquitted of any wrongdoing on grounds of self defense. Ever since then, Nagel seems to be still working at the zoo even in death, as his ghost has been seen to roam all over the zoo grounds, most often near the commissary, which is said to be near where he was shot. Nagel’s ghost is most often reported as lurking by doorways, only to vanish in the blink of an eye, and both zoo staff and visitors have reported being startled by hearing his voice whisper into their ear.

Hans Nagel

Also in Texas is the Fort Worth Zoo, which is allegedly home to at least two different ghosts. One is said to be an animal trainer who worked here by the name of Michael A. Bell. In 1987, Bell was involved in a horrific incident, in which a bull elephant he was moving to a new, larger enclosure suddenly turned on him and fatally crushed him. Since Bell’s death, he has reportedly been seen wandering about the elephant and zebra enclosures of the zoo as if making his rounds, just as he did in life. Keeping him company is the apparition of a petite woman wearing an old-fashioned white dress from the 1800s and carrying a parasol, who supposedly paces about in front of the cafe looking rather upset about something. This particular ghost is described as looking very tangible, lifelike, and real, often being mistaken for an actress hired by the zoo to wear old fashioned period clothes, the only clue that she is a ghost being when she vanishes into thin air. No one is quite sure who this ghost could be, but she is apparently seen quite regularly.

Moving over to Chicago, Illinois, we come to the Lincoln Park Zoo, which has a history perfectly fitting a haunted place. In 1837, the southern edge of Lincoln Park was used as a burial ground known as Chicago’s City Cemetery, with many of the thousands interred here the victims of cholera outbreaks at the time. When rural cemeteries away from the city began to become en vogue and health concerns about so many bodies being buried there near a water supply in the form of Lake Michigan started to crop up, many of the bodies here were disinterred and moved to nicer, more spacious cemeteries outside of the city limits. The cemetery gathered over 30,000 corpses to itself by the time it officially closed in 1866. In 1869, the cemetery grounds were closed and passed over to the Lincoln Park Commissioners, and it was rumored that not all of the bodies were successfully moved by that time, a fact that was made worse by the Chicago Fire in 1871, which destroyed any remaining cemetery markers. By some estimates, up to 10,000 forgotten graves remain in the park to this day, and human remains are regularly dug up in construction projects in the area. Guess where Lincoln Park Zoo was built?

Adding to the dark history of Lincoln Park was a 42-foot high bridge which stood from 1894 – 1919, originally meant to be a location from which visitors could enjoy the scenery, but which became more well-known as a popular place from which to commit suicide by jumping from the edge or hanging themselves. It is estimated that up to 100 people met their end on this bridge, earning it the sinister nickname of “Suicide Bridge” at the time.

Lincoln Park Zoo

When the cemetery was shut down, the city had the area turned into a recreation area, and the area eventually expanded to the 1,208-acre (489-hectare) park it is today, complete with ample open spaces, landscaped gardens, a conservatory, a history museum, a nature museum, a theater, playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts, boating facilities, beaches, various hiking paths and trails including the 18-mile-long bike path Chicago Lakefront Trail, a golf course, a bird refuge, boating facilities, and of course the zoo, all of which are frequented by throngs of people who mostly have no idea that there are thousands of forgotten corpses still buried under them. The Lincoln Park Zoo was opened in 1868, making it one of the oldest zoos in North America, and it is also unique in that admission is completely free all year round.

Lincoln Park Zoo also had bodies pop up, and one was unearthed in 1962, when a new barn was being built which would be part of a farm connected to the zoo. Considering the legal issues with dealing with the unidentified body, in the end zoo director at the time, Dr. Lester Fisher, purportedly made the rather morbid decision to just have the corpse placed right back where it was and to build the barn right over it. Considering this, the numerous bodies still lost under the park, and the suicides, it seems like no surprise at all that the zoo is said to be quite haunted.

There are so many places in the zoo with strange phenomena reported that it is hard to even know where to begin. The Lion House is said to be frequented by a spectral woman wearing white Victorian era clothes, who wanders about and does not seem to notice anyone around her. This particular ghost apparently has the rather unnerving habit of being visible in the bathroom mirrors of the ladies room, only to be gone when the witness turns around. Other apparitions of people wearing Victorian period clothes have been seen throughout the zoo, often blinking in and out of existence without warning and mostly going about their business as if they have no idea they are dead.

Other phenomena include the usual voices from nowhere and ghostly footsteps, and well as slamming doors and flickering lights. People taking pictures of the animals here are often surprised to find their pictures photobombed by strange fogs, streaks, orbs, lights, anomalous faces, and full on apparitions. EVP phenomena are said to be particularly intense at this zoo, with numerous different mysterious voices, both male and female, turning up on recording equipment. Oddly, the voice of former zoo director Dr. Fisher has been often recorded in empty areas, even though he is still alive. There are also areas of the zoo that suddenly become infused with wandering zones of negative energy so potent that it makes people physically ill, before abruptly fading. The zoo has become so well-known for its hauntings and high strangeness that there is a ghost tour is offered during the month of October, if you should find yourself wanting to experience it for yourself.

It seems from bizarre tales such as these that for at least some zoos there are denizens far stranger than even the strangest species of animal on exhibition, and there are certainly some pretty strange choices of places for ghosts to haunt. Whether one believes in such things or not, the haunted zoo is undoubtedly a unique niche in the world of the weird, and certainly gives one something to think about, to even be on the lookout for if one is to ever visit these zoos. You just might see more than you bargained for.