The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

By David Stevens

All of Clovis could hear lions roar


Last updated 1/23/2021 at 2:40pm

High Plains Historical Foundation

R.V. Miller started Clovis' zoo in 1927.

The Clovis Fire Department was a zoo in the late 1920s.


Ralph Vaughn Miller, Clovis' city manager and fire chief in the 1920s and 1930s, started the community's zoo in an empty lot next to the firehouse in late 1927, records show.

And it wasn't just a couple of prairie dogs and coyotes back then either. In December 1927, the Clovis News reported the fire station was becoming "a very interesting and instructive organization," home to a "big owl, a brown hawk, a beautiful specimen of golden eagle and opossum and some mountain or crested quail."

With two bears on the way.

The bears were a gift from the city of Denver, which had "surplus bear," the paper reported.

By the spring of 1930, Miller's zoo was beginning to outgrow its space at Fourth and Mitchell streets. Historian Don McAlavy wrote that neighbors "put up a stink about the stink." So when the federal government decided it wanted to build a post office at the zoo's downtown location, the city of Clovis seized the opportunity to purchase 115 acres in the Kentucky Heights area east of town and gave the animals room to stretch out.

It took most of two years to make the transition, with the zoo animals watching workers construct the federal building before being shipped to their new location in what's today known as Hillcrest Park. Once in their new zoo, the animals watched jail inmates build additional housing for their ever-growing community.

By 1931, Clovis' new zoo already had two African lions, a mountain lion, two large Rocky Mountain brown bear, two black bear, three mule-eared black-tail deer, multiple fox, three monkeys - Joe, Betty and their unnamed baby daughter - two alligators and dozens of birds, goats, sheep and deer.

"City Park and Zoo Developing Rapidly and Have Big Future," the Clovis Evening News-Journal stated in an Oct. 19, 1931, headline.

It was quite a collection of critters for a town of 8,000 people, so small residents throughout the city reported hearing the lions roar at sundown each night.

• • •

It's often been reported the Clovis zoo got started quite by accident. One city document tells us, "Urban legend is that the zoo started in the mid 1930s when a traveling circus spent several days in Clovis doing shows. When it came time to leave, the circus owner owed money for room and board, as well as feed, to several businesses in town. The story goes that the city of Clovis took possession of several animals, including 'one lion, one bear, and one lobo' to satisfy these debts.'"

There is some evidence to support the traveling circus theory. The 1931 Evening News-Journal article tells us "the manager of the menagerie of a circus which came to Clovis recently has promised" to donate animals.

But the city zoo existed more than three years before that, and dozens of newspaper reports and other records document its residents arriving from multiple locations over the next several years.

The real architect of Clovis' zoo was R. V. Miller.

Miller's daughter, Beth Miller Nelson, wrote in family historical archives that her father started Clovis' zoo with a pair of monkeys named Joe and Betty. Nelson also wrote that Miller raised a lion cub in his home.

Nelson wrote in "Eastern New Mexico High Plains History," published in 1980, that her father homesteaded near Estancia, New Mexico, in 1912, then moved to Albuquerque, where he started a dairy farm. By 1916, Miller was a government mule buyer for the Army, stationed in Columbus, New Mexico. He arrived in Clovis in the early 1920s.

McAlavy wrote that "Miller's love for animals was a real part of his life. " He was chairman of the Bi-State Fair Horse Show in Clovis and operated Clovis Riding Academy near Bell Park, the baseball field.

While Miller's daughter wrote that he was "mostly remembered for his long-time service as fire chief," hosting firefighting seminars and speaking about fire safety to school and church gatherings, old Clovis newspapers are loaded with reports of Miller's pursuit of exotic animals for the zoo.

In 1929, Miller's uncle Henry Miller sent two groundhogs and an opossum from his home in Tennessee to live in Clovis' zoo.

In October 1930, the Clovis Lions Club purchased a deer from a man in Las Vegas, N.M., that was to be donated to Miller's zoo.

In the summer of 1933, R.V. Miller purchased two red-headed ducks "perfectly white except for their bright colored heads" from a "cross-country poultry truck," the News-Journal reported.

In the fall of 1933, the city zoo received a gray fox from Uncle Henry, two fox squirrels from a Bovina man and two red foxes from a Pennsylvania fox farm.

In the spring of 1934, a Texico man captured two badgers and donated them.

In the fall of 1935, a Portales man caught a porcupine "contentedly munching peaches" and donated it to the zoo.

Later in 1935, Clovis City Manager John Beals announced he had made a "trade" with a circus to obtain a young lion. "Monarch" was "gulping horse meat, bones and all, with a voracious appetite," the newspaper reported.

• • •

The monkeys Joe and Betty were the first stars of the city zoo.

Early in 1931, officials counted 983 visitors through the zoo in a single day, mostly to see the monkeys with their then-unnamed baby daughter. The trio had been recently moved to their new home after being transported from the Mitchell Street location.

They remained an attraction for years, their private lives sometimes the subject of coffee shop talk.

In 1935, it seems Joe's wife and daughter turned on him.

"One cold morning (zookeeper J.H. Schleuter) found Joe sitting in a pan of water, chattering disconsolately," the Clovis newspaper reported. "Betty and Betty Jo had him hemmed in and wouldn't let him out. Sympathizing with any henpecked male who isn't the master of his own home, the zookeeper moved Joe in with the coyotes."

Months later, we saw more evidence that maybe Joe wasn't the easiest guy to live with. Schleuter reported "During one of the recent rains (Joe) took keen delight in sitting in the door of the shelter and keeping two of the coyotes out in the rain."

In September 1936, a badger from a neighboring pen found its way into Joe's pen and "the monkey had the worst of the fight." It wasn't clear exactly what led to that altercation, but the newspaper surmised, "Joe, the big monkey at the city zoo, has his troubles."

Three lions were also bringing crowds by the mid-1930s. Their names were King, Queen and Monarch.

King's age was estimated "anywhere from 25 to 40" and he was toothless, but he still had some fight in him when 4-year-old Monarch arrived.

"When Monarch was turned into an adjoining cage, King tried mightily to rip with his claws the heavy wire mesh between them," the Evening News-Journal reported.

Queen's age was estimated at 10 or 12 years. She showed little interest in either of the males.

Other celebrity zoo animals have included Meanie the Lion, who enjoyed romping with the zookeeper's young grandchildren in the 1950s, Boo-Boo the bear whose favorite toy was a bowling ball in the 1990s, and Sonny the elephant, famous for his infamous desire to be free. Sonny escaped his pen and attacked his keepers so many times the city commission decided to kill him in the late 1980s. The Humane Society rescued him instead, moving him to a park in New Jersey.

• • •

Today, the city-owned Hillcrest Park and zoo is home to more than 140 acres of park land, with a splash park, picnic areas, a sunken garden that's popular for weddings and photo sessions, and a dog park, in addition to the zoo.

The zoo is home to more than 160 mammals -- about 60 different species -- and about 300 birds, according to Director Vince Romero.

The most popular attractions include Jerrica the giraffe - "Because she was born here and she's just a giant golden retriever," said zoo clerk Mary-Lou McAnulla - and a Chihuahuan raven named Joe.

Joe, who arrived at the zoo more than 15 years ago when he was just a few weeks old, is a You Tube star. (Google "talking raven Clovis zoo"). He's most famous for warning visitors "Hang man's coming."

A former keeper of Joe's is said to have been a big fan of rocker Jimi Hendrix who sang "Hey Joe ... Where you gonna go ... Ain't no hangman gonna ... put a rope around me."

Joe also barks like a dog, imitates a peacock, belly laughs and has been heard to say, "Nevermore" and "I love you, Joe."


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2020

Rendered 02/21/2021 05:21