That One Time a Snake Escaped the Fort Worth Zoo

Heywood's take on what "Wild Fort Worth" is all about.

When my editor, Kendall Louis, told me this issue was going to be about “Wild Fort Worth,” I just assumed it was going to concentrate on its early beginnings — the 1800s, the gangsters that frequented Jacksboro Highway back in the ’40s and ’50s, or closing time at some of our local establishments. Nope.

What she had in mind were things like natural trails and zoo animals. Obviously, her definition of “wild” is a little different than mine, but being the congenial guy I am, and the fact she approves my paycheck, I’m going to concentrate on the two subjects Kendall mentioned.

Now my idea of a trail is a long path that can’t be safely navigated with an automobile. If you need to see what’s on the other end, you hike. I think that’s a pretty good description. In fact, Camp Bowie Boulevard could qualify as a trail if a maintenance crew doesn’t show up to replace or repair the thousand or so bricks that pop loose every day. Otherwise, you’d be one of the many that have had to hike along that road after a couple of blowouts.

Over the years, hiking has become more and more popular. In fact, it can become addictive. People are hiking much longer distances. That’s okay, but as you age, you’ve got to be a little more careful. Some older author, who apparently got euphoric when he hiked, wrote somewhere that returning home was the most difficult part of long-distance hiking. Well, it’s probably because he was lost.

So, if you’re older, here’s a good test to take before you venture into the wilderness for a long hike. Put your keys and your reading glasses down and walk out of the room. Wait five minutes, then try to remember where you left them. If you can’t do it, just stay home.

If wild animals are your thing, you would be hard-pressed to find a better place to see them than the Fort Worth Zoo, located in Forest Park just north of TCU. It’s one of the best zoos in the country. Check out these facts and figures. Its animal collection consists of 532 species. That includes all four great ape species, 68 endangered species, and one of the largest collections of reptiles in the world. I saw that particular collection, and I think I recognized one as some lawyer from a television commercial. That zoo has come a very long way since it was founded in 1909 with one lion, two bear cubs, an alligator, a coyote, a peacock and some rabbits. But of all the thousands of wild and exotic animals that have been on exhibit since then, the most famous resident to this day showed up in the early ’50s. Its name was Pete, who just happened to be an 18-foot, 150-pound python. As popular as this snake was with zoo patrons, Pete wasn’t wild about captivity and apparently spent some time formulating an escape plan. And on the morning of Sept. 18, 1954, thanks to a faulty door on its cage, the breakout was pulled off without a hitch.

The escape was all over the news within hours because this type of snake could supposedly squeeze a human to death and swallow them within minutes. But no one could find Pete. Over the next few days, residents in the surrounding neighborhoods wouldn’t let their children out of the house. Amon Carter put up a $500 bounty, the largest since Bonnie and Clyde. The search captured the nation’s attention, and it got crazy. Police actually followed up on some tips from people who’d consulted psychics or a Ouija board as to Pete’s whereabouts. And sightings were reported from all over the country. I think one guy in Vegas called and reported that something fitting Pete’s description was sitting next to him at a blackjack table.  

However, the drama all ended on the morning of Oct. 3 when the squealing of a monkey woke up zoo officials. When they checked it out, they found the wayward python less than 100 feet from where he escaped. Yep. Poor old Pete had been ratted out by Al, the chimpanzee. But as it turns out, his capture wasn’t the big story. About three months later on New Year’s Eve, Pete somehow gave birth to 50 white gigantic eggs. In all fairness to the zookeeper, most of them had no idea of the gender of snakes they kept. But before they rang in the New Year, Pete had already been given a new name. Patricia. She obviously had spent those 15 days on the lam just looking for a little action. Of course, the father never came forward, but what do you expect from a snake. Poor Patricia remained a single mom until she passed away in 1958.

I’m still a frequent visitor to the zoo, so if you stick around town for spring break, chances are you might bump into me if you decide to go. But if you see me out on a long hiking trail, chances are I’m lost. I’d appreciate a ride back to the house before they issue one of those pesky Silver Alerts.