Butch the Lion at the Hayti Zoo

Susie and Vee (2)

Hayti had a zoo? Improbable as that seems today, it really did. When I was a kid, I loved nothing better than going to a zoo. I was always fascinated by animals and loved seeing them. It didn’t occur to me then what their life in a cage must be like, and my enjoyment was unalloyed. It seemed to me that every town should have a zoo, so it seemed to me that Hayti was on the right track and Kennett was behind the times.

A trip to the Hayti zoo was a treat, even though it couldn’t compare to the Memphis zoo. Still, you could see some monkeys, some deer, raccoons, and you could smell the skunk, though you couldn’t see him. There was a black bear named Susie. A sign on her cage said “Susie eats Wonder Bread”. My dad said the bakery probably donated the stale bread they couldn’t sell.

Butch Portrait (2)And there was Butch the lion. That’s how it all started, I’m told, but my knowledge of the beginning is all second hand — before my time. My story comes at the end.

What I’ve heard is that a man acquired the lion as a cub and kept it as a pet. He used to carry it around with him in his truck. When it got too big for him to keep, the good people of Hayti somehow got the idea for a zoo. In 1958 Butch became the property of the City of Hayti. I was told that the original owner would visit him and wrestle with him. I also heard that Dr. Moore, the veterinarian, had his shirt ripped off by Butch.

Folks say you could hear him roaring all over town, and from Butch the lion the town of Hayti grew a zoo.

Fast forward to September of 1979. It was my second year out of veterinary school, and I had moved home after my first year spent in Pocahontas, Arkansas. I got a call from the city of Hayti asking if I would take a look at Butch, as he wasn’t doing well.

In those days, we had the idea that a veterinarian ought to be ready and willing to look at any living creature under man’s dominion. Referral to a specialist wasn’t a ready option in our rural area, so “stepping out of your comfort zone” was part of the territory on a regular basis. And we’re talking about working on a lion – how cool is that? Of course I would take a look at Butch.

Doc and Vee consult (2)When I arrived at the park in Hayti, I met Vee Holland. Vee had been the city employee who cared for the zoo until he retired. He continued to take care of the zoo without pay in his retirement. The city wasn’t exactly flush with cash, and they weren’t investing in the zoo. In fact, they city council had proposed closing it a few years earlier. This was politically unpopular. I’m not sure if there were mobs with torches and wooden pitchforks, but I heard they hung the mayor in effigy. At any rate, the city government backed down in a hurry from the “save our lion” folks. Despite budget woes and the impracticality of maintaining the zoo, getting rid of Butch was political suicide. Ignoring his health was getting unhealthy, too.

Cage front (2)One investment that they had made was to put a chain link fence around the building to separate Butch from his admirers. Butch lived in a concrete block building that could be heated in winter, and had a fan for summer. There was a repurposed jail cell on the front where he could get fresh air and be admired. When I had visited as a kid, you could stand at the cage bars and stick your hand right inside, had you been so foolish. I knew a girl who got spattered with lion urine as she was admiring Butch. Spectators were safe from that now.

Butch was supposed to be about 22 years old (which I learned was pretty old for a lion in any zoo, even a big metropolitan zoo). He was very thin, and lethargic. There were some skin tumors on his face. Vee told me that he wouldn’t eat anything but beef kidneys. He offered Butch other things, but he had no interest in anything else. There was a packing house in Wardell at that time and Vee drove there himself to get them. They supplied the kidneys at no charge, which was a win for the city, but hardly a balanced diet for Butch.

Butch at ease (2)


As you might guess, we hadn’t spent any time on lion medicine in veterinary school. Fortunately, I had two good resources. As a student, I had spent two months with Dr. R.E. Hertzog, who cared for the animals in the Kansas City Swope Park Zoo. The veterinarian in residence at the Memphis Zoo was Dr. Mike Douglas, a native of Senath, and he was always happy to help me when I had an exotic animal question. They helped me put together a plan of treatment.

I was surprised that I couldn’t just present the treatment plan and estimated cost. I did that, but then they had to have a special city council meeting to approve it. After the earlier brouhaha, nobody wanted to be the point man on a decision affecting Butch. As Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or we shall surely hang separately.” Nobody wanted to be hung, not even in effigy.


Vee was really glad to be doing something for Butch. He was very attached to him. He cared for all the animals (which was Butch, Susie and two monkeys now), but Butch was special.

Butch drinks (2)

Butch and Vee (2) Back Door (2) Back door roar (2) 

 

 

 

Butch would drink out of a garden hose for him, and Vee would reach through the bars to pet him. Vee encouraged me to pet Butch, but I let discretion be the better part of valor.

 

 

We started treatment with anti-inflammatories for his arthritis, nutritional supplements to balance his diet, and anabolic steroids to stimulate appetite and weight gain. When it was time to give him injections, I used a syringe on the end of a pole. Injection (2)

Butch responded to treatment. His appetite and condition improved and I felt pretty good about myself as a lion doctor. Everybody was happy. It was a short-lived success, though.

I didn’t hear anything for a couple of months, and assumed that “no news is good news”. That was not correct. The next call came in December. Butch “wasn’t doing well”. An understatement, if there ever was one.

When I arrived, Butch was prostrate. He hadn’t been able to rise for a couple of days, much less eat anything. This was the first time I had actually entered the cage with him. He was much thinner than the first time I saw him. Too much time lying down on the concrete had put his skin in bad shape even before he got down and out. Now he was lying in his own filth. Vee was doing his best to keep things clean, but it was an untenable situation. It was obvious that it was time to euthanize him and end his suffering. Obvious to me, that is.

Last day (2)

I couldn’t just go ahead and do it. First I had to write a letter detailing my findings so that the city council could have a special meeting and vote on what action to take. At least they called a special meeting for that night so that Butch only had to suffer one more day.

The next day, I returned and entered the cage for the second and last time. Butch glanced at me, but didn’t move. I didn’t think he could move at all, but I found out differently. Although he couldn’t rise, he could raise his tail. His paintbrush of a tail swooped up and struck me full in the face, covering face and eyeglasses with stale lion urine and dirt. I couldn’t see a thing until I washed up in his water bowl.

Liver tumor (2)I was able to give him the injections and complete the euthanasia without further mishap. A post-mortem examination revealed a large tumor in his liver. I took it back to the office to measure and weigh it. It weighed three pounds. Hard to say how long it had been growing, but it was almost certainly the cause of his decline months earlier. The rest of his remains were buried in front of his cage.

 

Butch clippingA week or so later, there was a little story in the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper noting Butch’s passing. Some of the details were garbled, but that’s nothing new in the newspaper business. The next day, I got a telephone call from a man named Bert Dickey. He identified himself as the original owner of Butch (though I had never heard his name from anyone in Hayti). According to Bert, the city was supposed to return Butch to him if they ever got rid of him, and he wanted to know what happened. I gave him the story, and then he wanted to take possession of the remains. Apparently, he wanted a trophy to display. I tried to explain the miserable condition of Butch’s hide, and that it would have been nothing desirable even if it hadn’t been buried and decomposing already. Then he wanted to know if I had taken his teeth for a souvenir (a man with no knowledge of animal dentistry – you cannot imagine how hard that would be). I referred him to the city council and heard no more from him.

Yeah, Hayti had a zoo – it started with a lion named Butch. Butch roars (2)

19 thoughts on “Butch the Lion at the Hayti Zoo

  1. Todd Nettleton says:

    This is Todd Nettleton. Thank you so much for this! It really means a lot to see these pictures and read this story, from someone that has lived their entire life in Hayti and the fact that Butch was actually my earliest memory. Thanks again for finding these and thanks to Leah for asking about them for me!

  2. K Hamlet says:

    Loved hearing this story! Vee was a great family friend & a man with a heart ❤️ of gold. Vee was truthfully not appreciated or praised enough by the citizens of Hayti. Oh, what I would only give to be able to sit out at the park & talk with him again! So knowledgeable & such a special caring man…?

  3. Phyllis Smith Dambach says:

    I remember Butch, Susie, and the monkeys. We lived in Hayti until I was in the sixth grade and went to church on the corner across from the park and cemetery. Back then we had no air conditioning in the church so windows were raised. We often times heard Butch roaring during service! The church was converted to a home years later. When we tell of the “zoo,” I am usually given skeptical looks so thanks for verifying another part of my childhood!

  4. Tina Holland Clevenger says:

    Thank you for this my grandfather was a very speacil man. An interesting fact or two I would like to share Mack the monkey was given to my grandfather not the zoo he arrived at the park in a sailor suit and diaper. When the zoo was closed he finished his days in my grandparents back yard. Also the packing company that supplied the food for butch was Pemiscot Packing owned by Wayne myracle not sure of spelling my father Wayne Holland worked on Mr.Myracles big trucks also Crossed Big Star in Hayti donated almost all the rest of the food for animals. I’m very proud to be his grandchild Thankyou again. Tina Holland Clevenger

  5. Rhonda Beck says:

    I remember when I was 6 yrs old going to the park all the time and seeing all the animals. I was in aww, and spent many hours there. I lived on the south end of town and could hear Butch roaring. Butch was always a huge attraction when the city would host the 4th of July activities each year. Thank you so much for bringing a piece of my childhood back to the surface of being a kid from Haiti MO.

  6. Karen Barkovitz Hunt says:

    Thank you for Blessing us with this! I grew up blocks away from Butch in the Reed Addition. His daily roar was my alarm clock. These pictures are precious to those of us who knew him! I never knew what happened to him & had always wondered. Thank you for this closure.

  7. Margie Brown says:

    I for one[as a child] had the privilege of visiting with Butch the lion,Susie,the bear,and later with the monkeys,Max and Mable. Also the beautiful view of those gourges peacocks. Yes,Hati had a great zoo years ago.Loved spending time there,then.

  8. Terry Carnell says:

    Yes I remember my name is Terry Carnell and yes you could hear him all over town it was awesome and sad the day you come no longer hear him I love this story thanks for sharing I sure miss the good olé days

  9. Mary Ann Hensley says:

    When I was young my Aunt used to take us to the zoo once or twice a month. We had fun going to see Butch and Susie I am glad I had the chance to be apart of the Hayti zoo memories.

  10. Marie Williams says:

    I often walked to the park,with my sister’s and brothers. We always visited the animals,though it was a small zoo ,in this small zoo there was a small monkey,I would always race to the fence cage, looking for the monkey.I wanted to feed the monkey.at some point I believe it became my friend and look for me all the same. My memory of Hayti Zoo.

  11. George Merrell IV says:

    My mother took me to the park the day they brought Butch to Hayti. He was the size of a large dog. He arrived in the back of a truck like FedEx. Martin Ray was the person I remember handling Butch with Mr. Holland. I remember being amazed that Martin would get in the cage with Butch. Hearing Butch roar was just part of living in Hayti. The zoo was a great novelty. There was a sign stating the zoo in Hayti was the only one between St. Louis and Memphis.

  12. Linda Williamson says:

    I too remember the Hayti Zoo and I want to thank you for sharing the information on Butch. Our school, R-3 McCarty was visiting the zoo the first time I heard a lion roar. Fifty years later every time I hear a lion roar I think of Butch.

  13. J.D. Braswell says:

    In the 50’s and 60’s my wife’s Uncle Bob Sherwood cared for the lion and bear at the North Park Hayti zoo. My father in law E.A. Sherwood would have us drive by and visit Bob’s lion. Sweet memories.

  14. James Alexander says:

    One of the very best memories I have of growing up in Hayti; Butch the Lion….his roar will be heard no more….

  15. Sheila Brewer Keene says:

    I remember going to the park, in Hayti, Missouri, as a little girl. I remember Butch, the lion. I, also, took my daughter and son down there…but, by the time they came along, there was very few animals left there. If I remember, correctly, Butch is buried there and has a tombstone.

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