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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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.