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The Memphis Zoo started with Natch, a black bear tied to a tree at Overton Park that was later murdered in the middle of the night

The Memphis Zoo, now home to hundreds of animals, started off with a single black bear named Natch.
Credit: Detroit Publishing Co,

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Memphis Zoo has hundreds of animals. Spanning continents and climates, it has everything from Komodo dragons to capybaras.

However, the zoo wasn't always so diverse. The Memphis Zoo, one of the top 5 zoos in the country, started with a single black bear named Natch. 

Natch was a black bear cub that was named after his home, Natchez, Mississippi, in the early 1900's. 

As a part of a business deal, Natch was given to the Memphis Turtles, the city's professional baseball team, who would later become the Chicks.

In 1904, as the black bear grew, the team could no longer take care of him, so they took Natch to Overton Park and chained him to a tree. Eventually, a small pen was built for him.

Seeing an abandoned black bear in one of the city's major parks, Colonel Robert Galloway, one of the founders of the Memphis Park Commission, started lobbying to build a real home for Natch.

Galloway, who had been taking care of Natch out-of-pocket, presented the idea of a zoo to the Memphis Park Commission multiple times. For two years, Galloway's proposals were rejected, but on April 4, 1906, the commission allocated $1,200 to create the Overton Park Zoo.

Credit: Public Domain

The zoo had very humble beginnings. Just a few metal cages on concrete slabs displayed abandoned wildlife, Natch included.

In August of 1906, Galloway contributed $3,628 to build 23 new cages for even more animals. In the years to come, the Overton Park Zoo would continue expanding, adding more cages and more animals, eventually becoming the Memphis Zoo.

Natch, the city's first mascot, was a drawing force to the zoo, and kids loved him! They would feed the black bear peanuts, popcorn and soda, according to an article from The Commercial Appeal from April 30, 1906.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons (user: unicurse)
A plaque standing in the Memphis Zoo, dedicated to Natch, the black bear responsible for the zoo's inception.

Things didn't end happily for Natch. On January 15, 1908, he was poisoned in his cage. When his stomach was examined, a doctor found a substantial amount of arsenic in his system.

E.K. Reitmeyer, the zoo's superintendent at the time, had Natch's head sent to St. Louis to be taxidermied. Natch's stuffed head was then displayed over the entrance to the bear house. 

After years of exposure to the elements, the head lost its fur and rotted.

In a 1938 article from The Commercial Appeal, N.J. Mulroy, the zoo's then-superintendent remarked "Wouldn't it be a fine thing if we could have 'Old Natch's' head on display in a giant case and point to him with pride as the first ever animal that Overton Zoo ever had?"

Natch's legacy lives on through a plaque at the zoo. He's also gotten a second life as a mascot antagonist to Grizz, the Memphis Grizzlies' mascot. On Wrestling Nights, Natch has been the victim of a few body slams from Super Grizz.

 He's also got an unofficial Twitter account, which has its funny moments.

Natch is even featured in Memphis' local brewing scene.

Credit: Hampline Brewing Company

Hampline Brewing Company uses Natch's likeness as their official mascot. Natch is featured in different costumes on all Hampline cans, including a lager that shares his namesake. 

The Memphis Zoo hasn't forgotten Natch and their humble beginnings either. In 2002, they added black bears back to the zoo in the Teton Trek section.

They now have three black bears: Fire, River and Spring, all of them rescues.

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