Tupelo had cool zoo thanks to Dr. Warner, Mayor Ballard

Floyd “Doc” Warner, right, holds the head of a Reticulated Python, which are often called Regals. The reticulated python (Python reticulatus) is a species of python found in Southeast Asia. It is widely regarded as the world's longest snake and longest reptile, but is not the most heavily built (although it is among the four heaviest). Second from right is City of Tupelo Mayor James Ballard.

Floyd and Bobbie Warner came to Tupelo in the mid- 1950s. “Doc” as he liked to be called, had been an animal trainer at the Birmingham Zoo.

He had also previously worked with Ringling Brothers Circus and the Hagenbeck Show, Germany’s largest show. Carl Hagenbeck (June 10, 1844 – April 14, 1913) was a German merchant of wild animals who supplied many European zoos, as well as P. T. Barnum.

City of Tupelo Mayor James Ballard liked the idea of Tupelo having a zoo, so lured Doc to the Gum Tree City and the two became quick friends. They called it the Airlane Zoo and it was located on the fairgrounds property (where Fairpark is today).

Doc, who was born in 1885, had traveled to Tupelo one time earlier to perform, with his lions, during the Mississippi-Alabama Fair in 1917. The zoo had a miniature gorilla, puma, elephant, emu, snow leopards, lions, three black bears, several chimpanzees, Sumatran Tiger and more. There were also more common place animals like deer and geese.

Warner and Ballard worked tirelessly seeking donations of money, building supplies and food. Mid-South Packers often supplied left over pork parts for the carnivores.

One contributor of money was Abe Plough, head of Plough Inc., Memphis. He gave $3,000 to purchase a young elephant. Abe, who was born in Tupelo, led a research-based pharmaceutical product manufacturer, who hit the big time by creating products like Dr. Scholl’s foot powder and St. Joseph children’s aspirin.

Bob Kenney, who was a teenager at the time, helped out around the zoo and found out quickly it wasn’t all fun and games. The gorilla grabbed his wrist one day, Doc had to spray the ape with the hose to get him to turn loose. Another day, the elephant reached under the cage with her trunk and grabbed Bob’s ankle. Then when feeding the animals a deer with a huge rack charged the soon-to-be magician.

Doc was not immune to trouble either — he fell backwards on a black-maned lion “Roger.” That lion didn’t get him but the lionesses went crazy, flipping on and off the animal trainer, scarring up his arm. The seasoned zoo man just asked for some cobwebs to seal his wounds.

The zoo also was given a another cantankerous lion “Sheba” from Clyde Beatty, who held his famous circus in town. A famous European lion tamer came to town and wanted in the cage with Sheba. Doc warned him “Don’t turn your back on her.” He did. The lion climbed right up his back, chewed and clawed him seriously. He lived, but never asked to get in the cage with “Sheba” again.

The elephant went too far one day, killed a spectator and had to be put down. She is buried on the Fairpark property, most likely under the CDF parking lot.

The zoo, which charged 15¢ admission, needed more space and more money. Ballard was still in Warner’s corner, trying to build a bigger and better zoo close by.

Of course, not all were thrilled by that prospect. It didn’t happen. Eventually the bigger animals were sold to other zoos, some local folks took on some of the smaller animals and by 1966 the zoo was just about gone.

Doc died here in Tupelo in 1967. His obit or gravesite could not be found.

Publisher’s note: A special thanks to Bob Kenney, a retired magician, who still makes his home in Tupelo. Bob is always helping the Lee County Courier and is also a good friend of mine. — Jim Clark courierL@bellsouth.net

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