Austin Stories B. C. – It Was a Zoo

My attempt to share stories for each letter of the alphabet featuring our life in Austin B.C. (Before Children) 1975-1985. The 70s were a long time ago. 26 stories were a stretch for my brain, so I cheated and left out X and Y, meaning I have FINALLY made it to the letter Z!

The prompt photo features a young couple.

Perhaps they are recently married and have just rented an apartment in a new city where they are looking forward to an exciting new life together.

My husband and I were not really looking for a place to live where there was “never a dull moment,” but it seems we had our share of moments while living at River Hills. There was The Clown Next Door, Breaking and Entering, and the final “moment” for us – the Bats.

But well before the bat incident, there was the guy with the cougar and the chimp and whatever else he had in his apartment.

Austin American Statesman (Austin, Tx), 21 Oct 1977

We already knew about the cougar. My husband had seen it chained up on the ground level patio of an apartment in another part of the complex. There was no fence or any kind of barrier – just a cougar that anyone could walk right up to. Besides the story in the newspaper, the owner of the cougar, Ted Wenk, was interviewed for the local news stations. I distinctly remember an emphasis by the reporters that the thieves should be very careful with the poison darts and consider turning them in.

A similar article with a different family portrait…

Austin American Statesman (Austin, Tx), 22 Oct 1977

Just a few days later, Ted was in the news again.

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 26 Oct 1977

It is hard to believe that the apartment manager didn’t know there were wild animals about. I mean, my husband saw the cougar when he was just walking around. And imagine the noise made by 40 parrots, a chimpanzee, and a cougar!

We didn’t live close to his apartment, so other than talking about the novelty and idiocy of the situation, we didn’t keep up with the guy – didn’t remember his name, didn’t know anything else about him.

I didn’t find a followup story about lawsuit over the biting chimp, but I found some other information about our former “neighbor.” Turns out, Ted Wenk had quite a story.

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 07 Sep 1978

We don’t remember anything about a renters’ strike or going without water. I guess the water issue didn’t affect our building. Ted won this case.

About a year later, someone was accused of trying to steal two black leopards from Mr. Wenk.

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 23 Oct 1979

River Hills Apartments were on streets that intersected Riverside Dr. Sometime before 1980, Mr. Wenk was keeping his animals farther out Riverside Dr. in a less populated area. It seems law enforcement may have been familiar with him, or at least with his animals. Ted denied that the big black cat was one of his.

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 21 Jun 1980

By 1982, Ted Wenk had moved east of Austin to the town of Bastrop and opened Wild World Animal Park.

Austin American Statesman (Austin TX) 28 May 1982

A few months later Ted Wenk was featured in a lengthy article about people keeping large cats as pets.

“Oh, they’re as tame as a house cat,” said Ted Wenk, owner of the Wild World of Cats near Bastrop. He owns 28 exotic cats. “But consider they are a 600-pound house cat. You step on its tail and it might disembowel you. They are big and they are mean.”

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 19 Oct 1982

I seriously don’t understand people.

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 24 Sep 1983

In early December of 1983, Ted was showing off two extremely rare white tiger cubs born at his zoo.

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 04 Dec 1983

At the end of December, Ted posed with his children and was the subject of columnist John Kelso. One might conclude that Mr. Wenk didn’t shy away from media attention.

The article included another photo, this time with a python and a baboon.

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 27 Dec 1983

Remember those rare white tigers cubs? They went missing. Were they sold? Or eaten?

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 24 Jan 1984

Wow! Another litter of rare white tigers.

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 29 Apr 1984

Things took a turn for the worse in Ted Wenk’s life. He was arrested on a drug charge … and those expensive white tiger cubs he sold to a zoo in OK turned a darker hue.

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 16 Sep 1984

The crime committed by Mr. Wenk seems not to have been as serious as first thought, but he believed he must move because he had lost community support for his zoo and he was losing money.

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 13 Nov 1984

I guess Ted changed his mind about moving. A newspaper article published in 1986 about a veterinarian mentions Ted and his zoo, located between Austin and Bastrop.

And then things really took a turn for the worse. Ted Wenk was reported missing by his 17-year-old son.

Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX) 23 Jul 1

Ted Wenk was never found. His zoo closed in disarray.

Austin American Statesman 14 Oct 1990

This isn’t the first time that I started writing a post for this series and chased the story well beyond my little memory. I don’t remember hearing about Ted Wenk’s death, or if I did, making the connection to our shared time at River Hills.

I have to say I am glad to be finished with this series. I tired of writing so many stories in a row based on my own life and not writing about the ancestors – or at least others in the family. But now a few of our stories are documented bits of family lore along side older stories.

I began with the young couple in the prompt photo and I’ll end with a photo of the young couple who were the characters in this series – my husband and me.

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Austin Stories B. C. – The Walls Went Up

My attempt to share stories for each letter of the alphabet featuring our life in Austin B.C. (Before Children) 1975-1985. The 70s were a long time ago. 26 stories might be a stretch for my brain. I am behind, but intend to make it to Z! Today I have made it to W.

After we had both completed grad school and were gainfully employed, we started itching to own a home. On weekends we would drive around neighborhoods under construction, go to open houses, and peek in windows. We looked at a lot of houses that were beyond our means, but they were fun to dream about and gather ideas.

At one open house, we approached a builder whose houses we liked in a neighborhood we liked, but they were all way too big for us. We told him we were thinking of something more along the size of the houses another builder was constructing in that neighborhood. He told us that if we liked the other guy’s houses we should get him to build one for us. No! We like your houses! Just smaller. Please?

He told us to find a plan with a square foundation and no hallways and he would see. It would need to be a plan that he could use more than once. We found a plan in a magazine that was the right size that we thought would work. He made a few changes and we agreed. We still have a sketch of how the house sat on the lot. The foundation is pretty square. And there were no hallways.

I’m not going to use the builder’s name because he is still building locally. Let’s call him Big House. The name of his company was Big House & Son. Son was about two years old at the time and the youngest of five. Yup. Four daughters, then Son. Now that “& Son” was on the company logo, they could stop having kids, we assumed. “& Son” is no longer part of the company name and it looks like one of the daughters is listed in some management role. While Big House was building a house for us, he was also building a new house for himself. He laughed and told us that our house would fit in his attic. He was a piece of work.

Although we liked his construction and many of the touches in his homes, we were not fans of the decorative selections in his spec houses. His wife was the decorator, so we made sure not to insult her and were thankful we could choose the wallpaper and flooring ourselves. I grew to understand why people say building a house can strain a marriage. Fortunately, the process took a toll on my sleep rather than our marriage as I looked through wallpaper book after wallpaper book after wallpaper book both while awake and in my dreams. We ended up with these selections. Not too tacky for the 80s, right?

We handed over a down payment in October of 1981. I don’t remember if anything happened before the end of the year, but we moved in during the spring, maybe by the end of March. Neither of us had ever watched a house go up before. I checked the progress nearly every day. It seemed like it took forever, especially toward the end.

This photo was obviously taken a few years later. Mini van in the garage. Stroller in the driveway. We still aren’t great landscapers.

Our first house

Our house seemed so big when we moved in with our apartment furniture that didn’t fill the space. The older photos show some of that apartment furniture. And the first curtains I made.

Celebrating a birthday with my husband’s parents and sister

Some photos are lopsided and barefoot and pregnant.

A random photo shows a kitchen much smaller than we are used to now – just the right size for a young Cinderella in furry teddy bear slippers to clean between nebulizer treatments for asthma. The little details in a picture like this … the lunchboxes stacked on the fridge, the tiny television that kept me company while cooking, the chair from the kid’s table and chairs inherited from my husband’s family, the dining room through the doorway that was never used as a dining room…

Some photos show sweet love and random shoes.


We eventually added a big room in the back as a playroom/sewing room as well as a nice deck to accommodate our family of five plus dog.

1995 Another birthday celebration

In 1996 we built another house in the same neighborhood. Not having a hallway or a bedroom for each kid started getting a little cramped. Now we don’t need this bigger house. Sometimes I think about moving back into our first home if it ever goes on the market again. I haven’t convinced my husband that it would be a good idea – the bathrooms are small, the kitchen is small, and so on. We don’t know what updates and changes the subsequent owners have made. Maybe they made improvements we would like. Or maybe not.

Big House used this plan two more times in our neighborhood with different roof lines. I don’t know if he built it any where else. That little three bedroom, two bath house with no hallways we paid $88,000 for would likely sell for a number in the upper six figures today.

I will end with another memory from this house. I didn’t think I would be able to match the prompt photo, but I did!

Friend’s baby on our horse

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Austin Stories B. C. – A Variety of Voices

My attempt to share stories for each letter of the alphabet featuring our life in Austin B.C. (Before Children) 1975-1985. The 70s were a long time ago. 26 stories might be a stretch for my brain. I am behind, but intend to make it to Z! Today I have made it to V.

By the time I thought of a way to incorporate the letter V into a post last weekend, it was too late to get it done. I had finally landed on the word “voices” – a pretty general idea for including some random memories as my alphabet challenge nears a conclusion.

My husband and I heard the voice of Ray Benson and the other members of Asleep at the Wheel on January 20, 1979 at the Austin Opera House, or Austin Opry House, as it was also known. They were recording the album Served Live.

What a cheap date night! $5.00! My husband took a few photos with that TLR camera I mentioned in my previous post. Some turned out better than others.

Asleep at the Wheel 20 Jan 1979 Austin Opera House

This shot of Ray Benson isn’t that great.

Ray Benson 20 Jan 1979

But he got a pretty good one of Johnny Gimble. (below the video) You can clearly hear Johnny Gimble on fiddle in the song Miles and Miles of Texas. Surely you can hear our voices too!

Johnny Gimble 20 Jan 1979 Austin Opry House. © Martin Morales


Some voices are expressed and heard through books. Graduate school kept me busy reading textbooks in the field of Social Work. I wrote a research paper evaluating a bunch of the parenting books that seemed to proliferate during the 70s – a variety of voices that confuse parents, I thought.

College and graduate school basically ruined me for reading fiction. After graduate school, it took some time to accept that I didn’t have to “learn” from every book and I really could read simply for pleasure. But … what to read? I had lost touch. I tiptoed back into fiction, depending on a recommendation of a friend for starters. Since I can be a bit of a hoarder, I was surprised that I didn’t find many books from that time still on our shelves. Maybe I was better at borrowing back then instead of the constant buying I seem to do today.

Of course, The Road Less Traveled was not fiction. I enjoyed it and bought M. Scott Peck’s next book, People of the Lie, when it came out in paperback. I was pregnant with my first child at the time. After reading about his experiences with exorcisms, I had a terrible nightmare that the baby I was carrying was possessed by the devil. My dream was so real and upsetting that I stopped reading the book and removed it from the house.

I sometimes wrote down a few quotes.

I read quite a few books by Kurt Vonnegut and saved a quote from Slapstick that resonated with me.

A couple of quotes I wrote down are rather long. A quote from The World According to Garp by John Irving about the Under Toad, for example. The undertow/Under Toad made a lasting impression on me – an image I’ve never forgotten. The same goes for quotes from The Color Purple and the image of the purple field that God doesn’t want us to ignore. I also read books by E. L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates, and Anne Tyler. I’m sure there were others.

Then babies happened, and I dropped reading for leisure again and took up books about and for children.

My husband heard the voice of John B. Anderson, an Independent candidate for president in 1980, at a rally in Austin in June of that year. A Republican from Illinois, Congressman Anderson lost some early primary elections and chose to remain in the race as an Independent, running against Ronald Reagan and incumbent Jimmy Carter.

6/1980 John B. Anderson. Photo by Martin Morales ©

I did not attend the rally with my husband, so I don’t know exactly what he heard that day. Perhaps he heard Congressman Anderson speak to women’s issues as recorded in a Nova Law Review paper entitled John B. Anderson: The Exemplary Dark Horse.

“His remarks before another crowd of women were also remarkably outsider-sensitive. He said he was proud of the fact that twenty-one of his state coordinators were women. He said he supported the women’s movement during the 1970s because it was “a vital force in our society” despite the great opposition. He told the crowd about all the particular laws that treat women in a disparaging manner. For instance, Anderson said that it was a national disgrace that approximately 3.5 million women were beaten by their husbands each year, and further, that women were only receiving fifty-nine percent of what men earned.

What would Anderson have done differently for women if he had become President? He listed ratification of the ERA as a top priority, followed by freedom of choice and making sure that poor women are able to get funding for abortions, among other things. Anderson wanted to have women treated as equals. While he opposed the draft, he thought that if men were going to be drafted, women should also be subject to the draft.”

A voice that I heard almost weekly was that of our senior pastor, Rev. Jack Heacock. He used his voice in both the pulpit and in numerous letters to public officials and letters to the editor of the newspaper.

01 Jan 1980 Austin American Statesman

01 Jan 1980 Austin American Statesman

I liked having a pastor who made me think, question, and get a little uncomfortable if the shoe fit. Not everyone felt that way. There were times when church members thought he had taken a step too far and they moved their membership elsewhere.

I got the idea for using “Voices” as the central idea of this post after returning home from the Women’s Rally at the Texas Capitol last Saturday. I gathered with thousands of other women, men, and children, to be a visible voice through numbers and to listen to the voices of those who spoke at the rally. The women I stood with in these photos are women from our church, one a pastor.

The rally came at the end of a week when my first ever letter to the editor was published in the newspaper. Sometimes, you feel like you need to use your voice.

I’ve been thinking about the circumstances of Gov. Abbott’s life and how he is uniquely situated to do so much good. He has the power of his position, of course, but there is more. Physical injuries as a healthy young man left him unable to walk and, I would assume, with other health issues. His wife is the granddaughter of immigrants from Mexico. His daughter, adopted. 

These circumstances might render him a man of compassion and an advocate for women, immigrants, people with disabilities, children in foster care, and more. Instead, he makes life more difficult at best and life-threatening at worst for those whose lives echo his personal circumstance. 

He exudes “righteous anger” as he distracts attention from his own failings, makes spurious correlations, instills fear, and utters illogical nonsense to defend his positions.

I sense a hole in his heart the size of a ballot box.

And then, this happened:

If you read the article above about our former pastor, you saw Congressman Doggett’s name mentioned from back when he was a state senator and we attended the same church. I didn’t know him, but knew where he sat. What a surprise to receive such a personal letter from him last week!

I don’t know what happens. I start writing a post about the past, meander around, end up in a place I didn’t expect – like the present, and then things circle back around again.

The woman in the prompt photo looks as though she will walk right up to you and say what is on her mind. And maybe hand you a bouquet of flowers as encouragement.

There are many ways to use your voice – in song, photography, letters, books, art, and spoken word. Please visit other bloggers who have used their voices to respond to the prompt photo. Find them here: Sepia Saturday