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The North Dakotan who loved animals and created his own circus and zoo

Curt Eriksmoen's "Did You Know That" column shares the story of Gene Holter, who grew up in Jamestown and went on to train animals that frequently appeared in TV shows and movies.

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FARGO — According to popular motion pictures, Dr. Doolittle had the ability to talk to all kinds of animals. It appears that there was also a North Dakotan who had that same ability.

Gene Holter, who was born in Valley City and grew up in Jamestown, trained many animals to do all kinds of tricks. Animals he trained appeared in countless movies and television shows. He also established his own traveling circus and owned the Movieland Animal Park, the country’s largest private zoo.

Eugene Wayne Holter was born Nov. 22, 1922, in Valley City, to Carl and Anna (Zaun) Holter. Carl, who was born in Norway, was a salesman for an implement company. While Gene was still a youngster, the family moved to Jamestown where his parents ran “a small grocery store and meat market” and also operated a farm on the highlands just northeast of the city.

“At a very early age Gene would catch and train everything from squirrels to eagles. Gene’s career with animals began when he staged shows for neighbors with a team of boxing cats.”

Gene graduated from Jamestown High School in 1941 and, for the next eight years, worked at several different jobs and activities, most of them relating to animals. He was a taxidermist, a horse buyer, an auctioneer and, according to his obituary, Gene was also a champion rodeo rider. “Before he was 21, he had won more stock rodeo events than any cowboy in the country.”

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After suffering a number of broken bones, Gene quit the rodeo and concentrated on training animals. He trained donkeys to participate in baseball, basketball and polo games, and also trained ostriches and camels to compete in races. People paid money to watch these competitions and with that money, Gene purchased more animals. In 1949, he made his most expensive purchase, a zebra stallion that could be ridden.

In October 1949, Holter made national news when it was reported that he had “discovered a wild herd of dwarf cattle in a lost canyon.” He told the press that he spotted the cattle on a flying trip to purchase horses and that he later returned to the canyon in a helicopter and rescued five of the animals. Holter said that many animals remained and he planned to return at a later date to rescue the rest of the herd.

Veterinarians visited his ranch near Jamestown and verified that the cattle were dwarfs, measuring only 26 to 28 inches in height. It was the kind of story that even P. T. Barnum would have been envious of. In actuality, Holter had purchased those five miniature animals at the Billings, Mont., stockyards for $157. The editorial board of the Fargo Forum was skeptical of this claim and, within a few days, had tracked down the Billings purchase of the cattle. On Jan. 1, 1950, The Forum reported that the fourth most significant North Dakota story of 1949 was the dwarf cattle hoax.

At first, Holter was nervous because this story received far greater coverage than he had anticipated. Rather than people being angry about the hoax, the national publicity of the story piqued people’s curiosity and they flocked to Holter’s farm to see the dwarf cattle. In just two years, the $157 investment for the cattle grossed over $100,000.

Find out more about North Dakota and its history with a new "Did You Know That?" column from Curt Eriksmoen each week.

Gene and Carl decided to sell their Jamestown farm and move to California where they would have a longer season to put on their shows and where they could attract larger crowds. In 1951, the two Holter families purchased a 55-acre ranch near the town of Bloomington, located about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. Gene married Margaret Reeck on Feb. 10, 1948.

After the Holters left North Dakota, the city of Jamestown expanded into the area where the former Holter farm was located and city officials named this new residential area “Holter Heights.”

Once Holter got settled on his ranch, he began lining up engagements for his “Wild Animal Shows.” With the acquisition of more exotic animals, especially the larger cat species, he became friends with a man who was an expert on animals in show business. Clyde Beatty was America’s foremost authority on capturing and training large wild animals. He was the country’s most famous lion tamer and owned his own circus. He often also provided wild game animals for motion pictures. With Beatty’s assistance, Holter was able to greatly improve and expand his enterprise.

By the mid-1950s, Holter had become one of the largest suppliers of animals for movies and television shows. The TV shows included "Superman," "Mister Ed," "Lassie," "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Walt Disney Presents." Disney also used Holter’s animals for several of his motion pictures. Holter was hired to be an animal trainer for several movies and often appeared in films as a stunt double, especially in movies where an actor appears to be riding a camel or elephant.

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Because a large number of his animals, about 500, had appeared on television and in movies, Holter named his ranch in Bloomington the “Gene Holter Movieland Animal Park” where he conducted shows exhibiting different animal acts. Holter also had a race track in his park where camel races and ostrich races were held. The park also had a petting zoo, containing about 100 different animals, where children could actually pet the animals.

Even though Holter was busy with television, motion pictures and shows at the park, the activity that consumed most of his time and energy involved his traveling shows or circuses. Each year, he put on about 200 performances all over the country, lasting from April to November.

Much of his time during the winter months were spent supervising the training of the animals. Animals that were too old to travel the next year were often sold to zoos. While traveling to shows and other related businesses, Holter averaged 60,000 miles a year in his personal automobile.

During his years as a showman, there were two events that made national news. In 1953, he was able to produce the world’s first crossbreed animal that was half donkey and half zebra. Holter called this new animal a “zonkey.”

In 1967, Holter’s famous hippopotamus, Herman the Hippo, wandered off from the Movieland Park and was reported missing. He was found days later, 15 miles away, happily nestled in a large mud hole.

In 1969, Holter sold his ranch to another animal trainer who also provided animals for movies and television. Holter died of cancer on March 3, 1971.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com.

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