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Smokin’ Cy DeVry Was the Original Tiger King

How a cigar-chomping, bear-wrestling bricklayer became the unlikeliest celebrity-influencer of the early 20th century—and changed zookeeping forever.


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man cuddling a large cat

Photography from Chicago History Museum, Daily News collection

Two policemen shouldered their way through a mob of onlookers, following the sounds of men fighting and sea lions barking. The officers had been patrolling the Lincoln Park Zoo when they’d heard the commotion break out in the distance and set off to investigate. The zoo was popular in Chicago in 1919 — there wasn’t much else to do on a hot summer’s day. And though most had come to see the animals, this crowd was watching a different spectacle entirely.

When the officers finally got ahead of the crowd in front of the sea lion pit, they saw a sight more bizarre than any creature in the park: Cy DeVry, the head animal keeper and director of the Lincoln Park Zoo, with his sleeves rolled up, fists balled, and a foot planted atop a dazed man on the ground.

Always sporting an impressive mustache and a tiger-tooth watch fob, DeVry was well known throughout the city for his eccentricity and steadfast devotion to his animals. But now, any semblance of that caring man seemed to have disappeared. Instead, the officers and onlookers watched DeVry coil with fury, then pounce like a lion upon the hapless quarry who had dared encroach upon his home.

As the onlookers gawked and the police officers attempted to separate the two men, no one could have predicted that the scuffle would set off a course of actions that would ultimately lead to arrest, scandal, public uproar, and the controversial firing of the city’s beloved zookeeper. But with Cy DeVry, everything was dramatic.

Before arriving in Chicago, DeVry had grown up in Howard County, Nebraska. As a kid, he developed a deep connection with animals, working as a bullwhacker at the age of 12, spending his formative years driving cattle and oxen teams across the rolling plains of Nebraska.

It was during one of these drives that he had his first brush with death.

One spring day in 1876, the 17-year-old DeVry drove his cattle home to the family farm, according to History of the State of Nebraska. The oxen sounded like rolling thunder as their hooves pounded into the dirt. All the while, the young man’s whip sliced through the air, emitting gunshot cracks to spur them along.

His team fast approached a bridge outside of a local village. At the same time, a surly man named John Crummy emerged from the side of the road holding a gun. When bullets whizzed past DeVry’s head, it became clear that Crummy wanted to kill the boy. (If there was a reason for this shooting, it has since been lost to time.) Crummy’s shots struck DeVry several times. Before he could kill him, though, locals intervened and put a stop to the violence.

DeVry survived his wounds and the attempt on his life. But the experience left an indelible mark on his psyche. If he’d survived this razor-thin brush with death, who’s to say he couldn’t survive more? And if he could survive more, who’s to say he wasn’t meant for more?

man holding tiny baby orangutan

Cy DeVry holding a baby orangutan from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, circa 1903.

The opportunity to answer those questions came by way of a death more than 600 miles away.

His uncle, Herman DeVry, was one of the first superintendents of Chicago’s Lincoln Park. When he passed away in 1888, the younger DeVry made the journey from his family’s homestead out to the city to attend Uncle Herman’s funeral.

When he arrived on the streets of Chicago, the young man was greeted by soaring buildings looming over him like giants. Carriages and wagons pulled by draft horses, street vendors selling food, and the near constant hum of the cable car filled the city. Enamored, DeVry decided to stay for good, finding a job in Lincoln Park as a bricklayer.

Lincoln Park’s past as a former graveyard for the city’s poor literally burst forth from the ground when old pine coffins began floating to the top of the soil on rainy days, according to Ark in the Park: The History of the Lincoln Park Zoo by Mark Rosenthal, Carol Tauber and Edward Uhlir. Fearing for the city’s water supply, officials designated more than 100 acres of former graves to be transformed into a park.

Eventually, the city of New York gifted Chicago with two pairs of swans. That’s when the Lincoln Park commissioners decided to build a zoo.

When DeVry arrived, though, the zoo was little more than a ramshackle collection of makeshift animal cages housing a few creatures, including “two bison, four guinea pigs, three foxes [and] two squirrels,” according to an official zoo inventory.

DeVry fell in love with the few animals that called Lincoln Park home, and he wanted to do all he could to pour happiness into their lives. The place, much like himself, was young, gritty, and bursting at the seams with potential. With the right knowledge and care, there was no limit to how much they could grow together.

He pitched city commissioners on the idea of him taking care of the zoo. Despite his lack of experience handling exotic animals, DeVry won them over with his background of managing cattle. While the sudden leap to zookeeper may seem strange today, society at the time was much more cavalier about who took care of animals — and how. Not many people batted an eye when Cy DeVry, mere weeks after arriving in the Windy City, became an assistant animal keeper for the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Over the course of the next decade, the Lincoln Park Zoo grew like a jungle. DeVry quickly climbed the ranks, eventually becoming head animal keeper. With him at the helm, the park went from a handful of animals in crude cages to a world-class zoo complete with top-of-the-line enclosures and a well-curated menagerie of exotic beasts.

He even personally helped design and install hundreds of new cages and habitats for his animals, including a few that still stand today.

lion chained by family and looked at by crowd

Devry and “Senator” the lion, 1912.Image courtesy of The Continent periodical

“Cy had the opportunity to help build the aviary house and the lion house,” says Mark Rosenthal, curator emeritus for the Lincoln Park Zoo and co-author of The Ark in the Park: The Story of the Lincoln Park Zoo. “These buildings were a big advancement for the animals.”

One of DeVry’s major contributions was his role in developing a new cage system that allowed keepers to open an indoor cage while letting the animals into an outdoor cage. It’s a system that’s commonplace in modern-day zookeeping, but back then it was an innovation that inspired zoos all over the world to do the same.

“It was a big step — and Cy was there,” Rosenthal says.

During those years, DeVry also innovated other practices that are now embedded in the groundwork of modern zookeeping, such as integrated pest management (the practice of deterring rats from animal enclosures) and habitat enrichment (enhancing the quality of animal enclosures). It should be noted, however, that the way DeVry applied these practices might seem bizarre today. For example, he once placed a pig in the monkey enclosure because he worried that the animals weren’t happy enough. Though the monkeys seemed to enjoy having the pig with them, the Illinois Humane Society took issue with the practice; fearing for the pig’s well-being, they launched an investigation into the dubious enrichment tactic.

Chicagoans also took notice of DeVry — not that he was easy to miss. Over the years, he began to curate what became his signature look: a giant tiger-tooth hanging from his pocket-watch chain, an ever-present cigar between his teeth, and a bushy Sam Elliott–style mustache.

In fact, perhaps the biggest reason people flocked to the zoo wasn’t to see the new facilities and animals, but to catch a glimpse of the most exciting creature in the park: DeVry himself. The zookeeper grew notorious for his hands-on approach with the animals, often getting into the enclosures to interact with them, while visitors watched in amusement and horror.

“Zookeeping back then was very cowboy-ish,” says Rosenthal. “In Cy’s day, handling animals was a very macho profession.”

baby elephants cornered by three men

DeVry standing between two baby elephants and their animal handlers, circa 1903.

In one incident, DeVry was speaking to a crowd in front of the enclosure of a 450-pound brown bear, when the animal clawed at his foot through the bars. The zookeeper entered the bear’s enclosure armed with a rawhide whip.

As DeVry approached the bear, it swiped at his legs — its massive claws slicing into the meat of his calf like a butcher knife. The zookeeper stumbled backward, landing on the floor of the enclosure with a thud. His rawhide whip clutched impotently in his hand, he attempted to scuttle backward before the bear climbed atop him.

Spectators watched in horror as the two fought. A few women screamed. Most just looked on helplessly as the longtime zookeeper wrestled with one of the zoo’s deadliest animals.

DeVry no longer cared about saving face. Instead, he was focused on one thing: survival.

According to The Chicago Daily Tribune, DeVry made it to his feet after several minutes of struggling. When he got up, he wound his fist back and sent a haymaker across the bear’s head. As it wobbled, dazed from the blow, DeVry scurried out of the cage, where he promptly passed out from blood loss and was rushed to a doctor.

DeVry nearly bled to death but once again managed to survive. Indeed, he would live through many other such encounters over the next decade — breaking up fights between frothing hyenas with just a club and a whip; wrestling his lions into new cages; and once chasing down an escaped, rampaging elephant, attempting to capture the delinquent pachyderm himself. Eventually, he’d been bitten, mauled, scratched and clawed by nearly every animal in the park.

What could be seen as borderline recklessness on DeVry’s part was actually cunning. He knew the power of good press and what it could generate for himself and the park. That’s why he was more than willing to jump into a lion’s cage armed with nothing but a whip, or to attempt to stop a rampaging elephant by himself. He championed an ethos that many other successful showmen and entrepreneurs also hold close to their hearts: Give the people what they want.

By the turn of the 20th century, DeVry had transformed himself into a celebrity. Organizations across the country regularly invited him to lecture about zoology. Chicagoans recognized him in the park and on the street. He rubbed elbows with the likes of opera stars, heavyweight boxing champions, and even President Theodore Roosevelt.

DeVry had firmly established himself as the king of the Lincoln Park Zoo. He spent each day caring for his animals and meeting with his loyal subjects, the park visitors. On all accounts, it seemed like he really had made it. But in reality, there was a darkness shadowing his kingdom. For as frequently as he faced down dangerous creatures in the open, he more often fought with the twin demons of alcoholism and depression behind closed doors.

bear cub with ball players

Chicago Cubs baseball player George Pierce petting a bear cub while teammate Roger Bresnahan holds the cub’s leash at West Side Grounds, Chicago, 1914.

Whether it was due to the pressures of managing his zoo or his newfound celebrity status, he was prone to bouts of “melancholy,” as it was known back then. To stave off his demons, DeVry frequently turned to alcohol. His drinking got to the point that his alcoholism was something of an open secret in Chicago.

On top of this, DeVry also faced immense pressure from the city government. Chicago at the turn of the 20th century was controlled by a very powerful political machine — one with deep pockets and an even deeper influence over the city that DeVry loved so much.

But DeVry was a free spirit. He, like the animals in his zoo, was a force of nature to be reckoned with — and some city officials didn’t like that.

“When you’re powerful, popular, and think you’re untouchable, a lot of times people just want to see you fall,” Rosenthal says. “And when you make political enemies at Cy’s level, you have to be aware.”

DeVry made his first political enemies after he fired a zoo employee for refusing to work. However, the man he’d fired was connected to politicians in the city who wanted him on the payroll, according to The Ark in the Park. Those politicians took notice and began to look for excuses to let DeVry go.

The city ended up ousting DeVry from his position — for the first time — in 1900. Officials falsely reported a $177,000 deficit at the Lincoln Park Zoo, which resulted in his firing, according to Rosenthal.

After he left, the zoo suffered. Four of the five camels died, creating a deep cut in a major source of the park’s revenue: animal rides. On top of that, there was public outcry for DeVry’s reinstatement. For local citizens, DeVry was the Lincoln Park Zoo. Without him, there was little incentive to visit.

The city relented, and DeVry was reinstated the following year.

Though he was back home in his park, his struggles continued. The beloved animal keeper found his depression deepening like a crack along a fault line. Pressure from city officials, coupled with the responsibilities of managing one of the largest zoos in the Midwest, bore down on him every single day.

It all came to a head in 1901, when one of the park’s lions bit DeVry’s hand. Though the zookeeper was no stranger to animal bites, this one resulted in the partial loss of his index finger.

According to The Ark in the Park, the wound failed to heal properly. A doctor told the zookeeper that if his condition didn’t improve, his hand would need to be amputated. DeVry was despondent. He needed both of his hands to be able to work effectively. And if he couldn’t do that, then what was the point? Faced with this potentiality, DeVry decided that it might be better not to continue at all.

After the doctor’s grim diagnosis, the zookeeper went home, took out a loaded gun, pointed the barrel to his head, and pulled the trigger.

DeVry miraculously survived the suicide attempt. But the situation strained his personal life and deteriorated his relationships with the people around him. His fiancée broke off their engagement in the wake of the suicide attempt, adding insult to injury.

But DeVry was a survivor. He had survived being shot in the plains of Nebraska. He had survived being mauled by lions and bears. And now, he was determined to survive his demons by doing the one thing that kept him going every single day: taking care of his zoo.

It went this way for years. DeVry got into more entanglements with his animals and city officials chagrined by his antics, and the public loved every second of it.

During this time, he met a woman named Mary E. Cowles. The park’s elephant had thrown dirt on her, and after inviting Cowles back to the zoo for a personal tour and an apology, DeVry fell in love with her. The two were married in 1903.

enclosed bear eyeing woman

Mrs. Cy DeVry standing near the fence of a bear enclosure at the Lincoln Park Zoo, 1907.

In the years that followed, DeVry also took up a new hobby: protecting the women of the park from the scourge of “mashers” — men who publicly harassed women.

“I only reach into the crowd, grab them by the collar, and let them have two or three short jabs,” DeVry told the Tribune. “I am getting tired of taking cases to the police and I intend to give them a few hard jolts and kick them out [of the zoo.]”

Though DeVry’s actions were well intentioned — noble even — the city eventually seized upon them as opportunity to rid themselves of DeVry for good, after an incident in which his punches nearly sent a man to the hospital.

The fateful day was June 15, 1919. As guests enjoyed their Sunday afternoon at the zoo, DeVry noticed a young man — later identified as Charles P. Hacht — harassing and “pinching unattended women.”

The sight enraged the zookeeper, according to the Tribune. So, after taking off his coat and rolling up his sleeves, he walked toward Hacht like a lion stalking his prey.

“I was standing beside the sea lion pit at about 4 o’clock. I noticed a man in front of me making sights to women near him, and then all of a sudden I saw a big man, coatless, approach rapidly. He asked a woman next to the man if she knew him. When she said no, the big man began to beat him,” said one witness.

A haymaker from DeVry sent Hacht sprawling onto the ground, and a crowd began to form around them.

Soon, two police officers emerged, as Hacht attempted to escape from underneath the zookeeper’s feet. He arose with “his chin encountering Cy’s fist about midway,” according to the Tribune.

The officers intervened and separated the two men. Later, Hacht claimed that DeVry had attacked him without cause. One of the responding officers said that DeVry had tried to punch him as well.

The police charged DeVry with disorderly conduct, while Hacht pressed charges for assault and battery.

Whatever the truth was, the city finally had a reason to get rid of DeVry for good. They suspended him from his job, pending his trial for assault.

This marked the opening salvo of DeVry’s final days in Chicago. He was about to come face-to-face with his fiercest enemy yet: Chicago politicians.

Soon after the incident with Hacht, DeVry was taken into custody and jailed for weeks while the trial raged on.

In court, Hacht claimed that DeVry had attacked him in a drunken rage. However, DeVry claimed that he had been completely sober — testimony later revealed that he’d consumed “a lone bottle of ale, taken at 11 o’clock in the morning,” according to the Tribune.

A witness described DeVry as belligerent, shouting a litany of swear words with the sour stench of “liquor on this breath.”

“The man I saw was intoxicated,” the witness attested. “I’m sure, and I wouldn’t recognize him in any other condition.”

Meanwhile, the city was in an uproar. Chicagoans couldn’t believe that their beloved zookeeper was in jail for a noble act. On top of that, they were angry at the prospect that they’d lose him again — this time forever. More than 50,000 signatures were gathered demanding that DeVry be reinstated to the Lincoln Park Zoo, according to an article in the Tribune.

Eventually, a verdict came. After deliberating for less than five minutes, the jury freed DeVry, giving him a “clean bill of health and character.” But that left the matter to the civil service commission trial held by the Lincoln Park Board of Commissioners, which would decide the zookeeper’s ultimate fate.

DeVry was distraught. Not only could he lose his job — he might also lose the animals and zoo he had poured his soul into.

“It has been the toughest three weeks in sixty years,” DeVry told the Tribune. “Since I was suspended from the park I have not seen one of my [animals]. If their testimony could be introduced, I would be easily cleared of the charges.”

Unfortunately, his beloved animals wouldn’t judge his fate. That was up to the park board of commissioners.

“We recognize Cy’s picturesque character and appreciate the fact that he has brought lots of free advertising to the Lincoln Park Zoo,” said a city commissioner. “I don’t see how we can take him back without spoiling the discipline of the rest of the park employees.”

The park board fired DeVry for good. In a bittersweet twist, movie producer Col. William Selig offered him the chance to helm another zoo — this one in Los Angeles.

The job paid more and it gave DeVry the opportunity to work with and handle animals in the burgeoning motion picture business. But Chicago and the Lincoln Park Zoo were his home.

“This is my family,” DeVry said, according to The Ark in the Park. “It’s going to be hard to leave them. Why, most of ’em I’ve brought up from the time they were babies. I’m proud of this zoo. … I hate to leave it.”

But in 1919, after 31 years in the city where he’d built his unique life, DeVry and his wife packed up their belongings and headed west.

Newspaper clip from the Rock Island Argus announcing the dismissal of Cy Devry on July 26, 1919.

Things went well for DeVry in Los Angeles — at least for a while.

The Selig Zoo Park boasted “over seven hundred different species” and was “a big hit with local residents and tourists,” according to HuffPost. Though he planned to develop it into a large tourist attraction (a sort of proto-Disneyland), those plans never came to fruition. In fact, the zoo regularly struggled to draw the kinds of crowds that DeVry was used to in Chicago.

When World War I hit, the zoo fell on hard times. The demand for the jungle films featuring Selig and DeVry’s animals declined in popularity as the international film market took a hit, which meant Selig lost a massive portion of his income. By 1923, he had auctioned off his movie studio along with the zoo.

DeVry would never be a zookeeper again, and not much else is known about his life after this. Census records show that he had become a gas station attendant by 1930. He died a few years later, in 1934.

But what we do know is this: There once lived a man named Cyrus Bernard DeVry who came to Chicago because of a death but stayed because he wanted to give life to the animals of the zoo and the city around him. In doing so, he and the zoo grew into something so much bigger than anyone could have possibly dreamed.

And while he spent his final days in California, his heart was always clear across the country, past the rolling plains of Nebraska, on the shores of Lake Michigan, in a city that had welcomed him as one of their own, surrounded by animals in the zoo that he called home.

Tony Ho Tran is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Playboy, HuffPost and The Chicago Defender. He’s likely planning a Dungeons & Dragons session right now. He lives in Chicago — the greatest city in the world.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published November 25, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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