Ever since The Tiger King’s Joe Exotic popped up on our Netflix screens, the world has been obsessed. After all, he is one colorful character. The words “Tiger King” started showing up everywhere. He was and still is the talk of the (virtual) town. But what most people don’t know is that there was once another Tiger King – the original one.
His name was Cy DeVry. Yes, the name is a little strange, and it might have something to do with the fact that he was born in 1859 (as Cyrus Barnard DeVry). DeVry was a cigar-smoking, animal-wrestling bricklayer who became the eccentric zookeeper of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo between 1888 and 1919. The man established himself as a celebrity, and his influence can be seen to this day. But his time as the King of the Zoo cast a dark shadow over his kingdom.
This is the real Tiger King’s story.
Let’s begin with this scene: Picture a hot, summer day in Chicago in 1919. Two policemen are pushing their way through a crowd of onlookers at the Lincoln Park Zoo, trying to find the source of the sounds of men fighting and sea lions barking. The officers were already patrolling the zoo when they heard a commotion.
The zoo, a popular spot in Chicago at the time, was a place to spend the afternoon on a hot summer’s day. But while most people came to see the animals, this crowd was being entertained by another spectacle entirely. By the time the officers managed to shoulder their way through the crowd, they witnessed a bizarre scenario.
In front of the crowd and ahead of the sea lion pit was a sight a tad stranger than any creature you would find in the zoo. The head animal keeper and director of the zoo, Cy DeVry, had his sleeves rolled up, his hands in fists, and one of his feet planted onto a stunned man lying on the ground.
For those who knew him, it wasn’t such a bizarre sight. He was a character – always wearing an impressive mustache and a tiger-tooth watch. He was known throughout the city for his peculiar devotion to the animals of his zoo. But in this scenario, that caring man wasn’t here. Rather, his inner beast showed up.
The officers and the mob of onlookers watched as DeVry twisted with fury and pounced like a lion onto the unfortunate man who dared to anger the ruler of the zoo. The officers tried to separate the two men, but none of the onlookers could have predicted that this scuffle they were witnessing would set off the series of events that followed.
What followed that fight ultimately led to arrest, scandal, public upheaval, and the firing of the city’s cherished zookeeper, who had served in the role for 31 years. But then again, everything that happened to and around Cy DeVry was dramatic. And his life could be explained by his upbringing…
Before he settled in Chicago, DeVry was living in the place he grew up in, Nebraska’s Howard County. He was young when he developed a deep connection with animals. He worked as a bullwhacker when he was 12 years old, spending his coming-of-age years driving cattle and oxen teams across the state’s rolling plains.
Just as the work formed him into the man he became, so did his brush with death that occurred to him on one of those drives. It was a spring day in 1876 when 17-year-old DeVry was driving his cattle home to the family farm.
DeVry’s incident, which was recorded in the History of the State of Nebraska’s archives, nearly took his life. As he was taking his cattle to the farm, with the oxen’s hooves sounding like rolling thunder, DeVry cracked his whip to move the animals along.
He came up to a bridge outside of a local village. A grumpy man by the name of John Crummy stepped onto the path from the side of the road. He was holding a gun. Suddenly, bullets were whizzing past DeVry’s head, and it became clear: Crummy wanted the boy dead.
Of course, you’re wondering why the heck is this man trying to shoot and kill a teenage boy who’s just trying to bring his cattle home? Unfortunately, the man’s reason for shooting has long been lost. Either way, Crummy fired and hit his mark. Several bullets hit DeVry.
But before he was able to kill the boy, locals intervened and managed to stop the violence. Luckily, DeVry survived his wounds. As you can imagine, though, the whole experience left a permanent mark on him, and not just physically. He survived that brush with death, but what if there would be more?
And if he were to survive other near-death experiences, who’s to say he wasn’t meant for more? Meanwhile, 600 miles away, his uncle Herman DeVry became one of the first superintendents of Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Once he passed away in 1888, DeVry had a reason to head over there.
It was then that Herman’s nephew made the journey from the family farm to the Windy City, but the purpose was to attend Uncle Herman’s funeral. As soon as DeVry arrived on the streets of Chicago, he was awed by its soaring buildings that stood like giants.
He saw carriages and wagons being pulled by horses and food being sold by street vendors. He heard the endless hum of cable cars filling the city. Captivated by the exciting city, DeVry decided to stay in Chicago for good. And his first mission was to find a job.
DeVry found work right away as a bricklayer in Lincoln Park, which was formerly a graveyard for the city’s poor. The park’s past literally erupted out of the ground when old wooden coffins started floating to the top of the soil on especially rainy days.
According to Ark in the Park: The History of the Lincoln Park Zoo, fearing for the city’s water supply, city officials designated over 100 acres of graveyard land to be transformed into a park. Once the city of New York presented Chicago with a pairs of swans as a gift, the park’s commissioners decided to make it into a zoo.
By the time DeVry arrived, the zoo was in its initial stages – little more than a rickety collection of makeshift cages holding very few animals, including “two bison, four guinea pigs, three foxes, and two squirrels,” according to the zoo’s official inventory.
DeVry, however, was enamored by it all. He instantly fell in love with the animals that now had Lincoln Park as their home. All DeVry wanted was to make their lives better. It was as though he was the right person at the right place at the right time.
Like the zoo, DeVry was young, gritty, and full of potential. With the right amount of sun and water – or knowledge and care – there was really no limit as to how much they could grow in unison.
DeVry then pitched an idea to the city’s commissioners to let him manage the zoo. Although the young man had no experience handling exotic animals, he managed to win them over with one thing – his background in handling cattle.
Today, such a leap into zookeeping would likely not happen so hastily, but society in those days was a lot more careless when it came to animals and who should take care of them and how (just think of the days of the circus…). And so, most people didn’t seem to care that this new guy became assistant animal keeper for the freshly formed Lincoln Park Zoo.
Over the following decade, leading up to the turn of the century, the Lincoln Park Zoo grew like a jungle. DeVry quickly went from assistant animal keeper to head animal keeper. With him at the wheel, the zoo’s handful of animals in makeshift cages turned into a world-class zoo.
The enclosures were top-of-the-line enclosures, and the zoo was well-curated with a variety of exotic creatures. DeVry himself helped design and install hundreds of new cages as well as the habitats for his animals. Some of them are still standing today, by the way.
DeVry really did have the animals’ best interest at heart. According to Mark Rosenthal, the curator of the zoo and co-author of The Ark in the Park: The Story of the Lincoln Park Zoo, Cy helped build the aviary house and the lion house. “These buildings were a big advancement for the animals.”
One of DeVry’s biggest contributions was developing a new cage system that gave keepers the ability to open an indoor cage while also letting the animals into an outdoor cage. It’s the same system that modern-day zookeepers use.
The only thing is that back then, his idea was an innovation that inspired zoos around the world to do the same. “It was a big step, and Cy was there,” Rosenthal stated. During his reign, DeVry innovated other practices that are now commonplace in modern zookeeping.
For instance, practices like pest management (deterring rats from animal enclosures) and habitat enrichment (enhancing the quality of the enclosures) were new in DeVry’s era, but today they’re conventional. Now, while his ideas were new and enduring, his reasons might be seen as bizarre today.
The way DeVry applied these new practices back then were, let’s say, a little unheard of. Take this example: He once placed a pig in the monkey pen because he felt that the animals just weren’t happy enough.
At first, the monkeys seemed to enjoy having a pig with them, but soon enough, the Illinois Humane Society took issue with it. They were more worried about the pig’s well-being and thus launched an investigation into the suspicious “enrichment” tactic. The Humane Society weren’t the only ones who took notice of DeVry’s actions.
The people of Chicago couldn’t help but notice DeVry. Over time, he created what became his signature look. The giant tiger-tooth that hung from his pocket-watch chain is one reason why he was the original Tiger King. He also had a Sam Elliott–style mustache and an ever-present cigar between his teeth.
He became a celebrity in his own right. In fact, many people flocked to the zoo – not to see the facilities or animals – but to catch a glimpse of the most exciting creature: the one and only Cy DeVry.
The wacky zookeeper became notorious for his hands-on approach with his animals. Just like we saw on the series Tiger King with Joe Exotic, Cy would get into the enclosures to interact with the wild beasts, all while visitors watched in both excitement and terror.
“Zookeeping back then was very cowboy-ish,” Rosenthal explained. “In Cy’s day, handling animals was a very macho profession.” There was one time when DeVry was speaking to a crowd of people in front of the enclosure of a 450-pound brown bear. Suddenly, the large beast clawed at his foot through the bars.
As people gasped in horror, DeVry simply entered the bear’s area armed with a rawhide whip. As he approached the bear, it took a swing at DeVry’s legs. The bear’s claws took a nice slice of DeVry’s calf. The zookeeper stumbled and landed on the ground of the bear’s enclosure with a thud.
DeVry was helplessly holding his whip, trying to scurry backward to prevent the bear from climbing on top of him and likely devouring him. As you can imagine, onlookers were scared sh**less. Some women screamed. But most-watched stunned and helpless as the beloved zookeeper wrestled with one of the deadliest animals.
At that point, he was no longer cared about saving face. He needed to concentrate on one thing, survival. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported on the incident, stating that DeVry made it to his feet after a few minutes of struggling.
Once he made his way onto his feet, he threw the strongest punch he could manage at the bear’s head. The bear wobbled from the blow, and DeVry used the opportunity to dart out of the cage despite his injury. When he was finally safe, he passed out from blood loss and was rushed to a doctor.
Once again, DeVry escaped near death. He nearly got eaten by a bear and bled to death but miraculously survived. Amazingly, this wasn’t the only close encounter DeVry had at the zoo. He lived through many similar incidents over his tenure as a zookeeper.
He was known to break up fights between foaming-at-the-mouth hyenas with only a club and a whip. He wrestled lions into new cages. There was one time when he chased after a rampaging elephant that escaped, trying to capture the massive animal himself. The man was simply and utterly fearless.
It was only a matter of time until he got bitten, mauled, scratched, and clawed by basically every single animal in the park. But DeVry could handle it. Sure, some might say that his antics were reckless. But DeVry was actually very sly and inventive.
He understood the power of sensational media and what it could generate for himself and the park. You know what they say: No publicity is bad publicity. He was willing to jump into a lion’s cage and more if it was good for business.
DeVry mastered a philosophy that many successful entertainers and entrepreneurs live by Give the people what they want. By the turn of the 20th century, DeVry made a name for himself and became a real celebrity. He was regularly getting invited by organizations across the country to give lectures on zoology.
All the Chicagoans who recognized him from the park said their hellos on the street. He was even rubbing elbows with opera stars, heavyweight boxing champions, and the President himself (Theodore Roosevelt). Eventually, like royalty, DeVry came to be known as the king of the Lincoln Park Zoo.
DeVry spent every day caring for the animals and meeting with the park’s visitors. On the outside, it seemed like he had made it. But the truth is there was darkness looming above his kingdom. Just as he frequently battled dangerous creatures outside, he fought with the twin demons of alcoholism and depression inside.
It was likely a combination of both the pressures of managing the zoo and his newfound celebrity status, but he fell in and out of bouts of “melancholy,” as it was called back then. What he most often did was self-medicate with alcohol.
Eventually, his alcoholism got to the point that it became an open secret in Chicago. On top of these battles was the immense pressure he faced from the city government. By the early 1900s, Chicago was being controlled by a very powerful political machine.
It became clear to DeVry that the machine had deep pockets and an even deeper influence over Chicago – the city he had fallen in love with. DeVry, though, wasn’t just a free spirit – he was a force to be reckoned with, as visitors (and the animals) already knew.
The city’s officials, however, weren’t such fans of his. Rosenthal put it this way: “When you’re powerful, popular, and think you’re untouchable, a lot of times people just want to see you fall. 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 show up to work. The problem was that the employee whom he fired was connected to the city’s politicians who wanted the man on the payroll, according to The Ark in the Park.
Those very politicians weren’t pleased and started looking for ways to get rid of DeVry. The first time the city ousted DeVry from his position was in 1900, 12 years after he started working at the park. According to Rosenthal, it was a set up.
Officials falsely reported a $177,000 deficit at the zoo, which resulted in DeVry’s firing. But after he was forced to leave, the zoo suffered. Four of the five camels died, which led to a severe cut of a major source of the zoo’s revenue: animal rides.
Beyond the fact that the zoo was clearly suffering from DeVry’s absence, there was also public outcry for his reinstatement. For many people, DeVry WAS the Lincoln Park Zoo. Without him, what was the point in visiting? In the end, the city had no choice.
They needed to let DeVry come back, which happened only a year after letting him go. The good news was DeVry was back. The bad news was that he was still struggling with depression and alcoholism. The pressures placed upon him were a heavyweight he carried around every day.
It all came to a boiling point in 1901 when one of the lions bit DeVry’s hand. Now, the zookeeper was no stranger to bites, but this one was severe. The bite removed a part of his index finger. According to The Ark in the Park, his fingered never properly healed.
DeVry was told by a doctor that if it didn’t improve, he would need to amputate his entire hand. Obviously, DeVry was miserable. It was the last straw. Without two hands, he wouldn’t be able to work properly. And if he couldn’t work, then what was the point of it all? At least, those were his thoughts.
After learning of his grim diagnosis, the zookeeper took out a loaded gun, pointed it to his head, and pulled the trigger. The man that seemingly couldn’t be killed survived the suicide attempt. But it was another reason for him to fall into a deeper depression.
His life and relationships were severely strained. Adding insult to injury, DeVry’s fiancée broke off their engagement in the wake of his near suicide. At the end of the day, DeVry was a survivor. And eventually, he came to realize just how precious that was.
He became determined to survive his inner demons by doing the only thing that kept him going: taking care of his zoo. Once he regained his strength, DeVry got into even more entanglements with the animals and the city.
The officials continued to be irritated by his antics, but the public loved every second of it. Around this time, DeVry met a woman named Mary E. Cowles after an elephant threw dirt on her. DeVry invited Cowles back to the zoo for an apology and a personal tour.
Yes, you guessed it: He fell in love with her. By 1903, the two were married. During the years that followed, DeVry busied himself with a new task, and that was protecting the women of the park from the plague of what were called “mashers” — men who publicly harassed women.
DeVry himself explained his methods to the Tribune: “I only reach into the crowd, grab them by the collar, and let them have two or three short jabs. 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.”
People, especially women, saw DeVry’s actions as well-intentioned, even noble. But for the city, it was a good enough reason to get rid of him for good. And yes, it was the incident involving the fight with the man (from the beginning of the story) that did it.
The fateful day occurred on June 15, 1919. As visitors were enjoying the hot summer day on a Sunday afternoon at the zoo, DeVry took notice of a young man harassing and “pinching unattended women.” That man was later identified as Charles P. Hacht – a “masher.”
Now we know why the zookeeper was so enraged. DeVry quickly took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves. He walked toward Hacht like a tiger stalking her prey. One witness recalled: “I was standing beside the sea lion pit at about 4 o’clock. I noticed a man in front of me making signs to women near him.”
“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.” One punch from DeVry sent Hacht flying to the ground.
And just like that, a crowd began to form around them. Soon, two police officers showed up, and Hacht tried to make his escape from underneath DeVry’s feet. According to The Tribune, that’s when “his chin encountered Cy’s fist about midway.”
The officers separated the two men. Later, Hacht made the claim that DeVry attacked him without cause. Even one of the officers vouched for Hacht. While DeVry was charged with disorderly conduct, Hacht pressed charges for assault and battery. Regardless of the actual truth, it was exactly what the city needed to get rid of their enemy.
They suspended DeVry from his job, pending his trial for assault. It was essentially the beginning of the end for DeVry. He was about to come face-to-face with his biggest enemy, and it wasn’t one of the zoo’s beasts. He was facing the politicians of Chicago.
Soon after the Hacht incident, DeVry was put in jail for weeks as the trial dragged on. In court, Hacht claimed that DeVry was in a drunken rage and thus attacked him. DeVry insisted that he was completely sober. However, testimony later revealed that the zookeeper consumed “a lone bottle of ale, taken at 11 o’clock in the morning.”
According to a witness, DeVry was “belligerent,” shouting with the sour stench of “liquor on his breath.” The witness reiterated, “The man I saw was intoxicated. I’m sure, and I wouldn’t recognize him in any other condition.”
The city and the media were in an uproar. Those that supported DeVry couldn’t believe that their favorite zookeeper was being put away for a noble act. They were also angry at the chance that they would lose him forever. People went so far as to sign a petition, securing over 50,000 signatures, demanding that DeVry be reinstated.
Eventually, a verdict came in. You’ll (probably) be happy to hear that after the jury deliberated for less than five minutes, they found him not guilty. He was freed and given “a clean bill of health and character.”
But that was what the jury decided. The matter was, in fact, left up to the civil service commission trial, held by the Lincoln Park Board of Commissioners, to decide the zookeeper’s fate. Of course, DeVry was distressed. Not only was he in jeopardy of losing his job, but he could lose the animals and zoo he had poured his heart and soul into.
DeVry told the Tribune, “It has been the toughest three weeks in 60 years. 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.”
Then it came time for one of the city’s commissioners to speak: “We recognize Cy’s picturesque character and appreciate the fact that he has brought lots of free advertising to the Lincoln Park Zoo. I don’t see how we can take him back without spoiling the discipline of the rest of the park employees.”
The park board decided to fire DeVry once and for all. But there was a twist to the story as movie producer Col. William Selig offered DeVry the chance to take on another zoo… in Los Angeles. The job offered to him would pay more and gave him a different opportunity altogether.
In L.A., he would be able to work with animals in the burgeoning motion picture business. Sounds great, right? But, for DeVry, Chicago and the Lincoln Park Zoo were his home. “This is my family,” he said, according to The Ark in the Park. “I’m proud of this zoo. I hate to leave it.”
Still, in 1919, after 31 years in Chicago, DeVry and his wife packed up and headed out west. L.A.’s Selig Zoo Park held over 700 different species and was “a big hit.” DeVry had plans to further develop the zoo into a large tourist attraction, but those plans never came to fruition. It turned out that the zoo was struggling to draw the kinds of crowds that DeVry was used to back home.
As soon as The Great War hit, the zoo was hit with hard times. The jungle films that DeVry got involved in declined in popularity. With the international film market taking a hit, Selig lost a lot of his income. By 1923, Selig auctioned off his movie studio as well as the zoo. DeVry’s zookeeping days were over. Not much about DeVry is known after that. According to Census records, he became a gas station attendant around 1930. He passed away a few years later, in 1934. He was 75.
RIP, Cyrus Bernard DeVry, a true character.