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?

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.

Read the rest of this story at Narratively.

Narratively is a digital publication and creative studio focused on ordinary people with extraordinary stories.

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