A Visit to the Zoo – part 2

The Dogcatcher Diaries

Excerpt from: The Dogcatcher and The Fox – now available at Amazon.com and Ingram Books

Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, 1920

Zoo curator Harry Fischer was large and powerfully built but moved with a gentle grace. He wore stained khaki pants over well-worn shoes and a tan shirt that indicated by its rumpled appearance that he must be a bachelor. His face was handsome in spite of his pock-marked skin and shaggy mop of sandy-brown hair.

Raven and Jo left the sea lion pool and turned north past the Landmark Café and toward the hoofed stock yards beyond.

Jo looked at the ground as they walked. She was a handsome girl, especially now that she had a bit of coloring applied to her recently washed cheeks and wore one of Raven’s old blue and white gingham dresses with the hem pinned up.

“That man was going to hit you,” Jo continued. “What would you do if he had?”

“I hadn’t thought much about it. Why?”

Jo was silent for a few steps before she replied, “I think men like that need to get what’s coming to them.”

“I would fight back, if that’s what you mean.”

Their tour took them in a wide loop, through the hoofed stock area, past the elephant and through the bear line with its polar bears, black bears, and a massive grizzly named—according to the sign—George. All the animals appeared to have what they needed, and they did not appear to be abused or neglected. Even the elephant had a large pool to wade in on hot days. When they arrived at the bird house, they sat on a bench inside to escape the brisk wind that had blown in off Lake Michigan.

Raven shared a little of her story with Jo—growing up in a small town and being the daughter of a zookeeper herself. When she was sixteen years old, her father had been hired to open a zoo for her hometown. She had been allowed to clean cages, take care of a confiscated black bear, and bottle-raise some orphan bobcats. She had a lifelong affinity for animals, but she had not been allowed to live out her dreams of working with animals. Her father had sent her away to a boarding school where she could train for a respectable job for a woman—a schoolteacher.

When Raven asked Jo for her story, the girl just told her she was an orphan who had offered to volunteer at the association in exchange for some food. Raven wanted to learn more of her background, but Harry rejoined them to continue their tour. He escorted them to the Lion House—an impressive structure with its barrel-vaulted ceiling, spacious interior public space, and clear-story windows that provided both light and ventilation. It was, Harry informed them, the vision of the zoo’s legendary director, Cyrus DeVry.

Jo pointed at a lion in one of the cages as they strolled down the hall and asked, “Who is that?”

“That’s Sheba,” he replied. “She’s alone for now, but our new director is a former circus man and he says he may have a male from a circus that is coming through town.”

“New director,” she said. “What happened to the old one?”

“Not sure,” he replied. “Politics, I suppose. The new man has plenty of ideas. I just hope he’s more than just talk. Some of our animal areas are in bad shape.”

“What animal areas?” Raven was thinking of a reason to justify her visit.

“Well,” he replied, “the bird house, for starters.”

“Why?” she asked. “What’s the problem with the bird house?”

“The cages are rusting—falling apart, really. I wish they would tear it down and give me a new building.”

His passion impressed her, but she could only reply, “Our interest is primarily with the larger animals, Harry. I don’t think I could have any influence over the condition of your birds.”

He deflated a bit, but said, “Maybe you could just give it some thought.”

As they left the Lion House, they learned that he was a city boy—born and raised on the north-side of Chicago—who had a special interest in birds but who cared deeply about the welfare of all the animals in his care. It wasn’t unusual, he told them, for him to spend the night at the zoo to nurse a sick animal or feed some newly hatched bird.

A gust of wind caught Raven’s hat and blew it across the lawn. Harry retrieved it and they all had a good laugh as he stumbled after it.

“Maybe we need to see about that coffee you promised,” Jo suggested, glancing at Raven for confirmation.

“We need to be getting back to the office,” Raven said, but seeing the disappointment register on Jo’s face, she relented. “I suppose we could spend a few minutes out of the wind.”

“This is a nice place,” Raven said as they seated themselves at a table inside near a window where the Café Brauer guarded the south entrance to the zoo. “Do you stop here every day?”

“No,” he laughed. “This place is a little grand for my means.”

“You really don’t need to do this, Harry.”

“Sure he does,” said Jo with a giggle.

Raven pulled out a cigarette and Harry was quick to strike a match. The clouds had parted, and the sun glinted off the lagoon as a pair of swans swam lazy circles. A bright red cardinal sat on the railing outside the window, lending a splash of color to the black iron fence beneath it.

“So,” he said as their coffee was served. “What did you expect to find at our zoo today?”

“Nothing,” she said. She leaned back in her seat and blew out a puff of smoke. “I can’t imagine what the complaint was about—if there was a complaint.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Let’s just say our boss might have had ulterior motives,” she replied. “He doesn’t appreciate my taking the initiative and likes to put me in my place.”

“I don’t want to agree with him,” Harry said, “but you taking-on Vinnie and his pals wasn’t such a good idea.”

“If I hadn’t stopped,” Raven bristled, “that horse would be walking around with a piece of glass in its hoof until it got infected. It would probably have ended up being put down.”

“That’s true,” said Harry, “but you could also have been hurt in the process.”

Raven didn’t respond, so he continued. “What did Vinnie mean about your picture being in the paper?”

Raven explained the incident at Rondell Boyd’s Livery Stable, how her picture came to be in the newspaper. Harry listened in rapt attention, but when she was finished, he sipped his coffee in silence. Raven eyed him for a moment, sensing his lack of approval for her actions. She felt sure it was because she was a woman. She could not help but pick at the scab.

“Are there any female zookeepers at your zoo?” She asked—already knowing the answer.

Harry laughed as though she had just delivered the punch line of a joke. He stopped himself and looked at her. “Well,” he stammered. “Zookeeping is not women’s work.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means women belong in the home, not shoveling manure for a living.”

“What about voting,” she continued, getting angrier by the minute. First Lou Hanson yells at her in the office this morning, then a bully pushes her to the ground and threatens to whip her, and now this.

“Do you believe women should have the right to vote?”

“Women should leave the game of politics to men,” he said. “It’s like playing poker, smoking cigars, or betting on the horses. It’s unseemly for a proper woman to be involved in politics—and that includes voting.” His voice was raised, and people were turning to look.

 The waiter was making his way to their table as Raven stood up and placed her napkin on her plate. She looked at Jo until she, too, stood in confusion.

“Thank you for the coffee, Mr. Fisher,” she said. “But I believe I’ve seen quite enough of your zoo.”

His mouth dropped open. He rose from his chair and watched the two women walk away.

Raven’s anger subsided with every step as she realized how rude she had been. Jo’s disapproval was evident by her downcast eyes and her silence. It had been a long and tiring day.

“He’s a nice man,” Jo said without looking directly at Raven. “Why were you so mean to him?”

Raven sensed more than just a concern for being polite. She could see how Jo had looked at the rugged zookeeper. He was much too old for the girl, but that’s what teenage crushes were all about. And it gnawed at Raven that Jo was probably right. They quick-stepped past a little stone cottage and out to Clark Street where Raven placed Jo on the LaSalle streetcar that would take her back to the office. It was a little early, not much past four o’clock, but Raven wanted respite in her apartment just a few blocks away on State Street. She thought about returning to apologize and involuntarily glanced back to see if Harry had followed. He had not, but she had the feeling someone else had. She sensed she was being watched.

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