Reckoning With Human Zoos

If you read the stories, it should become clear. There is so much here that is offensive. Underlying it all is the scientific and theological belief of polygenesis, that different races were different biological types of “human” or not even “human” at all. That is how it began. It was also entwined with the politics of segregation, and common sense understanding that…[I’m not even going to repeat it here].

Do not shrink away. When engaging the brokenness of this reality, mistakes will often happen. Do not fear. Minorities are usually very thankful to people who apologize and make things right, working to understand. It is a whole different thing when things like this take place. Something different took place here.

The Zoo in 1906

Take a look at this quote from wikipedia on a human zoo about 100 years ago, in 1906 in New York. Note of the response to black pastors protesting the zoo.

In 1906, Madison Grant—socialite, eugenicist, amateur anthropologist, and head of the New York Zoological Society—had Congolese pygmy Ota Benga put on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City alongside apes and other animals. At the behest of Grant, the zoo director William Hornaday placed Benga displayed in a cage with the chimpanzees, then with an orangutan named Dohong, and a parrot, and labeled him The Missing Link , suggesting that in evolutionary terms Africans like Benga were closer to apes than were Europeans. It triggered protests from the city’s clergymen, but the public reportedly flocked to see it.[10][19]

Benga shot targets with a bow and arrow, wove twine, and wrestled with an orangutan. Although, according to The New York Times , “few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions”, controversy erupted as black clergymen in the city took great offense. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes”, said the Reverend James H. Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”[20]

New York City Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. refused to meet with the clergymen, drawing the praise of Hornaday, who wrote to him: “When the history of the Zoological Park is written, this incident will form its most amusing passage.”[20]

As the controversy continued, Hornaday remained unapologetic, insisting that his only intention was to put on an ethnological exhibition. In another letter, he said that he and Grant—who ten years later would publish the racist tract The Passing of the Great Race —considered it “imperative that the society should not even seem to be dictated to” by the black clergymen.[20]

On Monday, September 8, 1906, after just two days, Hornaday decided to close the exhibition, and Benga could be found walking the zoo grounds, often followed by a crowd “howling, jeering and yelling.”[20]

This was not an innocent an ethnographic exhibit about people from a distant land that backfired. It was part of a myth-making exhibit, a story of origins, to explain why black people were segregated at that time. Remember, this is during segregation. Rather than engaging the black people in their midst to understand story, they put tribal people into a zoo to tell the their story as they understood it. When black people protested, they did not listen.

The Zoo in 2007

That was a long time ago. However, you will see echoes in the recent stories. They rhyme with the old stories. Here is a quotes from the article in 2007:

Other artists at the Festival of Pan-African Music (Fespam) are staying in hotels in the capital, Brazzaville. The organisers say the grounds of Brazzaville zoo are closer to the pygmies’ natural habitat. But the pygmy musicians say they had expected to be housed properly while staying in the city.

It is the fifth year they have performed at the festival and previously they have been treated the same as other guests. But this year the group of 20, including 10 women and a three-month-old baby, were given one tent to share in the city’s zoo. A spokeswoman for Fespam said the decision was made in consultation with the Forestry Ministry, so that the pygmies would not be cut off from their “natural environment”.

This was not an education tool. It is obscene. Adding to the insult, this was decided in consultation with a large number of people, and was not fixed immediately when they pygmies protested. Children were subjected to this abuse. This reveals something truly dark about the nature of society.

Do Not Fear

If something this egregious can happen in full view, consider what else happens that is not clear or big enough to hit the news.

This an important point to consider. Do not be afraid to engage these issues. Well meaning mistakes are forgiven. Part of what adds to the injury is when real protests are ignored. Mistakes are forgiven when they are quickly fixed, well-meaning, and lead to understanding. Even when real sin is uncovered, remember that racists are redeemable too.

Remember Ota Benga

Finally, respect the dead. It is important to know Benga’s story, and to honor him and remember. He was one of us. Any of us could have been him.

Ota Benga (c. 1883[1] – March 20, 1916) was an Mbuti (Congo pygmy) man, known for being featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904, and in a human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo. Benga had been purchased from African slave traders by the missionary and anthropologist Samuel Phillips Verner,[2] a businessman searching for African people for the exhibition.[3] He traveled with Verner to the United States. At the Bronx Zoo, Benga had free run of the grounds before and after he was exhibited in the zoo’s Monkey House.

He began to plan a return to Africa, but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 stopped ship passenger travel. Benga fell into a depression, and he committed suicide in 1916.[4]

This man, a human being, he committed suicide, trying to find his way home. He died place ten years after being exhibited in New York, where @NLENTS is a professor. He died twelve years after being exhibited in St Louis, where I am a professor. He was 33 years old.


Honestly, I had not thought a thing like a human zoo was possible. I guess it I could imagine it in the height of the eugenics era, but I wouldn’t have imagined it in an actual zoo and certainly not past the 1930’s.

These stories definitely need to be told, but I do think it’s too simple to have an “easy” answer. Conservative Christians will say “see, this is the product of evolutionary thinking”, scientists will mostly brush it under the rug as an unsightly episode, and the general public would probably have a knee-jerk political reaction.

It’s a lot harder to look at ourselves, our own history, our discipline’s history, and to acknowledge those failings, ask for forgiveness, and work towards repairing the harm.


I’ll question this. Sorry if it takes us a bit off topic.

I saw recently saw a similar comment, except this comment was about the excesses of some of the religious right in the US. And the commenter complained that liberal Christians don’t publicly condemn them.

Yet I follow several blogs by liberal Christians, and they did strongly condemn the particular behavior. It’s just that their condemnation did not get much press.

So now I wonder about that 99.9% of the Islamic population. Maybe they did publicly condemn the heinous acts, but the press failed to give their condemnation much attention.


@Michael_Callen the problem is not that we can’t see it’s wrong, it is that we forget we are all capable of evil like this. Also, if you start engaging in conversation with others, especially in private, you might be shocked about the evil about which others are untroubled. Education is one only piece of the puzzle, but it is an indispensable piece.

What find so informative about this conversation is that we cannot even conceive of the evil we can visit on our neighbors, because we never take the time to look, understand, and remember.

That is the issue, and it isn’t @Jordan’s fault. The natural response is to look away from these things, and focus on happier thoughts. We do not know because no one told us. We forgot who we are, and what we inherited. We are more likely to repeat such things in new and creative ways. Of course, our ways will be understandable to us, and our consciences will not be troubled. That is what makes it all the more important to remember.

On this it is easy to blame it on the press, or wonder why others do not decry something enough. This, however, is not a PR problem, and it does not call for a public performance. At a funeral, there are no awards for who gives the best eulogy. A truthful reckoning brings us to real sadness, whether we win the PR war or not, whether or not others join us there. There is much here to grieve, and there is no way to make restitution.

Honest and wise leaders do not look away. They remember, and they tell the stories, so others can remember too.

Yes, this needs to be done, but also more. Things like this can’t be about saving the paradigm, or taking cheap shots at evolution. We all have a public voice, not just @NLENTS and myself. There is something important an humanizing about these stories too. We do real good by empathetically retelling the stories, recognizing that the victims and the perpetrators could have been any of us. We, actually, are no better than them. If we are not careful, we might find new creative ways to do the same. Maybe we already have.

To be clear, this is not to make anyone feel guilty. I am an Indian, with dark skin, and I am including myself in this too. It just a part of our collective story. There is good and bad in our inheritance. To receive our inheritance, we have to remember both.


Hello Neil: If we go off topic, then Joshua will be there to make us a new thread anyhow! :slight_smile:

I think that the first example, while reasonable, doesn’t fit here, because the issue is one side not decrying the other. What we are talking about here is Side A policing Side A’s business. In the event of your second example, my analogy would be a bad one (and maybe it is anyhow…) But with Dr. Lents and Dr. Swamidass, for instance, they do have an audience. Even if the press is not following Dr. Lents, for instance (per your example two above), he is writing articles and books and can be on record as siding against an obviously barbaric practice. My point really was that people need to try and they need to be vocal, such that if the day comes where Side B criticizes one for sweeping something like this under the table, they can simply point to the record (book or article.)

As a Christian, I represent a people who claim to know the Truth. As such, there are always detractors. When someone screws up internally, those responsible need to speak up loudly, clearly, and publicly, and the others in the community who have a public voice need to do so also. I hope that makes sense.


Joshua, I agree with you completely, and don’t in any way wish to minimize the horror of this issue. However much education is needed is appropriate. You and I are in agreement spiritually over the human condition and the evil that man can do. The point that I was making, and you made it as well with Jordan is this:

Jordan wasn’t aware of this terrible practice from the past. You made him aware of this issue in very short time. He will never forget what can go horribly wrong when people buy in to a system that says that brown people are more closely related to (added in edit) animals than (end edit) white people. If more education is needed, that’s something that those of you who live and work in this area can decide.

What I was addressing, was Dr. Lents comment, with which I agree completely:

My response was to agree that there should be a proper reckoning and, even if others don’t listen, there are those of you who are published and can always remind people in print that “we always want to be wary of making mistakes like those of the past, which resulted in such dehumanizing treatment of some people.”


@swamidass, yesterday at lunch I talked to my my biology and chemistry colleagues about human zoos. None had heard of of it, including one who had worked at the Bronx zoo for a time. It was kind of a “wait, what?!” moment.

We are redesigning our science Gen Ed course (taken by 1/2 the students on campus) this year and I think I’ll try to include this topic somewhere.


Thank you @Jordan. I am glad educators like you are stepping up to the plate. This question is a great guiding light for a general Ed course: what does it mean to be human?

Alongside this a few additional content options to consider including:

  1. The Tuskegee Shyphilis Study
  2. A Movie: Hidden Figures (African American women in space program during segregation)
  3. Greggor of Nyssa: First Abolitionist, focused on Dominion in Genesis 1, not image of God.
  4. Martin Luther King Jr on Image of God and progress in science.
  5. Science of Race and Science of Persuasion
  6. Polygenesis and how both theology and science came to reject it.

Any time you want me to expand an item on this menu, let me know.

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If you work with human subject data, this is required reading:

10 minute video

Belmont Report on Wiki.


Wow! I don’t expect everyone everywhere to know of human zoos but I would have thought it common knowledge within the biology academy, especially anyone who had worked at a zoo. Perhaps this wrong assumption on my part is a reflection of my generation.

I remember seeing recycled old newsreel footage even appearing on TV programs in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Some featured Mbuti Ota Benga, for example. (At the time, I think they referred to Mbutis as “Congo pygmies.”) “Human zoos” were not just exhibits at traditional city zoos. The same kind of exhibits were often popular at “world’s fairs” and commemorative exhibitions. My memories are fuzzy after so many years gone by but as a child relatives told me stories about such “human culture exhibits” at the 1893 Columbian Exposition and the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Those exhibits usually involved African Dance troupes (e.g., performing every hour on the hour) and sometimes a “live African village”. No doubt there would have been many who defended these attractions as “cultural exchanges” and valuable anthropological education endeavors—but in the context of the times and how these “villages” contrasted with the surrounding bombastic celebrations of WASP achievements, I think these were basically human zoos as well. (I vaguely recall some controversy about how one such world’s fair dance troupe from Africa was furious at having living accommodations and provisions for their comfort far inferior to other fair contract workers. One wonders what kinds of experiences they had in Great Depression era Chicago during that 1933 world’s fair.)


Back in the mid sixties, my school religious instruction was centred around the unreliability of the biblical accounts or, on a good day, the truth-equivalence of all religions. In history we learned about religious conflicts in the English Civil War.

I don’t recall any teachers worrying overmuch about it making people uncomfortable, or casting religion in a negative light, so why would science get special treatment?

In fact, we live in an age when it the moral implications of science for good and for evil need to be weighed more seriously than in the past. We’ve lived through the risk of mutually assured destruction from nuclear weapons, and a Holocaust based on the same principles that underpinned human zoos.

It’s not primarily about race (there’s too tribal an atmosphere around that already), but about the moral accountability of science. If race is inflammatory, do the bomb, or artificial fertilizers, or leaded petrol, or CFCs - there are ethical back stories in all of those.


47 posts were split to a new topic: Can Science Demonstrate Racism or Genocide is Morally Wrong?

More on a human zoo of sorts existing today. Some may have seen the other news from North Sentinal today

I might watch this but seems too depressing


God, is this really happening?

I’m sorry, I know this is old and I shouldn’t open it again, especially since I have nothing new to say but this is really monstrous.

My experience in that part of the world is that tour operators do not always subscribe to the highest ethical standards :slight_smile:

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No kidding.

Nor do tourists (always) for that matter :slight_smile:

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