THE HUMAN ZOO

Race

Fifty years after slavery was abolished, and a hundred years before PETA began to use cages as a protest tactic, the Bronx Zoo displayed a man in a cage. His name was Ota Benga, and he came from the Mgabi tribe of Congo.

Originally brought to the United States as a specimen to be displayed at an anthropological exhibit at the World Fair in St. Louis, Benga impressed and terrified watchers as "the only cannibal in Africa". But upon his return home, Benga felt that he didn't fit in with his tribe and asked to be taken back to the United States, where he eventually ended up in the Bronx Zoo. In the monkey cage. With a sign outside that read:

The African Pigmy, "Ota Benga."
Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the
Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner.

Exhibited each afternoon during September.

Not surprisingly for the time, audiences were more enthralled than enraged. “Few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions, and there could be no doubt that to the majority the joint man-and-monkey exhibition was the most interesting sight in Bronx Park," reported the New York Times.

Amongst the few who protested were African-American clergymen, who eventually persuaded the zoo to close the exhibit and send Benga to an orphanage. There he learned enough English to get a job in a tobacco factory, where he collected tobacco leaves and exchanged stories for sandwiches and root beer until he shot himself in the chest with a stolen gun.

Oddly enough, the clergymen's protests that led to his release from the zoo had nothing to do with racism. The protestors were devout Christians, and complained that an exhibit of the African pygmy was a demonstration of vile Darwinism.

 

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