On a Zoological Exhibit

Today, for many people, the ethical or moral justification for zoos is tenuous at best. While it is true that zoological collections can and do serve to preserve endangered species (and have seen some success at re-establishing such species in the wild), it is generally accepted by many that zoos and even aquariums can often do more harm than good to and for the animals in their care.

Take the case of one exhibit in New York in 1906. A man named Madison Grant (you know he’s rich because he has a last name as a first name), a person who served as the head of the New York Zoological Society, pressured the New York Zoo (known as the Bronx Zoo today) to create an exhibit that featured several species of primates. The highlights of the exhibit were the chimpanzees and an orangutan named Dohong. Grant also had zoo director William Hornaday add a primate from the Congo called Oto Benga and asked Hornaday to label the exhibit as an example of evolutionary science since several types of primates were shown in it.

Well, as you can imagine, the ministers of several churches in the New York area flew into paroxysms of indignation over the exhibit. How dare such a display be shown to the public, they screamed. How could the city expose children to the terrible lesson the zoo seemed to be teaching? They demanded that the zoo close the exhibit immediately and staged a protest against it.

On the other hand, the public flocked to the zoo. The old expression that any publicity is good publicity came into play here, perhaps. People who might not have heard about this “evolution exhibit” were made aware of it due to the ministers’ protest against it. Lines formed around the block to get tickets. Grant was thrilled by the public’s reception of it, and he saw the huge ticket sales as validation and vindication that his vision was right.

However, the exhibit closed soon after it opened. It seems that Ota Benga was less than cooperative. He would throw things at the onlookers and even made threatening motions with sticks at the viewers of the exhibit. Hornaday tried to give Ota Benga some leeway by letting him out of his cage during parts of the day where he docilly followed the zookeeper around the park grounds. But the fear that he might hurt some zoo patron overrode the desire for ticket sales, and the zoo decided to end the display.

Now, you should know that there were several other “evolution” type displays in the United States and around western Europe during this time. They, too, showed the so-called evolution of apes by having several “specimens” of lesser and greater apes on display. Like the New York exhibit, they, too, often featured natives from the Congo.

And, like Ota Benga, these Congolese were the feature exhibits in human zoos.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s