The Bronx Zoo’s deplorable human exhibit

In September 1906, a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga—who had been living in the Museum of Natural History after a stint at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair—was moved into the Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House. Given a bow and arrow, he was free to come and go on zoo grounds.

He wasn’t an employee, however, but an exhibit—one that was met with a fair amount of outrage. African-American leaders protested immediately. And though crowds came to laugh and jeer at Ota Benga, many visitors also found the situation shameful.


Ota Benga, supposedly at the Bronx Zoo

The New York Times said this about zoo-goers on September 9, 1906: “Even those who laughed the most turned away with an expression on their faces such as one sees after a play with a sad ending or a book in which the hero or heroine is poorly rewarded. ‘Something about it that I don’t like’ was the way one man put it.”

bronxzoo1910 The Bronx Zoo entrance in 1910, 11 years after the zoo opened 

Within a few weeks, the zoo took Ota Benga off display, and by the end of the month he came under the guardianship of an African-American clergyman who moved him to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. 

The zoo’s human exhibit was over; Ota Benga met his end a decade later. In 1910 he relocated to a Baptist seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he later found work at a tobacco factory. In 1916, he shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.

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12 Responses to “The Bronx Zoo’s deplorable human exhibit”

  1. oscar Says:

    sad story

  2. ChickenUndrwear Says:

    NOT GOOD. I go to that zoo a few times a year. I am glad that is behind us.

    It makes me think that we might look back at the Congo Exhibit that way in the year 2125. No, not the same thing.

  3. Looking Back at the Bronx Zoo’s “Human Exhibit” « HARLEM HAPPENINGS Says:

    […] and cuddly animals now, but in September 1906 there was a questionable inhabitant amongst them. Ephemeral NY looks back at the “Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga—who had been living in the Museum of […]

  4. Jon Kendrick Says:

    That is shocking. It’s amazing that it was just in the last century that human beings were treated like this — though I guess it’s not so shocking considering the human rights violations that still go on today.

    Anyways, I’m a fan of the New York zoos — glad to see they’ve cleaned up their acts. (here i’ve written about them

  5. Lily Says:

    a very telling part of our history as humans. thanks for this post.

  6. Quid plura? | "The piano is firewood, Times Square is a dream..." Says:

    […] Ephemeral New York reminds us that once, the Bronx Zoo exhibited a human being. […]

  7. Friday finds « STEVENHARTSITE Says:

    […] Ephemeral New York describes the time that the Bronz Zoo once exhibited a human being. […]

  8. Why is an Iroquois man canoeing in Central Park? « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] It’s not the first time the city has officially sanctioned putting a human being on display, as this story, of a man who lived for a short time in the Bronx Zoo, reveals. […]

  9. Ben Masters Says:

    Perfectly logical outcome if one believes in Evolution. After all that was the premise of the “display.”

  10. Joe Dundas Says:

    I have a bumper sticker which reads ” I am an enemy of the zoo”. They are hideous, vile ignoble gulgs. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool, a liar or a profiteer.

  11. The Eskimo boy who lived in a New York museum | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] is not the only human who lived in the museum. In 1906, a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga also spent time there—before being put on exhibit in the Bronx Zoo. […]

  12. Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan – Hidden Waters blog Says:

    […] of Native Americans in a park to be nearly as demeaning as that time when the Bronx Zoo had a Congolese pygmy living among its animals, or when the American Museum of Natural History kept a Greenland Inuit family in its basement. All […]

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