Posts Tagged ‘Bronx Zoo’

The celebrated chimp that ruled the Bronx Zoo

December 5, 2011

I don’t think New York has ever had an official animal mascot. But between 1907 and 1914, a top contender would have been Baldy the chimp.

Caught wild in the Congo at age four, clever and cheeky Baldy was a star attraction at the Monkey House in the then eight-year-old Bronx Zoo.

[Baldy and his keeper, copyright the Wildlife Conservation Society]

Though all of this would be totally frowned on by today’s standards, newspapers at the time reported that he adopted human habits, such as washing his face and hands, eating with a knife and fork at a table, and learning to rollerskate at the behest of his keepers.

Baldy was so famous, he shook hands with President Taft, who visited the zoo in 1911 and specifically asked to meet him, reported The New York Times.

Behind the scenes and the Monkey House, however, Baldy may not have been as friendly as everyone thought.

A zoo publication noted in 1914 that he “is now quite matured and so savage at times that it is difficult to enter his cage.”

Later that year, his death by tuberculosis was reported by The Times.

[Baldy in a promotional zoo postcard]

The Bronx Zoo’s deplorable human exhibit

January 7, 2009

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.