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Bronx Zoo apologizes for displaying an African man in a monkey house

Ota Benga was placed in an iron cage with an orangutan at the Bronx Zoo.

Ota Benga Library of Congress

On Wednesday (July 29), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) issued a statement formally apologizing on behalf of the Bronx Zoo for their display and imprisonment of Ota Benga in their monkey house.

“Bronx Zoo officials, led by Director William Hornaday, put Ota Benga on display in the zoo’s Monkey House for several days during the week of September 8, 1906 before outrage from local Black ministers quickly brought the disgraceful incident to an end and the Reverend James Gordon arranged for Ota Benga to stay at an orphanage he directed in Weeksville, Brooklyn,” WCS CEO and President Cristián Samper wrote. “Robbed of his humanity and unable to return home, Ota Benga tragically took his life a decade later.”

Benga, a man from Central Africa, was trapped in an iron cage alongside an orangutan for a few days in 1906 while hundreds of people spectated. He was reportedly suffered through inhumane conditions and was only allowed outside for a short period of time. Benga began to threaten and resist the zoo attendants. After local Black ministers expressed their frustration with the act, he was released.

“We further apologize for and condemn bigoted actions and attitudes in the early 1900s toward non-whites—especially African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants—that characterized many notable institutions at the time, including our own,” the statement continued.

“We deeply regret that many people and generations have been hurt by these actions or by our failure previously to publicly condemn and denounce them,” Samper wrote. “We recognize that overt and systemic racism persists and our institution must play a greater role to confront it.”

The WCS has also promised to release all archives and records related to Benga to the public. They also plan to hire a diversity officer to ensure that the organization follows their diversity, inclusion and equity plan that was put in place last year.

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