For one week in 1906, the Bronx Zoo in New York kept a man from Central Africa in an enclosure in its monkey house
There, he stayed trapped in an iron cage with an orangutan while hundreds of people watched.
Now, 114 years later, the organization that runs the zoo is apologizing.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) issued a statement on Wednesday formally apologizing for the imprisonment and display of Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo.
“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,” WCS President and CEO Cristián Samper wrote.
“We recognize that overt and systemic racism persists, and our institution must play a greater role to confront it.”
Benga, who was from the Mbuti people of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, was put on display at the zoo’s Monkey House for several days during the week of September 8th, 1906, according to the statement. He was released after local Black ministers expressed their outrage and demanded his freedom.
While imprisoned at the Zoo, Benga underwent inhumane conditions, according to Pamela Newkirk, the author of “Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.” Newkirk, who also wrote a CNN opinion article about Benga’s imprisonment, said he often faced hundreds of people at a time while trapped inside an iron cage with an orangutan.
He would only have short periods of time outside. After a week, Benga started to resist and threaten attendants, which contributed to his release, Newkirk wrote in her op-ed.
When he was finally freed, Reverend James Gordon took him in at an orphanage he ran in Weeksville, Brooklyn, according to WCS. Benga, who was “unable to return home,” died by suicide ten years later, the WCS said.
The organization also denounced “the eugenics-based, pseudoscientific racism, writings, and philosophies” that were advanced by two of its founders, Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn, Sr.
Grant’s book, “The Passing of the Great Race,” was used as a defense during the Nuremberg trials. Grant and Osborn also helped found the American Eugenics Society in 1926, according to the statement.
As part of its mission to be more transparent, WCS is making all records and archives related to Benga publicly available. The organization said it is committed to developing additional projects to make their history “accessible and transparent.”
The organization also noted that they are hiring a diversity officer to work with leadership to ensure their current organization is working towards their diversity, equity, and inclusion plan implemented in 2019.
“Today I challenge myself and my colleagues to do better,” Samper wrote, “and to never look away whenever and wherever injustice occurs.
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