A Zoo Story: From Harambe to Human Bondage

(Photo: Ian Duffy; Edited; LW / TO)(Photo: Ian Duffy; Edited; LW / TO)

Every so often, our society — which proves daily how little it values animal life — erupts in an uproar about the tragic death of an individual animal. Whether it’s a case of lethal cruelty to a domestic animal, the high-profile shooting of a majestic lion, or more recently, the shooting of a gorilla named Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo, public outrage typically isolates a human target and flares until a particular hashtag has exhausted itself on Twitter.

Some rail against those who chose to kill or harm the animal, while others question the values of a society that mourns animal life while ignoring human suffering — and the dehumanization of specific communities. In some cases, such as the recent death of Harambe, perceived human error is vilified.

In this case, public debate has centered around the question of whether it was necessary for zoo employees to shoot and kill Harambe after a toddler slipped into the gorilla’s enclosure and was swept up in the animal’s grasp. Some say Harambe should have been tranquilized, rather than shot dead. Others have emphatically accused the child’s mother of neglect.

While some will highlight the fact that many white people are more likely to mourn the death of a gorilla than that of a Black person, most public discourse around such incidents focuses solely on the actions of those directly involved. In Harambe’s case, many have gone so far as to call for the incarceration of the mother whose child was imperiled. But it is worth noting that the parents of a white toddler who fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Chicago-area Brookfield Zoo, in 1996, were not met with similar public calls for their incarceration. While the child who was injured in the Brookfield Zoo case was rescued by a subsequently famed gorilla named Binti, the behavior of the parents in the 1996 case can aptly be compared to the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo. In both cases, children somehow eluded their parents’ grasp or attention and tumbled into danger. In one case, a child’s white parents were featured in news stories as sympathetic witnesses to a miraculous rescue, and in the other, a Black mother and father are undergoing intense public scrutiny of their actions and backgrounds as the public calls for criminal consequences.

While the social media firestorms of today did not exist in 1996, one need only look at the disparity in reactions that exist on social media today, between harms committed both by and against Black and white people, to know that the disparity is not unique to a moment in digital history.

While many will deny that race plays any role in their perspectives on the death of Harambe, the dehumanization of Blackness, and of other people of color, has an undeniable history and role in present-day life in the US. A white child who fell into a gorilla enclosure was merely the subject of a miracle. A Black child who tumbled into danger is less valued than a gorilla whose life was lost in the process. But to debate the zoo’s handling of the incident, or the mother’s actions or inaction, conveniently bypasses issues of institutional racism and the dehumanization of non-white people in the United States.

The parents of a white toddler who fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Chicago-area Brookfield Zoo, in 1996, were not met with similar public calls for their incarceration.

To examine the performance of institutional racism and dehumanization, one might consider the history of US zoos themselves, and the role they have played in conflating marginalized human life with animal life, and exploiting both with abandon.

As Black author William C. Anderson told Truthout, in the wake of Harambe’s death, “Zoos in the United States and in other Western nations have incredibly painful histories. They are places where animals have oftentimes found no solace and sites where humans that look like me have been housed as attractions.” Citing a need for more thoughtful discussion around the role of zoos in US life, Anderson added, “There isn’t enough discussion around these painful histories of zoos and it’s often glossed over in the way uncomfortable realities about past violence is.”

Human Zoos

In 1906, Ota Benga, a Black man from the Congo, was housed in the primate exhibit of the Bronx Zoo. Touted as the “missing link,” Benga was forced to interact with primates, shoot targets with a bow and arrow and wrestle with an orangutan for the amusement of visitors. Eventually moving on from life in the zoo, Benga was never able to heal from the trauma of captivity or build a life for himself in the United States.

On March 20, 1916, at the age of 32, Benga shot himself in the heart beside a ceremonial fire.

Benga’s story may be one of the most popularly known cases of human confinement in a US zoo, but his experience was hardly unique. From P.T. Barnum’s showcasing of Black slave Joice Heth in 1835 to the Cincinnati Zoo hosting an exhibit in 1896 that showcased 100 Sioux Natives, the practice of putting human beings on display for the entertainment of the free and privileged is deeply embedded in the history of the United States. Salvadoran twins Maximo Valdez Nunez and Bartola Velasquez were paraded through both Europe and the United States as a curiosity due to the physical effects of their microcephaly. Black people were imported from Africa to the United States and presented as “exotic” and “primitive” specimens for spectators to behold. Indigenous people were frequently exported to Europe under similar auspices, and coerced into participating in touring “Wild West” shows in both the United States and Europe. Many Natives were killed in these shows, which involved the use of live ammunition and staged battle sequences.

Filipino tribesmen were also featured in human exhibits in the early 1900s, and at times forced to eat dogs in order to showcase their supposed savagery for US onlookers.

Despite supposed racial progress in the United States, both the Sioux Cincinnati Zoo exhibit and Wild West shows are still staunchly defended by those who romanticize the eras and perpetrators of these exploitations. Defenders of the Cincinnati exhibit continue to claim that providing a home to the displaced Sioux was a kindness. And by invoking famous names like Annie Oakely and Sitting Bull, fans of the Old West still refer to Wild West shows with nostalgia, insisting that Native participants were compensated for their labor in the shows, providing much-needed income for impoverished Indigenous communities. What defenses of both of these manifestations of Native exploitation obviously fail to mention is that even “voluntary” participations in these displays — which in the case of Wild West shows were extremely dangerous — occurred within the context of displacement, hunger and state-sanctioned violence against Native people.

Zoos in the United States and in other Western nations have incredibly painful histories. They are sites where humans have been housed as attractions.

The same arguments are made daily in defense of current exploitative practices in the United States, with “haves” citing the poor circumstances of “have nots,” and calling any exploitative offer of income or comfort a gift to marginalized communities.

To create a crisis and then provide an exploitative cure is obviously no legitimate act of charity, but the colonialist mentality that generated these attitudes still governs economies and institutions in the US today. While humans are no longer showcased in zoos in the US, we see the same arguments that were used to defend the exhibition of humans used to justify the entertainment-based exhibition of animals. With various endangered species held in zoos, supporters of these facilities argue that zoos are “saving” these creatures from locations where their populations are greatly imperiled, despite the fact that most captive breeding programs sprung from violent animal harvest practices, and have ultimately yielded poor results.

While we should not equate the experience of animals with the experience of people — because doing so is, in of itself, an act of dehumanization — we can bear witness to the varied manifestations of a mindset that allows dominant powers to create a crisis, and then declare an exploitative “solution” to be an act of altruism. This tendency exists throughout colonial states and throughout capitalism, but in zoos, we see an ongoing, albeit watered down legacy of this economic and social phenomenon.

As the public mourns the death of Harambe, Black and Brown lives will continue to be shattered, destroyed, exploited and ended under this system. As some activists accuse zoos of barbarism and confinement, few will connect their origins (which have nothing to do with conservation) with the ongoing legacy of racism in the United States. Zoos have historically been praised as saviors of both kidnapped humans and generations of captive animals. The devastation that brought both people and animals into the hands of such facilities is largely erased. While the harms committed against humans cannot be compared to the harms committed against animals, the mentality of greed and control cloaked in altruism and education remains consistent. It is all the product of white-managed colonialism, greed and exploitation.

As one who is in fact moved by the loss of animal life, I would not ask that the public cease to mourn for Harambe, but I would ask that the public also express due regret for the death of Ota Benga, and more importantly, take action against the institutional racism that killed him — which continues to kill Black people in this country every day, through various portals of neglect, abuse, confinement and death.

Taking such action extends into every area of US life, but as long as we are having a conversation about zoos, let’s have a real one. Let’s examine what these institutions are, where they come from, and what their existence perpetuates.

Zoos are symbols of exploitation and abuse, born of greed and the desire to gaze upon that which can be controlled for the entertainment and interest of others. As William C. Anderson told Truthout, “Zoos need to be shut down in countries that used to put people in them. They should be shut down out of shame alone, but guess who has none?”