Eugenics and Human Zoos: The Case of Ota Benga

In September of 1906, the Bronx Zoo drew crowds as Ota Benga, a twenty-three year old Congolese man, was put on display in the Monkey House section of the zoo. Benga, who had been taken from his home by explorer Samuel Phillips Verner, had been previously “exhibited” at the “anthropology exhibit” at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904.

Many eugenicists drew from earlier articulations of scientific racism to argue that human racial differences were not unlike differences between species. Eugenicists like Henry Fairfield Osborn constructed evolutionary trees that placed the “primitive races” alongside gorillas and chimpanzees in a hierarchy that culminated with the Caucasian “race.” Based on these twisted, racist anthropological understandings, the violent placing of Ota Benga in the Bronx Zoo may not have appeared unnatural to many “educated” white Americans.


“Existing Facts of Human Ascent.” Henry Fairfield Osborn, 1926.


The Zoo debacle is also explained by the fact that it occurred under the auspices of Madison Grant – budding eugenicist and founder of the New York Zoological Society and the Bronx Zoo.

On September 10, 1906, the New York Times reported on the opening of the “Man and Monkey” show, which put Benga and an orangutan in the same cage to perform:

“The performance of man and monkey is not easy to describe. Certainly Dohong is a very patient beast. Many times Benga grabbed him by the forepaws, swung him as though he were a bag, and then dropped him. Then man and monkey grinned. On other occasions Benga pushed the monkey before him. In this attitude the pigmy was not much taller than the orang-outang, and one had a good opportunity to study their points of resemblance. Their heads are much alike, and both grin in the same way when pleased. Sometimes the man and the monkey hugged each other. That pleased the children, and they laughed uproariously.”


New York Times, September 10, 1906.


An ensuing controversy emerged, led by African American clergyman, as well as white religious leaders who thought the exhibit was a “promotion of Darwinism.” Eventually, Benga was removed from the zoo to be placed in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage, and later relocated to live with a white family in Lynchburg, Virginia. Working at a Lynchburg tobacco factory, he began planning a return to the Congo.

Benga’s return became impossible when World War I broke out in 1914, halting passenger ship traffic. With no hope to return, Benga became depressed. On March 20, 1916, Benga built a ceremonial fire and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol. His exceptional life is a testament to the violent dehumanization that came with eugenics’ racist misunderstandings of human evolution and human difference, permitted and fueled by Western society’s inability to see outside of its ethnocentric lens to recognize humanity in non-white “others.”


Ota Benga (1883-1916).

Read more:

Bradford, Phillips Verner. Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo.

Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant.

Qureshi, Sadiah. Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain.

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