The Shameful History Of Humanity: Human Zoos

by hridika ahire
The Shameful History Of Humanity: Human Zoos

March 19, 2021

Have you wondered what gave birth to racism or why racism has been the biggest issue? Humans tend to think of themselves as superior to others. This tendency leads them to commit heinous crimes. But the biggest crime is treating a person like an animal and keeping him caged in a zoo.

As kids, we loved going to the zoo and look at all the fascinating animals that we read about in our books. For us as children, it was an experience that we would never forget. We went to aquariums to see the fishes, and it was an innocent fascination since we were kids. But as we grew up, we found the ugly truth behind such zoos. We found out about the ill-treatment of the animals by the zookeepers. We sympathized with them, and eventually, laws were put in place against animal torture. 

We as humans know how to sympathize with animals but not humans. Humans are each other’s biggest enemies and exploiters. Some people think that they are supreme than others and deserve more than others. The people that have suffered the most are predominantly the people of colour. We’ve heard stories about racial discrimination. But have you heard about the Human zoos or colonial exhibits which were famous back in the day?

maxresdefault 2

How the Concept Of Human Zoos Evolved

These human zoos would not only showcase artefacts but actual people belonging to different regions as well. Before the world knew about cinema, westerners would find entertainment in seeing these foreigners that they never knew but just heard about. The world wasn’t as accepting of people outside their circle as they are now. Or at least trying to be. The standards of beauty were much different, and those who didn’t meet these norms would be labelled as outcasts or freaks. You must have seen this behaviour in The Greatest Showman. 

The first instance known was in the 1800s. Jardin tropical was a French-owned agricultural land that concentrated in the cultivation of plants belonging to Madagascar, Indochine, Sudan, Congo, Tunisia and Morocco. This garden became very famous and piqued people’s curiosity about the culture that was so foreign to them. The Paris Colonial Exposition became the main attraction, but it wasn’t for the right reasons. Along with the various plantation from a foreign land, the Exposition also wanted to showcase the indigenous villages and their lifestyle. As a result, human beings from these regions were imported into France and were put on display at the Exposition.


The Inhumane Conditions

These people would be given costumes and were made to perform different tasks, which weren’t always true to their nature. The costumes could not keep the people from being affected by the new environment that they were pushed into. Therefore, due to the terrible conditions, diseases, and the cold killed many of the performers.

Human zoos were popular in many European cities other than Paris. They included Hamburg, London, Milan and New York and Chicago; the American cities were also very interested in these human zoos. In the year 1874, Carl Hagenbeck, an animal trader, decided to display Sami people at the Laplander Exhibition. This promoted scientific racism as less ‘civilized’ than them. The people seemed to love watching these foreigners and how they lived their life, which was forced on them as a part of the show. He then went on and launched a Nubian Exhibit in 1876 and an Inuit exhibit in 1880, and both of these were a massive success as well.

ota benga chimp
Ota Benga on display at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The heartbreaking tale of Ota Benga

At the St. Louis Fair, they displayed Filipinos as well as Africans. One of the most sought-after people in these exhibits was an African named Ota Benga. Benga was taken to New York after his work at St. Louis Fair and was displayed at the Bronx Zoo. In his mind, he thought he was taken to work at the zoo and take care of the zoo’s elephant. 


He was taken because of his uniquely filed teeth which were pointy. This carving of teeth was a custom in his tribe. To make him look more like a savage, his cage, yes cage, was littered with bones placed by the zookeepers. In the body of a New York Times article, Benga was identified as “a Bushman, one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale.” He was kept on display along with monkeys, and his card read

“Age, 23 years. Height, 4 ft 11 inches. Weight 103 pound. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, By D. Samuel P Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.” 

People came in hoards to see this apparent savage with pointy teeth. Banga soon left the zoo and went back to Africa, but he no longer felt like he belonged there; therefore, he came back to America. When he came to America, the feeling of home or comfort was still missing. Out of this loneliness, he shot himself in the heart in 1916. 


scool buzz German zoologist Professor Lutz Heck is pictured (left) with an elephant and a family he brought to the Berlin Zoo, in Germany in 1931
German zoologist Professor Lutz Heck is pictured (left) with an elephant and a family he brought to the Berlin Zoo, in Germany in 1931

The Last Human Zoo

You would think that this was done in the 19’s era, but we are sorry, you are mistaken. The practice of displaying humans at zoos continued in the middle of the 20th century as well. A picture had become viral in 1958 at the world’s fair in brussels. The picture showed a little girl from africa being fed by a patron over the fence like an animal. But by this time, people’s fascination with outlandish people was fed by the cinemas that were being made. Also, by 1958, people had gained some conscience, and the notion of human zoos was considered distasteful by many, and it was also banned in some of the countries.

The most recent evidence of the human zoo was the 2012 video of the Jarawa tribe in Andaman island, India. The video showed a safari that didn’t just include the animals, but the Jarawa people and their lifestyle. In the video, you can even see that the tribal people were made to perform for the tourists, which, to be honest, is very disturbing on so many levels.  


As a way to show their distaste towards the racism faced by their ancestors, Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner recreated a Kongolandsbyen exhibition (the congo village) which was popular in the Norway World Fair in 1914. Although they had pure intentions, many people took it in the wrong sense. Writer Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire asked, “is there any artistic value in the re-enactment of such a dehumanizing spectacle, especially in a world not yet fully healed of racism? Is this an abuse of art?”

Yes, there are rights in place for humans all over the world. Yes, the world has accepted people from different races, but it is still not enough. Even today, people of different races are treated differently, and you have the latest example of the Uber driver Subhakar Khadka who faced racist comments from three young women in San Francisco. We need to start looking at everyone as equal no matter their caste, race, colour etc. It is pretty shameful that some of our ancestors would encourage humans to be kept in cages as a form of entertainment and exploit them.


Recommended for you

Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More