Bronx Zoo Operator Apologizes for Racist Display in 1906

AP Photo/Jim Fitzgerlad, File
AP Photo/Jim Fitzgerlad, File

The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo, has publicly apologized for “unconscionable” acts, one from over a century ago.

“First, we apologize for and condemn the treatment of a young Central African from the Mbuti people of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo,” the statement, written by Wildlife Conservation Society President and CEO Cristián Samper, said.

The Bronx Zoo “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,” the Wednesday letter explained.

In the statement, the WCS announced that Ota Benga’s records will be made available online in an effort to “publicly acknowledge the mistakes of our past,” and has denounced the “eugenics-based, pseudoscientific racism, writings, and philosophies” promoted by two of its founders; Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn, Sr.

Grant authored the eugenics book The Passing of the Great Race, and Osborn contributed the preface. The book was used as a defense exhibit for Nazi doctor Karl Brandt, who served as Adolf Hitler’s personal physician and director of the Third Reich’s “euthanasia” program.

“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,” the statement said, continuing:

We recognize that overt and systemic racism persists, and our institution must play a greater role to confront it. As the United States addresses its legacy of anti-Black racism and the brutal killings that have led to mass protests around the world, we reaffirm our commitment to ensuring that social, racial, and environmental justice are deep-rooted in our conservation mission.

“Today I challenge myself and my colleagues to do better and to never look away whenever and wherever injustice occurs,” Samper concluded. As the next step toward that end, the WCS will also hire a “diversity officer” in order to “ensure diverse pools of candidates for recruitment, promotion, and succession planning, including our board and leadership.”

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