Evolution Icon Evolution

Understatement: According to Current Zoo Director, Caging Man “Shouldn’t Have Happened”

Bronx Zoo

If you haven’t already seen or ordered the new documentary Human Zoos, by John West, you should. You can watch the film now on Amazon Prime or get it on DVD or Blu-ray.

When you’re done watching you may wonder: How do folks at the Bronx Zoo today feel about the caging of a human being as an evolutionary lesson, and whatever happened to the Monkey House where African pygmy Ota Benga was displayed in 1906?

Victims of Evolution

The Monkey House was opened in 1901 but decommissioned in 2012. Why? Ironically, a New York Times article cites “evolution.”

It was a casualty of evolution, but not the biological kind.

“Zoo exhibitry has evolved” since the Monkey House opened, said Jim Breheny, the director of the Bronx Zoo. “Originally,” he said, “animals were grouped taxonomically, so you typically had a large cat house, a monkey house, a pachyderm house. They stuck all these animals together in groups that seemed to make sense.”

Later, zoos usually grouped the animals according to the habitats or continents they had come from. Later still, zoos tried to “present animals in as naturalistic a setting as possible,” said Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an industry group.

“That’s both for the education of visitors and for the care and welfare of the animals themselves,” Mr. Feldman said.

So that makes two “casualties” of “evolution,” Ota Benga and the Monkey House. As a historic landmark, the latter can’t be torn down. The current zoo director, Mr. Breheny, did acknowledge the Ota Benga story. “It’s certainly something that shouldn’t have happened,” he told the Times. Understatement of the year!

That’s a picture of the building above, when it was still in use in 2009. It is actually a wonderful architectural treasure in the Beaux-Arts style, designed by the architects Heins & LaFarge.

When the Monkey House closed, Scientific American also took note of the evolutionary angle:

There will, after all, still be monkeys in the Bronx, and perhaps our understanding of them will be better than just a consignment of “goofiness.” Perhaps there will be more room for science and anthropology to help fire imaginations and bring us closer to understanding our own evolutionary history.

Of course, hammering home the lesson about “our own evolutionary history” was exactly the purpose behind displaying and humiliating an African man with monkeys.

Photo: Monkey House, Bronx Zoo, in 2009, by Michael Gray via Flickr (cropped).