NEW YORK — The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo, three other zoos and an aquarium in New York, apologized Wednesday for two aspects of its history that the society’s chief executive described as demonstrating “unconscionable racial intolerance.”
In a statement, the society apologized for an incident that took place in 1906 when the Bronx Zoo put a young Central African man of the Mbuti ethnic group on display in the Monkey House for several days.
Objections from local Black ministers ultimately put a stop to the exploitative exhibition.
The conservation society, which was established as the New York Zoological Society in 1895, had never before issued a formal public apology for the inhumane treatment of the young man, Ota Benga, who had previously been taken from his home in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and put on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
The second part of the apology addressed two of the group’s founders — Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn — and their advancement of “eugenics-based, pseudoscientific racism.”
The chief executive of the conservation society, Cristián Samper, said in an interview that the group had started digging into its history because of its 125th anniversary this year and that that process — combined with conversations about racial injustice sweeping the country after the police killing of George Floyd — led the organization to publish the apology.
Samper said that over the years, the organization had heard from both employees and outside observers who wanted the group to directly address the issue of Ota Benga.
“As we looked to the 125th, I kept coming back to this,” Samper said. “We really needed to look at this, to own up to this. It’s a tragic thing that we did.”
In a letter to staff last month, the society announced its plan to acknowledge the mistakes publicly and to make available its digitized archives related to Ota Benga, which it did Wednesday. Among the documents is a letter from the Bronx Zoo director at the time, William Temple Hornaday, to the New York mayor, George McClellan, saying that the Black ministers’ objection to the display of Ota Benga was “notoriety-seeking” and not an attempt to address a “real grievance.”
The letter to staff noted that Ota Benga ultimately took his own life after he was unable to return home because of travel restrictions during World War I, calling him a “victim of the racism that robbed him of his humanity.”
Grant, who helped create the zoological society, was a conservationist and eugenicist who wrote a book called “The Passing of the Great Race.” It argued that America’s greatness, built on the Nordic stock of its founders, was being eroded by immigrants. Adolf Hitler is said to have called the book “my bible.” The book was praised by another of the group’s founders, Osborn, also a noted eugenicist, who for 25 years led the American Museum of Natural History as its president.
“We deeply regret that many people and generations have been hurt by these actions,” Samper wrote in his public statement, “or by our failure previously to publicly condemn and denounce them.”