The Man In The Zoo


At the closing ceremonies in December 1904, the president of the fair asked if the Pygmies wished to stay in America. They shouted no, in unison, and Samuel Verner dutifully escorted them back to the Congo, then stayed on, collecting specimens and making big plans for his own trading post. Meanwhile, Ota Benga remarried, only to have his second wife die of snakebite. Alone again, with neither a family nor a hunting band of his own, and stubbornly fond of Verner despite everything, he eventually demanded to be brought back to America, to start a new life there. If Verner did not take him, he vowed, he would kill himself.

The two men landed at New York in the summer of 1906, along with crates of artifacts and a small menagerie with which Verner hoped to restore his fortunes. Nothing seemed to work out, and with creditors closing in, Verner finally unloaded his animals on the Bronx Zoo and made Ota Benga’s extended stay there part of a package deal.

At first the Pygmy simply wandered the grounds unnoticed, wearing ordinary clothes, earning his keep by feeding the primates. But the zoo’s director, William T. Hornaday, had a showman’s gaudy instincts. His original plans to have a fully peopled American Indian village on the grounds had never quite worked out. Now he made his small guest a big attraction. BUSHMAN SHARES A CAGE WITH BRONX PARK APES, Said The New York Times, and forty thousand people turned out on a single afternoon to see the “wild man from Africa.”

Not everyone was pleased. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes,” said the Reverend James H. Gordon, chairman of the Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”

As a black man Gordon objected primarily to the exhibition’s naked racism, but as a Baptist he had another agenda: Exhibition of a human being and an orangutan together, with its suggestion that zoo-goers were somehow seeing the missing link, would encourage Darwinism. “This is a Christian country,” Gordon explained, “and the exhibition evidently aims to be a demonstration of the Darwinian theory of evolution. The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted.”

“Our race,” said the Reverend Gordon, “we think, is depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes.”

Even some whites began to object. “I lived in the south several years, and consequently am not over fond of the negro,” one wrote, “but believe him human. I think it a shame that the authorities of this great city should allow such a sight as...a negro boy on exhibition in a monkey cage.”

Director Hornaday could never quite understand what all the fuss was about—after all, he told a reporter, the Pygmy “has one of the best rooms in the primate house”—but he now let Ota Benga out of his cage to wander the grounds. Throngs followed wherever he went, “howling, jeering and yelling,” according to the Times. “Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him.” His keepers teased him too, and one especially hot afternoon, when he started to remove his clothes and got sprayed with a hose for his trouble, he went for one of them with a knife and had to be manhandled back into his cage. BENGA TRIES TO KILL, reported the New York Tribune.

In the end Hornaday decided his prize exhibit had become more trouble than he was worth and turned him over to the Reverend Gordon, who also headed the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. There, studying alongside children one-third his age, Ota Benga did learn to write a little. But, Howard finally admitted, “his age was against his development. It was simply impossible to put him in a class to receive instructions...that would be of any advantage to him.” And he showed an alarming interest in some of the older girls.

In 1910 Ota Benga finally asked to be allowed to attend the Baptist Seminary at Lynchburg, Virginia. There he received Christian baptism, had his name changed to Otto Bingo, even had his filed teeth capped.

He worked at a series of desultory jobs—grounds keeping, feeding chickens, sorting tobacco leaves—but only the forest seemed permanently to hold his interest. In summertime he slept in the hayloft of the seminary’s president, fashioned bows and arrows for small boys, and led them into the woods to hunt small game. Sometimes, on his way home in the evening, he would board the bus and pay his fare with a wild bird’s egg or a rabbit he’d brought home from the forest.

On the afternoon of March 20, 1916, Ota Benga lit a fire behind the carriage house where he lived in summer. He removed the caps from his teeth. When his small companions asked him to lead them into the woods again, he turned them away. Once they were safely out of sight, he shot himself through the heart.