Caged: Humans and Animals at the Zoo

About this Episode

Guests
Daniel Vandersomers and Tracy McDonald

Zoos are some of the world’s most visited attractions. Yet they often make headlines for controversial reasons such as in 2016 when the Cincinnati Zoo shot and killed a gorilla after a child fell into the animal’s enclosure or in 2017 when poachers killed a rhinoceros at a Paris Zoo for its horns. While schoolchildren and adults alike may delight at the prospect of a trip to the zoo, historically zoos have represented far more than a fun way to spend an afternoon. Explore zoos past and present in this episode of History Talk where hosts Brenna Miller and Jessica Blissit speak with historians Daniel Vandersommers and Tracy McDonald.

For more on zoos, see Origins' article, "What's All Happening at the Zoo?"

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Cite this Site

Jessica Viñas-Nelson, Brenna Miller , "Caged: Humans and Animals at the Zoo" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
March, 2017
https://origins.osu.edu/index.php/historytalk/caged-humans-and-animals-zoo?language_content_entity=en.
March, 2017

Transcript

Jessica Blissit 

Welcome to History Talk the podcast that brings together a panel of experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. I'm your host Jessica Blissit.

 

Brenna Miller  

And I'm your other host Brenna Miller. Around the world zoos have become a mainstay weekend attraction more popular than even sporting events. Periodically zoos attract headlines too such as last month when the Japanese zoo euthanized 57 snow monkeys after DNA tests revealed that they had some genes from a species of monkey considered invasive to Japan, or in 2016 when an Ohio zoo shot and killed a western lowland gorilla, Harambe, after a toddler fell into the gorilla's habitat.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Today we think of zoos as places for both animal preservation and human entertainment. But how and when did these public institutions come about? And what did they tell us about ourselves, our relationship to other animals, and our broader place in nature? Today we have a roundtable of historians with us to discuss the history of zoos, humans and other animals.

 

Brenna Miller  

Via phone we have Dr. Daniel Vandersomers, a postdoctoral fellow in animal history at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, specializing in American environmental and cultural history and the history of zoos in the United States.

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

Hi everybody.

 

Jessica Blissit 

And also via phone we have Dr. Tracy McDonald an Associate Professor of Russian and Soviet history, also at McMaster University. Her areas of interest include social and cultural history, micro history, film, agrarian studies, violence and animal studies.

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

Hello.

 

Jessica Blisset 

Thanks for joining us today. Historically, what has been the purpose of zoos, Dan?

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

Well, when we look at zoo history from the grandest perspective, especially alongside their predecessors, menageries, the history of zoos really began at the beginning of cities. As city states formed in ancient societies, menageries, fancy word for our collection of wild animals for the purpose of display. These menageries are born alongside and within ancient cities. And the purpose of these menageries at its very origin was to display not only animals, but power and wealth with those animals. In the ancient world, whether we look at Egypt or India or Mesopotamia, or Persia, we see these menageries forming really the world over. Emperor Rudy displayed elephants and giant pandas and Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut displayed rhinoceroses and giraffes, Moctezuma in Mexico displayed jaguars and eagles and snakes and really, when we look at these displays, what these rulers are really displaying is the ability to conquer their enemies, conquer nature to command geography. And we see a transition eventually from the ancient form of menagerie to what we would consider a modern zoo in the late 18th and early 19th century. Kingdoms are replaced by nation states we see private funded menageries being replaced by public funded zoos. As this transition happens, though power and wealth still remains at the center of zoological parks, these modern zoos, and in comparison to the ancient form of menagerie, display something new and these new zoos are also interested in knowledge, and they're interested in education. They're interested in entertainment, in science and displaying power as well.

 

Brenna Miller  

Tracy, anything to add?

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

Yeah, just to add, imperialism plays a massive role when countries are moving into territories. And then basically this kind of imperiled drive to collect the animals that are there, and just animals being used from the beginning of time for diplomacy, basically as gifts from one power to another. And a kind of very recent local example, as well is the concept of panda diplomacy, and the basically rental of pandas from China and what that means in sort of broader diplomatic sense as a really interesting story as well.

 

Brenna Miller  

So when exactly did zoos start trying to make the enclosures more natural? Because I think when we think of some of these older forms of zoos, we think of kind of the concrete cages and steel bars. When did they try and make them look more like the natural habitat of these animals?

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

So I would say that as far as naturalistic enclosures or enclosures that are seemingly naturalistic, this was a long process. I would say that it begins really intensively at the end of the 19th century. In the 1880s and 1890s. These modern zoos, began to make enclosures look more naturalistic, in comparison to the cages that define menageries most of zoo history. In the 1890s famous German and Hamburg Zoo owner Carl Haganbeck, his major figure in prompting the shift to naturalistic enclosures, he designed what was what he called the panorama or the panorama exhibit. In panoramas animals from the same ecosystem in the wild were displayed together in one single enclosure to make it look realistic or naturalistic. They were displayed with the appropriate plants, with painted backdrops that would look like the backdrops you would find in the wild, with fake rocks. The goal of panorama was to model a quote unquote real landscape and German Zoo owner Hagenbeck popularizes this in the 1890s and really sets the bar high for modeling enclosures after real landscapes. Now, of course, one of his famous panoramas displayed seals and walruses, reindeer and polar bears in a single habitat. However, they were never actually in a single enclosure, what the panorama used was moats to separate seals from the walruses from the reindeer, and from the polar bears so that they would appear as if they were in a single habitat, but in fact, they were separated by these barriers. The real importance of the panorama is to trick the viewer or the zoo goer into thinking or looking into a real environment.

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

Yeah. What's interesting, I agree with Dan that Hagenbeck is often pointed to as the central figure in this transition where he imagines this idea of more natural enclosures and implements it in the zoo that he constructs in Hamburg in 1907. What's interesting, too, is that there were those who still defended the Victorian model. So William Hornaday at what the New York's Zoological Park now the Bronx Zoo, he and Hagenbeck were in a very close correspondence and a very, very prolific correspondence for many years. And Hagenbeck was always telling Hornaday to come and see this new zoo and these new enclosures and Hornaday very much felt that the zoo was for Zoo goers were for people and that Hagenbeck’s enclosures allowed animals to get away and to potentially hide. Whereas the Victorian model with small cages allowed the zoo goer work to see the animals and always have access to them. So there was those differences there. Also, some places, Toronto, for example, is very, very late to transition from the Victorian model to the more natural large enclosure model. The Toronto Zoo doesn't open until 1974. And a Victorian zoo operates in Riverdale until 1974, with increasing complaints from the public about those conditions, and about the fact that they felt that the animal enclosures were too small for the animals there. So that's an interesting local history for us. Also, just to add to this idea that Dan suggested that naturalistic enclosures aren't always what they seem, he talks about the moats that separate particular animals. There are also cases where foliage, for example, is electrified to stop animals from rooting it up because it's so expensive to keep replacing and this kind of constant struggle between animals' kind of natural instincts and the attempt to keep them in enclosures that sometimes have to basically obstruct those instincts.

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

Yeah, both modern zoos and the history to naturalistic looking enclosures is quite complex. While Hagenbeck and the panoramas often held up as the quintessential example of a naturalistic enclosure, most naturalistic enclosures were far more simple than these elaborate, unified exhibits with multiple species. Most naturalistic enclosures in the 1890s in the first decade of the 20th century, were simply larger enclosures made to look like fields or forests or oceanscapes for seals. So most naturalistic enclosures, I just wanted to make clear, are more simple than Hagenbeck's large and grand and very expensive panoramas.

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

Absolutely, to add to that as well it's very much contingent on what resources the zoo has access to. And a lot of times I think that the transition or the attempt to transition to model like Hagenbeck was much more of a nod to his model than anything that approximates what he was able to do with the resources he had at his disposal.

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

 Yeah, often the first zoos--1793, is often seen as the year that the first modern Zoo was born when the Menagerie in outside of Paris, the Jardin Royales des Plantes was transitioned from the Royal ownership to public ownership. However, this transition is possible because it is a zoo with a lot of capital. Zoos in London and Dublin and Philadelphia, and Melbourne and Antwerp--these will become the first zoos because they have the most assets at the time. So this transition from Menagerie to modern zoo is a long one and it is, as Tracy mentioned, largely due to what the zoos actually have.

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

And a lot of zoos aren't able to make that transition. In addition, a lot of zoos and developing nations, zoos in big cities, Russia is a good example, aren't able to make that transition because they remain in a small urban space. That's part of the problem as well.

 

Brenna Miller  

So have the changes in the mission of Zoos echoed broader changes in the relationship between humans and other animals? Are these signs of that change?

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

I would say that it does mirror changes and or at least some changes in the relationship between humans and other animals. That the modern zoo, especially at the end of the 19th century, as they begin to model naturalistic looking environments--this moment is happening at the exact same time that the Western world, especially in Western Europe, and the United States is concerned with environmentalism and ecology. These conservation movements of the late 19th century occur at the same moment that the zoos are trying to transform their enclosures and this, these two histories go hand in hand with each other.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Tracy, anything to add?

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

There are early reactions to the zoo, where people are saying that, you know, just incarceration or putting animals in zoos is cruel. Right from the very beginning earlier, you know, of the modern zoo it has its critics and I'm not convinced that the move to the more naturalistic enclosure changes the view of zoo goers very much. I think it pacifies the criticism, the kind of surface criticism where people are like, oh, that's a big Tiger in a small cage, you know, and I would feel better about that Tiger if it had more space. But really, the more space is not enough space for those animals by and large. And also, I think, does it change the view goers’ attitudes? If we look at the Harambe case that you mentioned at the beginning, I think people have a really kind of a gift store attitude toward the animals in a way that's not good. That there's little difference between the stuffed gorilla that you can buy at the gift shop and the gorilla in an enclosure that your child falls into until you see that child next to that animal. And so I feel that the transition is not as large as one might think on first approaching the issue in terms of how to look at animals.

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

Absolutely. I was just going to add to that, Tracy that these changes in zoos I don't think are as intertwined with changes in human animal relationships as it is entwined with its shifting in human desire. That going to the zoo for human zoogoer, is about the desire of that zoogoer are to see the wild and part of this desire's wrapped up in the old ill ancient issues of feeling powerful to stroll through a zoo. You can feel the power strolling through the world in miniatures, as one scholar puts it. But also, this desire is also about escape from escaping industrialization escaping the crowdedness of cities. It's escaping the reality that there's actually very, very little wild spaces left at the end of the 19th century. With that being said, though, I think the relationship between humans and animals are impacting the zoo very little. I mean, the Zoological Park, even as it's undergoing its transition in its enclosures is about the human desire, not so much about the relationship between, the actual relationship between humans and animals.

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

I actually have a kind of funny anecdote. Both Dan and I have been researching the archives, the Wildlife Conservancy Archives on the Bronx Zoo, and kind of indicative vignette, where a young boy was maybe eight years old, was walking along, and a squirrel ran across this path, and he jumped like three feet in the air. And it just was very clear that these were very urban children, and another child still in a push chair, maybe three or four was visibly panicked and asking where the people were. And I just thought it was really, fits nicely with Dan's example of why go to a zoo, right? And what it means to escape a kind of urban, tight urban, dense urban environment.

 

Jessica Blissit 

That's a great anecdote. Thank you. Tracy, you've looked at zoos in the Soviet Union. How's the history of zoos in other parts of the world similar or different from those in the US?

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

It's a really interesting question and I think, in many ways, the Russian tradition is not dissimilar to the US. One of the big problems both for Russia and for the Soviet Union was a lack of resources and that really did limit the way that the zoos developed. So the trajectory is quite similar in the sense that the Moscow Zoo is the first zoo to be established. It' s established in 1864. It also is built on the back of menageries that preexisted it so it's animal collection largely comes from menageries in and around Moscow and then from animals that are given to the zoo. For example, the zoo is initially established by a society for the acclimatization of animals and the problem up until the revolution in 1917, is that the zoo goes back and forth. The acclimatization society runs out of funds, and the zoo is sold to a private owner. And then there's all of this criticism that the private owner's running it into the ground and has concerts and the animals are not being fed and they're completely traumatized and it's open late at night, and it becomes this kind of, you know. And this is the mythology. It's hard to sort out what was really going on. But that the zoo becomes this kind of dangerous, unhealthy degenerate zone and then it's taken over again by the society with assistance from the Imperial Regime from the Tsarist Regime and that happens that back and forth happens a couple of times. And again, it's problematic. There's no running water, heating is an issue. One of the members of the acclimatization society has a kangaroo living in his apartment for months and months and months, because they're afraid to put it in the zoo that something's going to happen to it. And then the revolutions in 1905, and the revolutions in 1917 because the Moscow Zoo is such an urban zoo, there was really heavy fighting. In both cases on the grounds of the zoo, which destroyed a lot of the territory. Animals were killed. And then in the Civil War period, from 1918 to 1921, there was mass starvation. The zoos, they couldn't keep them. They couldn't feed them, and it was just completely chaotic. And there's an attempt in the 1920s, the Bolshevik states starts to invest in the zoo as well. And I've looked at this interesting attempt by people who work within the zoo to lobby for state resources and their arguments as to why the zoo is an important educational institution and an important institution for any world class city, which appeals to the Bolsheviks in terms of how they want to project the country to the rest of the world. So it's a really, really interesting history and trajectory. The history of the Leningrad and Moscow Zoos and World War Two is particularly interesting as well, because it's an incredible crisis moment. And how do they keep these animals alive in the siege of Leningrad? Zookeepers managed to keep a hippopotamus alive when more than a million Leningraders starve and they're keeping a hippopotamus alive.

 

Brenna Miller  

So we've already referenced a little bit about this perception of the cruelty of zoos. And there is a popular debate about the benefits versus their cruelty, as places that especially today are believed to kind of educate people about nature and the environment, versus a place where animals are caged and dislocated. So how have zoos historically fit into conversations about animal welfare either positively or negatively?

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

Well, that's a really interesting question, Brenna. Like so much of history, zoological parks are also complex and often contradictory places. I would say from my own research that might see zoos falling in this spectrum. On the one side, zoological parks happen and in some ways, still are institutions of torture or can be characterized as such. On the other end of this spectrum, zoos have been and still are institutions of welfare, and in many cases, animal rights. I guess to kind of tackle this question--there's a mixed legacy in the history of Zoos with the issue of education. Several scholars have shown in the present and in the recent past in the last 25 years that zoos do very little education work, meaning that most people that go to zoos learn very little. And in fact, there's some evidence to show that most people that go to zoos actually learn less about the natural world than people who don't go to zoos at all. So this is one side of this legacy on education. On the other side though, for the last 200 years zoos have been magnets for scientists and naturalists, ethologists and ecologists and veterinary doctors, as well as zookeepers themselves who not only in many cases stand as symbols of, you know, welfare for animals, but also push human knowledge in thinking about animals in new directions. So for humans, zoos and for these humans, zoos are often places where empathy and welfare are born, where science is dealing with animal behaviors are advanced. On the flip side, to look at the issue of welfare I think for the animals, there's also a mixed legacy. Well, I mean, first of all, it's difficult to truly be able to say what an individual animal's experience is, or was in the past. So that's kind of the first issue. But I think, in the biggest picture while holding animals captive, while limiting their freedom, while preventing them to be themselves in the wild, combined with a long history of inadequate cages, especially before zoos make a transition to larger enclosures, it's clear that for the animals welfare is not possible. Today, though, issues are more complicated. Zoos in the 20th century have inherited, you know, new practices, like rescuing animals injured in the wild, or rescuing animals from ecosystems that have vanished. Also zoos or some zoos are employed with reintroducing the animals into the wild. In general, some of these issues are about the very welfare of the animals that are in the zoos, and the legacy for animals themselves becomes more complex. I also think it's important to know that since World War II, the majority of zoo animals are animals born in the zoo, and most of these animals, you know, grandparents or great grandparents, you know, several lines have been born within zoos. So there's a movement now to think of zoo animals, not so much as wild animals held in captivity, but a new sort of animal, maybe a public pet of sorts. It's hard to hold, you know, a zoo lion to the metric of a wild lion today when that lion has been bred in a zoo for the last 60 years. So I'm just saying all this because it really makes this kind of legacy much more lax. What do you think, Tracy?

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

I think, to kind of work backwards in time, you sort of work forwards in time. And I chronologically and I agree that zoos, it's possible, perhaps to reconfigure them as places that can, as you pointed out, rehabilitate animals that have been injured in the wild, to take in animals that can't go back into the wild. You talked about the issue of animals that have been born into zoos, generations of animals born into zoos and this idea of the kind of, did you call it a zoo pet?

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

I used the word pet. So I realize it's a category pushing word.

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

I know exactly and that's what I wanted to sort of talk about as well. That very concept introduces a problematic, right? Like, what does it mean that we have bred these animals so that they become a pet of sorts? They are very, very used to humans. A lot of them have been hand reared and that sort of brings me to an example that occurred the end of February in El Salvador, which really, really bothered me. It played on my mind to try and figure out why something like this would happen. So people broke into a zoo in El Salvador, and beat to death a hippopotamus, Gustavito, who was this very much as a zoo pet. Social media just went crazy. People were mourning. They left flowers for him. Why was this animal attacked in this way? What does this mean? What is the symbol? Why this violence directed at this animal? And thinking about the fact that in the wild, it would be very difficult to approach a hippo and start beating it with boards. But this animal was used to people, right, and these people who wanted to do it harm. It was relatively easy for them to approach the animal and it took him a long time to die. It was a really brutal event and I think it's an event that we need to think about in terms of what animals and violence--what violent acts against animals mean and symbolize. So that is one issue. There was a Swiss biologist who was writing in major publications in the 60s, I think about zoos, [Heini] Hediger wrote really interesting books on Zoo biology. And his argument at the time was like, if you don't have the resources to have a zoo that can adequately house and feed animals, you shouldn't have a zoo. And Bill Jamison, who has written on zoos, argues that if we're going to put animals in cages, that we owe them everything. And it's very, very difficult to give them everything is the problem and Hediger also, one of the things that struck me in his work was he said that zoos attract sadists like magnets. And there is a lot of violence against animals from Zoo goers. Monkeys are given lit cigarettes. They are constantly taunted and tormented and this is sort of a problem that zoos are constantly addressing and factor into their budgets, which is the loss of animals at the hands of Zoo goers. So I think there's always a dark underbelly to the zoo and it's something that recently has maybe been coming out more I'm not sure.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Well, I think that's a perfect transition to our next question, perhaps to hide some of the negatives you have been speaking about. Zoos today seem to be conveying the message that it's important to conserve animal habitats in the wild and to save animals and increasingly present themselves as sort of arcs that try to preserve species from extinction. When did the shift to zoos as arcs begin? And is it because of some of these negatives that you've been talking about? How do we go from Menageries to arcs so quickly? Has the zoo industry ever had the opposite effect?

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

Well, it's a good question, I suppose thinking of Zoos as arcs. If we would think of the ark literally, or at least literally, from a biblical standpoint of Noah, the story of Noah taken from Mesopotamian lore, of course. But if Noah collected the animals on the ark to protect them from their annihilation during the Great Flood, we take this literally on for a zoo as a place where animals will be saved from extinction. I think this mission was formed in the late 19th century, specifically in the United States and though the history of Zoos is a global story, in many ways, the United States really furthers or invents this mission of saving animals from extinction. American zoos in the late 19th century from the late 1880s, really until 1910, really creates a mission to save the animals of North America. The United States, a young nation in comparison to European nations wanted to create institutions that could match Europe, and they wanted to create a nation that could be compared to the great nations of Europe. Yet they were concerned that many of the symbols of North America, animal symbols, animals, like elk and beavers were disappearing and would be gone very soon. So the zoo sought to serve on an ark of sorts. These animals, the American zoos were specifically concerned with beaver, elk, bison, moose, condors, passenger pigeons, black tailed deer, caribou, antelope, mountain sheep, manatees, mountain goats, grizzly bears, elephant seals. These are animals found in North America that aren't found anywhere else in the world, and it became a mission of American zoos to preserve them. For the follow up of that question. I would say that, I don't if know zoos themselves further extinction, but there is many cases that I guess contributed to the cultural processes that led to it and when I say that, I mean that in many times the search to catch the animals that were disappearing from the wild, the very process of catching these animals ended up creating more casualties than if they didn't try to catch them in the first place. I've done a lot of research about mountain sheep, for example, and zoos really wanted mountain sheep. It was quite difficult to catch them because they would only be found on the highest, you know, peaks in The United States. Often when a zoo would go out to catch a mountain sheep would take several years. Oftentimes, more mountain sheep were injured or killed in the process than could have ever been imagined at the beginning. So in this way, I think we're part of the process of annihilation. I wouldn't say that zoos specifically caused it, because they're, you know, near extinctions, or their endangerment occurred before on the rise of news themselves.

 

Brenna Miller  

Tracy, anything to add?

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

Yeah, I think it's a really interesting question and as Dan suggested, a very, very complex question with many sorts of elements that are working together. In the research that I've been looking at, again a lot of it rooted in that early 20th century correspondence, William Hornaday's correspondence, there's this defense in the preservation of American wildlife that then detailed, there's this interesting discussion about the right kind of hunting and the wrong kind of hunting. And there's kind of an interesting motivation for preservation has to do with the right kind of hunting. A lot of these individuals were hunters and they wanted to preserve these animals so they can continue to hunt them. So there's an interesting tension there and another interesting tension I forgot to mention between the Russian and American zoos and Dan and I had talked about this the other day, is that the Russian zoos are heavily invested in adapting wild animals to domestic life. So what Russian zoos are working on domesticating sable for the fur industry, domesticating foxes for the fur industry, and there is no apology for that connection in the Russian context, which I thought when I talked to Dan, he didn't see in the American context. So that's the kind of interesting element there. In terms of extinction, also really interesting in, I've been working a lot on an individual who was hired to trap gorillas for the Bronx Zoo in 1912, 1911-1912. And he's constantly ranting against the way that locals in the French Congo are capturing animals with no sort of self-reflection, that it's the demand from the west, for these animals that is creating these brutal situations where families are attacked, adults are killed, and the babies are taken away. So the ways of trapping animals, particularly in the early period, is very, very, has a very brutal side to it, as well and I do think that this is a spin that zoos have adopted to try and defend themselves in many ways and to motivate their continued existence. And in some ways, it might be sincere in other ways, less so. And also, there's an element here too with this attempting to bring back extinct species and what does that mean? What does that mean for the existing animals that are going to be basically incubators for these new species and experiments that are going to be conducted on existing animals in order to bring back a woolly mammoth? Who's going to investigate a woolly mammoth an elephant, right? So there's a another side to this as well, what does it mean to try and bring back the white rhino? What are we going to do that? And how many animals are going to suffer in that process that we don't care about? So that's, I think what I would add there.

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

Yeah, I would just say that the role of the zoo as an ark is actually more relevant and more spoken about now than ever before, simply because the rate of extinction and endangerment has gone up drastically since World War I. So while this was a mission of the early zoos, I think, you know, in today's popular culture, this idea of the zoo as an ark  is, you know, more discussed and more relevant in many ways just because we're endangering so many species at such a higher rate than ever before.

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

Dan and I recently hosted a workshop in December on zoos and zoo studies. We called it Zoo Studies Toward a New Humanities. And one of our participants is an anthropologist at York, Catherine Dunning asked the question that deals with some of this bringing species back. Is there a worse outcome than extinction, than disappearance for some species? And that was kind of an interesting, provocative question along the same lines.

 

Jessica Blissit 

What was the consensus to that question?

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

There was none. It was a very interesting discussion. It's such an interesting, unique question, right? Like, hmm, because our natural assumption is extinction's the worst thing, right? But what does preservation mean? And what does bringing species back really entail?

 

Jessica Blissit 

Right.

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

And when you start to look at it, one's view becomes much more complicated.

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

Yeah, it's interesting. Just rhetorical questions, you know, what good does it do to preserve a species that evolved in nature? By keeping this species in living museums? What good does it do for the species? What good does it do for the humans keeping them? And who would we be doing this for? There’re several species that went extinct in the early 19th century, like the Hokkaido wolf or the Atlas bear. There's an elephant bird, a Tahiti Sandpiper. I mean, there's maybe 40-50 different species that went extinct, you know, before 1850. It's interesting to think, you know, what would our situation in the world be if we had kept these alive in zoos? What would this, you know, why would we do so? What would it add to the world that, you know, we wouldn't have without them? And it's an interesting thought, because this issue of keeping these animals around is actually more possible today than ever, but some of those larger moral questions are just interesting to think about.

 

Brenna Miller  

So have there ever been any instances that flip the script on zoos and put people on display?

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

Yes, I think this is important. I would first of all, you know, the script actually isn't being flipped in these situations. Um, so the short answer is yes. Humans have been displayed in zoos many, many, many times. But the script though, isn't altered. Human zoos kept the same script as animal zoos, but in the place of the animal were humans. Humans were put in zoos as if they were animals in the 1870s. Through the 1890s human zoos, and human exhibitions were quite popular, especially in Europe, but also in the United States. And these exhibitions, and these human zoos embody and represent just racism at its worst, the displaying of naked, usually dark bodies as objects to be gawked at, as symbols of conquered wild nature as signifiers of Empire. Whether the humans were Newfins or Samoans or Eskimos or American Indians, these situations are just you know, racism at its worst. They're humans put on display for the delights of white middle and upper classes throughout the global West. The most famous case in United States is the case of Oda Banga. In 1906, the Bronx Zoo in New York City displayed a Congolese pygmy man, Oda Banga, in a display with chimpanzees, with an orangutan, with a parrot, with a sign also that says the missing link, suggesting that in evolutionary terms, at least that Oda Banga was, you know, closer to being an animal than Europeans were. So displays like these were quite common. The Cincinnati Zoo and other places throughout the United States also displayed American Indians, the Sioux, specifically. So humans have been exploited in zoos frequently in the past and I think this is interesting in many ways, as an important story for the history of marginalization and racism, and ethnic strife things like this. But it's also interesting because what does this say about the structure of Zoos themselves? In order to otherize other humans we put them in a zoo. But what does this say about the space of the zoo in particular?

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

Yeah, I think the points that Dan has made are absolutely right on. There is this tradition of exhibiting humans in zoos. Oda Banga, for example, was already part of the human exhibits at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904. And there were thousands of people exhibited at that world fair. 2,000 Native Americans were exhibited. Over 1000 people from the Philippines were exhibited in a 47-acre enclosure meant to recreate villages. Nine indigenous men and women from Japan, were exhibited. Oba Bango was one of 12 men from Congo, who was on exhibit in St. Louis and there was all manner of misinformation that was connected to these men. Moreover, they were young men. They had brought with them parrots and chimpanzees and people who were at this exhibit, were burning these animals with cigars, were taunting these young men and as it got colder because they were there for a month. People in attendance would complain if they covered their native dress so that they want these young men to still be in loincloth in very cold weather and they were borrowing blankets from the Native Americans and the next exhibit over and this was just this incredibly bizarre scene. That wasn't really that long ago. This was 1904 in the United States and there's a long legacy of people actually asking for compensation to family members who they felt had been exploited in these exhibits. So it's a very interesting and not that ancient history. In fact, Oda Banga's story ends on a tragic note. He doesn't spend that much [time] in the Bronx Zoo because it causes this huge controversy where Baptist preachers and particular Baptist ministers come in and say, you can't do this, and it becomes quite the scandal. And he's released, but he can never really afford to raise the money to get back home, and he commits suicide in 1916. So that's a very interesting story.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Thank you. Any last thoughts?

 

Dr. Tracy McDonald 

There's a wonderful novel that came out in like 1924 by David Garnett, who was in the Bloomsbury Group. It's called Man In The Zoo. And he puts himself into an exhibit and it's a quite wonderful reflection on what it would mean to have a human on exhibit in the zoo in a different kind of condition where he himself has opted for this.

 

Dr. Daniel Vandersomers 

I would just say that zoos are really complex and interesting places to think with, you know. Over 600 million people a year visit a zoo. So they're, you know, significant institutions and you know, human society and throughout time, there's been millions of animals and millions and millions of human beings that find themselves in these unusual spaces. So the history of zoos is really complex. Every zoo has its own history that's unique and significant. But the, you know, the zoo provides a window into all sorts of historical and scientific, ethical and philosophical questions.

 

Brenna Miller  

Well, we'll wrap it up on that note. Thank you to Daniel Vandersomers, a postdoctoral fellow in animal history at McMaster University in Ontario, and Dr. Tracy McDonald, a professor of Russian and Soviet history, also at McMaster University. For more on this topic, check out Dan Vandersomers feature article for Origins, "What's all happening at the zoo?"

 

Jessica Blissit 

Thanks, everyone. This episode of History Talk podcast was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective an online publication of the public history initiative and the Goldberg Center, the History Departments at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley, our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Brenna Miller and Jessica Blisset. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcast and more on our website origins.osu.edu on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for listening.

 

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