Odds are that some of your first memories with your family involve a trip to the zoo. Even after dad started drinking and new mommy sent us to boarding school, we could look back fondly on that time we got to throw rocks at some rare gibbons and watch two male elephants do perverted looking stuff with their trunks and feel something akin to childlike joy.
But even these places of wide-eyed wonder can wind up teaching children lessons that will keep them up at night well into their teens.
You wouldn't think it, but zoos have a complicated relationship with racism. And by complicated, we mean that zookeepers back in the day thought the only thing better than bringing in an Alaskan caribou was bringing back an entire family of Inuit people and putting them on display. Who knows? Maybe they thought it made the caribou look more exotic.
The real trouble began during mating season.
Which brings us to Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy who had been brought to America as a World's Fair exhibit and asked to remain in the states. In 1906, he was invited to live at the Bronx Zoo under the care of its keeper, William Hornaday. Well, that's nice. It's not like he was there as an exhibit or anything.
Eventually, the staff at the zoo noticed Benga hanging around the monkey house, presumably throwing funnel cake at the cage to get the damn things to do something entertaining, and decided they'd had enough playing white man's burden. They started "encouraging" Benga to hang his hammock in the orangutan cage, and, hey, while you're there, could you just chase the apes around a little bit and ... yes, perfect!
Via Wikimedia Commons
Yeah ... uh ...
So they shut the gate, hung up a sign for their newest exhibit and called it a day. People were obviously upset ... because the exhibit appeared to promote evolution.
Though to be fair, it doesn't work any better when the exhibits are white ...
While Benga was something of an anomaly as a nominally free man coerced into a zoo enclosure -- display of humans in zoos was pretty standard procedure for a long time. Fortunately, we've gotten much better at the whole "not being horrible racists" thing, or at least not displaying human slaves in a pen full of bears.
"No, I didn't eat them. They were already gone when I got here."
In fact, we're so ashamed of that sordid past ... that the London zoo decided to do it again. In 2005. They paid some actors this time around, and it turned out about as well as you would expect.
Aside from the kind of groping you expect from caging five 20-somethings stripped down to a Velcro fig leaf, one participant made the Human Zoo sound like a setup for the Stanford Prisoner Experiment:
"Dear Diary: The pen I'm using is made from my own waste ..."
"When it rained, we had to quickly set up this lame-ass tarp and ... then there was only room for (x-1) people to stand under it, x being the whole group. We set up this ridiculous rotation where one person switched out to stand in the rain every five minutes. Within one hour, the whole group was drenched and shivering under the stinky tarp."
Somehow, we don't think the point in "Celebrating humans ... as the most fascinating animal of all!" was to see how long before someone's five-year-old starts chucking shit at some tired actors in a box. But apparently, the organizers of the Human Zoo were prevented from realizing the full range of their abuse of power (... er, creative vision) by the pesky, obviously anti-art insurance company, who had to step in to say that no, London Zoo, you can't make these actors sleep in a pile of hay in a cave behind the reptile house.
Upsetting your parents used to be so simple.
But the fact that they tried is in itself a testament to the wonder that is the human spirit. Right?
As you might guess, at a place whose sole purpose is to keep a bunch of really interesting, often deadly animals in separated cages and show them to children, safety is kind of a big deal. But there are some obvious difficulties to running a realistic safety drill for animal escapes. Difficulties such as tigers being too expensive and endangered to let one run around every few months while the staff shoots at it. Enter Japan.
Ever innovative, the Japanese have devised a plan for ensuring the safety of zoo-goers without having to beat Komodo dragons off a tourist's Hoveround. The following videos are of Japanese zoo staff running serious escape drills, where a zookeeper puts on one of those Disney plush suits and enacts the vicious escape of the giant plush polar bear. So in this video, as the manimal gropes around adorably and children presumably have to be discouraged from running up to him for hugs and pictures, staff roll up in trucks and get the down to business controlling this adorable threat:
As documented here, zoo employees pour out of a truck, lock and load the tranquilizer darts, and fire on the poor sap trying to find the eye holes in the orangutan costume, while visiting children cry. The "animal" then goes down ... making sure to be as realistic as possible:
And here, you can almost see him going through the five stages of grief as what we can only hope are pretend tranquilizer darts begin to take effect. Then, when the pretend danger is over, the armed staff complete the horror by throwing a tarp over the plush manimal's lifeless body, strapping it down, hauling it into the truck and speeding off to parts unknown:
Nothing to see here. Go back to watching those real tigers, kids. And never forget what happens when you break the rules.