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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.

"Exotic" Zoo-Goer Becomes a Zoo Specimen

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.

Via Nytimes.com
Actually ...

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 ...

London's Human Zoo Exhibit

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?

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Japanese Zoos Put on Pretend Animal Attacks

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.

The Mahra Land Zoo is Forced to Improvise

It's understandable that zoos in war-torn countries want to keep operating as usual. Hell, it's in those darker times that people need entertainment more than ever. And dammit, if a lack of exotic animals due to a blockade means you have to paint a donkey and call it a zebra, so be it!

Via Slate.com
Wait, that wasn't a metaphor?

Oh, yeah, that happened. That was at the Mahra Land Zoo in Gaza. Most people might have closed up shop after Israeli and Egyptian tanks occupied the land, but the staff of the Mahra Land Zoo are not those people. Quitting just isn't in the vocabulary of owner Ahmed Berghat, who continued to supply the zoo with new attractions, in spite of being unable to legally import wild animals.

He got around the blockade at first by bringing in animals through underground tunnels. Understandably, you can only drag so many lions through a hole in the ground before even someone as depressingly optimistic as the Mahra Land Zoo staff suggests that, hey, maybe we can just make do with what we've got here.

And what they had there ... were feral cats. No biggie; zoo keepers put a cage around some tabbies, and bam! Puma!


The tunnel smugglers offered Berghat to bring in a real zebra for $30,000 -- which for a zoo that has no patrons because it's full of tanks -- isn't exactly in the budget. But where a lesser man would look at his little patch of desert full of fenced-in house cats, tanks and a few peacocks escaping out the tank-sized hole in the gate and admit defeat, Berghat saw a chance to paint himself a zebra donkey.

Via Slate.com
The "You Get the Idea" exhibit.

"We cut its hair short and then painted the stripes," Berghat explained. "But don't tell anyone," he said. "The children love him." And to the five people who still risk their lives to go to the zoo full of cats and guns, that tatted up donkey is a bona-fide real-life zebra.

We've honestly never heard a story that so carefully straddled the line between inspirational and sad.

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Zoos Where Sadness is the Main Attraction

Though when it comes to perseverance in the face of adversity, the Mahra Land Zoo has nothing on zoos in Africa. The zoo in Kisangani, Zaire took persistence to new heights. We think.

Turns out, when the economy goes to hell and food is scarce, a trip to the zoo is like touring a grocery store. It's hard to justify tossing a goat to the lion every day when the people coming to look at the lion haven't eaten in a few days. And then it's just hard to keep your guests from looking at the lion and saying, "Hey, I could have eaten that."

Mmmm ... neck.

For instance, one day the staff came in to find a band of soldiers chowing down on their elephant. Things went downhill from there. Between some animals becoming a lunch worthy of Anthony Bourdain and others just deciding to walk the hell out, eventually the Kisangani Zoo found itself with exactly no animals. But the zoo never closed. Because the zoo wasn't precisely, technically empty. After all, it's not like dead elephants just disappear. There are still ... bones and stuff. So, staff continued to guide visitors through the empty park, pointing out animal skulls and "reminiscing" about that time they had that chimpanzee, and then it starved.

"Welcome to the museu- er, zoo!"

Meanwhile, things at the Byculla Zoo in Mumbai aren't quite that bad. But still, it's tough when a $200,000 zebra dies and replacing it means hiring a team of mercenaries to go poach a new one. Luckily, the Byculla Zoo figured out that, hey, these animals barely move anyway. You know where this is going -- they decided to just stuff their deceased residents.

Via cnngo.com
"No, kids, he's just ... stunned. Stunned with happiness!"

But hey, according to the director, now the "public will be able to see and appreciate the animals and even study their body structure." Which is exactly why most of us go to the zoo, right? All we can say is they better position the stuffed monkey so that he's masturbating, or we're asking for our money back.

For more horror stories from public institutions, check out 8 Real Grade Schools That Went Completely Insane and The 6 Most Horrifying Ways Hospitals Can Kill You.

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