Zoos are one of those things that get less appealing as we get older.

Even for people who genuinely love animals, learning about them, and seeing them in real life, the zoo offers all of that but with a bitter aftertaste.

The animals aren’t in their natural habitat, just in a replica, and they always know it.

he unique experience of seeing these animals up close fades when you realize how tortured they are. But they’re just animals. It’s different with people.

Human Zoos were, indeed, a thing, and just as cruel as the zoos we know, but against other human beings. They seemingly flourished in the late 19th and into the mid 20th centuries in our modern history.

This was when African imperialism and colonialism were at their peak as the modern world encroached on native territories and took control of them in a growing campaign across Africa and South America.

Though most attitudes evolved over the centuries, these exhibits and circus shows stood as proof of the immense equality that flourished not that long ago.


10 /10 The Medici Menagerie

The origin of the Human Zoo in modern terms starts much earlier in the Renaissance period.

The Italian banking clan, the Medicis, had a collection of various animals and humans from around the world that were meant to be displayed as rarities.

These included Moors, Tartars, Indians, Turks, and many Africans. Over 20 languages worth of people were revealed and treated much like slaves whose only purpose was to be gawked at by European nobles.

Public Domain

9 /10 The London Tour

William Dampier, an English privateer and pirate, brought a human zoo to London in the late 1600s featuring a slave he purchased from the Miangas region of Mindanao, one of the largest islands of the Philippines.

The man was named Jeoly but was displayed and marketed as “Prince Giolo.” What drew people were his various tribal tattoos which were a far cry from the known patterns or techniques of the Western world.


8 /10 The Ringmaster

What brought human zoos to the forefront in the 19th century was the legendary circus master P.T. Barnum.

His first exhibit was of Joice Heth, who he famously marketed to an audience as a 161-year-old wet nurse-owned by George Washington. The natural woman was, at most, in her 70s.

When she died, he continued his human intrigue displays with Siamese Twins from the Kingdom of Siam, Chang, and Eng. These unique freak shows began the trend of more ethnically specific human zoos.

Public Domain

7 /10 The Hagenbeck Human Zoo

One of the first major proponents of the vicious trend was German animal trader Carl Hagenbeck.

As he worked primarily with animals, he saw them as part of a natural environment that foreign people should belong to.

So, he saw fit to organize these peoples within an artificial environment simultaneously with the animals they were familiar with, essentially creating living exhibits out of the Sami people, who he either bought or took during the Laplander Exhibition.

Library of Congress

6 /10 Jardin d’Acclimatation

Hagenbeck saw massive success from his initial run of exhibits and started doing more.

He launched the Nubian Exhibit in 1876 and the Inuit Exhibit in 1880, both being the same collection of people and animals in mock-ups of their native environments.

These exhibits and more were displayed at the Jardin d’Acclimatation, an amusement park in Paris, which would continue to host them in various forms until 1912.

Wikimedia Commons

5 /10 Parisian World's Fair

In 1878 and 1889, Paris hosted a world’s fair which showed off cultural artifacts, displays, and exhibits from all over the world.

Hagenbeck’s legacy continued with the so-called “Negro Village,” which contained ethnological exhibits of over 400 indigenous people.

The attraction was visited by 28 million people, proving that it was an immensely popular relic of its own time and was tolerated by the masses who failed to see the horror behind it.

Wikimedia Commons

4 /10 American Exhibitions

The Cincinnati Zoo invited 100 Sioux people to build a village which was displayed as a significant exhibit. They lived there for three months before being kicked out, essentially.

There weren’t nearly as many human zoos in the Americas due to the protest and emancipation of African Americans after the Civil War.

The St. Louis World Fair in 1904 also had displays of Apache tribes and the newly acquired territorial natives of Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War.

Wikimedia Commons

3 /10 Ota Benga

One of America’s most famous human zoo exhibits is the Bronx Zoo in New York City.

Madison Grant, an anthropologist, and eugenicist put a Congolese pygmy man named Ota Benga into a cage with animals, primarily apes and chimps, and had him dress in stereotypically “authentic” tribal wear.

William Hornaday, the zoo director, advertised him as the “missing link.”

While a popular exhibit, it only took two days to close down, as Black clergy members protested the display as inhumane and degenerative to their people.

Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com

2 /10 The Last Human Zoos

The era of human zoos died down in the early 1900s.

At this point, colonialism spread enough that the native people brought over were speaking fluent English and French, such as the Senegalese residents whose “exhibits” were more like costumed crafts shows.

Europe hosted the last real examples of human zoos, with the previous hosting in early Nazi Germany.

After World War II and the eruptive new arguments over racism and biological discrimination, the practice ended humanely.


1 /10 Inheriting The Past

While there were future exhibits, they were sparring and not as popular. The last “living village” exhibit was in the 1958 World’s Fair at Brussels.

Modern examples have made a resurgence in the means of research, where volunteers or actors are selected and paid to take part in live-in studies.

Missteps have been infrequent, but the line between cultural appreciation and discriminatory defamation has been drawn. Locking people up in cages for entertainment is not okay.

Watching them on TV, however, is acceptable. In a way, Reality Television provides Human Zoos at a more humane and affordable cost.

Continue Reading

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Send this to a friend