The human zoo | A simple explanation

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(Last updated on: 29/03/2021)

The human zoo is a concept that surfaces far too often in today’s world. This derogatory term is generally associated with exploitative and unethical practices, whereby humans are put on display for entertainment purposes. Whilst the circuses and cabarets that once featured as ‘human zoos’ may no longer be prominent events, demeaning public displays of people, usually labelled as ‘primitive’ or ‘natural’, still occur around the world today; resulting in a lasting legacy of the concept of the ‘human zoo’.

But what does this all mean? In this article I will tell you what exactly is meant by the term ‘human zoo’ and explain why it is so bad. I will discuss the origins and histories of human zoos around the world and I will discuss whether indeed ‘human zoos’ continue to exist today.

What is a human zoo?

A human zoo is just as it sounds- it is a display of human beings in a zoo-like setting. The people involved may not be in a cage as you might expect in a traditional zoo housing animals, but they are often financially and socially trapped by the need for income raised through their methods of entertaining tourists.

For example, in the 20th century it was common for circuses to have displays of ‘freaks’, where people who had visible deformities or disabilities were put on display for entertainment. Nowadays, attractions which are labelled ‘human zoos’ are less transparent, but nonetheless, continue to put humans on display for public entertainment, for example through tours of remote villages or tribal areas.

What does a human zoo in the 21st century look like?

Determining whether a tourist attraction qualifies as a ‘human zoo’ or not, however, is not a simple task. In fact, there are some attractions around the world, where the people involved deny the title human zoo and take offence to the use of the term. Take the Kayan tribes in northern Thailand, for example. Visited by tourists from around the globe who wish to see their famous long necks that are decorated with rings, many people have described these villages as human zoos. However, the Kayan people prefer the title artificial tourist villages and are offended by the term ‘human zoo’.

Why is a ‘human zoo’ bad?

Also referred to as an ethnological exposition, the concept of the human zoo has gained a lot of negative traction in recent years, and rightly so.

Throughout history these displays of people have typically emphasised the view that those on display are from an inferior culture, and that ‘Western society’ is therefore superior. These human displays have been the continued subject of controversy, often being described as demeaning, derogatory, and guilty of dehumanising nature.

However, many tourist attractions which are referred to as a ‘human zoo’ operate in a far more sustainable manner than the circuses and fairs of the 20th century. Whilst there are still ramifications linked to dependency (i.e. the people cannot leave the ‘zoo’ because they depend on the income to provide for themselves and their families), many of these attractions are now entwined with the concept of community-based tourism, which put the needs of the community at the forefront.

Whilst these ethnological displays may do a lot more good than they did in the past for the local communities, there remains the questions of ethics. Is it ethical to take photos of people in their ‘primitive’ setting? Is it ethical to watch these people as if they were zoo animals? Heck, I’ve even heard stories of people feeding the people in these ‘zoos’!

In a way, living in China as a blonde-haired women with two Western babies has helped me to be able to empathise with the people that have lived or worked in a ‘human zoo’. When visiting rural destinations, where many local people have never seen a foreigner, we are often the focus of attention. People take photos of my children and share them on social media without my permission. They stare at us endlessly and they stroke my children’s arms or hair, as one might stroke a cat with soft fur. At times, I have been made to feel like an animal in a zoo, and I must say that it is not a nice feeling. This is obviously not the same as actually being in a ‘human zoo’, but it does give me an increased empathy for those who might be.

We are constantly asking people to stop taking photos of our children when travelling in China, sometimes we feel like exhibitions in a zoo!

The history of human zoos

Human zoos have a long history. Exhibitions starring humans, circuses and other attractions have been in existence since the 1800s. Below, I have outlined some examples:

Paris Colonial Exposition

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Postcards were created showing the colonial exhibition in Paris.

The Paris Colonial Exposition was a physical demonstration of France’s colonial history. Here, mock indigenous villages were created and populated with indigenous peoples. These people were required to act as performers day and night.

The living conditions provided here were less than satisfactory and many performers contracted foreign diseases to which they had little immunity or dies from the cold. They were buried in the nearby gardens.

St. Louis World’s Fair

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The Louis World’s Fair featured more than 1000 Filipinos from dozens of tribes.

This world fair, located in Missouri, USA, was a popular attraction in 1904. As part of an initiative of the US Government in the Philippines, the fair featured recreated Filipino villages with live ‘actors’. The 47-acre area housed more than 1,000 Filipinos from dozens of tribes.

The Igorot Village

See photographs from Igorot exhibitions from around the world.

The Igorot Village was one of the most profitable human zoos of all times. Featuring indigenous tribal peoples from the Philippines, this exhibition had demonstrations of people wearing minimal clothing and being fed dog. They were also required to demonstrate sacred ritual activities such as crowing a chief.

These performances actually provided a misrepresentation of these indigenous peoples. These people did not eat dog or crow a chief daily, as they did in the ‘human zoo’. Instead, these were undertaken only at sacred occasions. The fair ended in the early 1900s, but the popularity of such shows continued and they remained a key feature of fairs around Northern America for some time to come. The shows were eventually banned in 1914.

Bronx Zoo

human zoo
Ota Benga is perhaps the most shocking individual example of a human zoo that has been widely publicised.

Ota Benga was a young man from the Congo. He began his ‘career’ in a human zoo at the aforementioned St. Louis World’s Fair before being transferred to the Bronx Zoo. Ota Benga initially believed that he was being hired to care for an elephant, but this was far from reality…

Known in the zoo as the ‘savage pygmy’, Ota Benga was kept in a monkey enclosure. His teeth were filed to points and the floor of his cage was filled with bones. He was often put in the enclosure with apes. The plaque on the wall of his enclosure read ‘Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, By D. Samuel P Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September’. Ota Benga was the most popular attraction in the zoo, attracting thousands of visitors on busy days.

Eventually, growing concern amongst the public and key spokespeople resulted in the end of this horrific exhibition. Ota Benga returned to Africa, but felt that he could no longer fit in there. After making a return to the USA, he was so depressed that he shot himself in the heart in 1916.

Brussels World’s Fair

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The World’s Fair in Brussels was the last ‘human zoo’ to exist.

The last of the human zoos was in Belgium. The 1958 World’s Fair held an exhibition dedicated to the colonial powers that Brussels continued to hold over the Congo. As part of this exhibition 598 people (273 men, 128 women and 197 children) were brought over from Africa and placed into the artificial villages enclosed by a bamboo wall.

Many people visited the attraction, often throwing bananas or money over the walls. The Congolese people were bussed in and out of the exhibition each day. They were housed in an isolated building which offered cramped accommodation, strict limitations on visitors and limited opportunities for the people to leave the building. They also suffered daily abuse at the fair.

Whilst human zoos had been a fascination for many throughout history until this point, people now had the luxury of learning about distant shores on their TV sets and with this, interest in human exhibitions of this nature had declined. Within a few months the human zoo was closed down. Unfortunately, by this time many of the Congolese people had sadly died from maltreatment and inadequate living conditions.

Modern-day human zoos

Whilst the last human zoo on record was at the World’s Fair is Brussels in 1958, there continues to be echoes of human zoos in many parts of the world to date. I guess the important question now is ‘how to we define the term human zoo’? Throughout history the people involved were largely trapped within their ‘enclosures’ and accommodations provided to them. Nowadays, people are not enclosed in such a way- there would be outrage if this was so! BUT, this does not mean that these people are not ‘trapped’.

In today’s world, people are confined in ways other than physical barriers. This is most commonly due to monetary factors, but society could also play a role here too. Take the women who work in the sex tourism trade in Thailand, for example. Many of these women do not want to dance naked on tables for gawking male tourists all night long, but they do so because they have no other way of earning the money that they need to support their families. Likewise, young girls may feel socially obligated to take their place in the long-neck tribe in Northern Thailand, donning rings on their necks and ‘performing’ for tourists each day.

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Some believe that human zoos still exist today.

Is a Go-Go bar or a tribal village an example of a human zoo? Well, I guess this comes down to definition. On paper, the answer is probably no. But, as with many issues like this, it isn’t black and white. Some people claim that attractions such as these are demeaning and exploitative and that these people should be ‘rescued’. Other people stand strong that the people involved do so voluntarily and that it is their choice to make a living in this way.

So what’s the answer? Well, as always, adequate tourism management is key. There are ways to sustainably manage tourist attractions, exhibitions etc that involve human participants (e.g. the Kayan tribes in Thailand, Maasai tribes in Kenya), without notions of exploitation of inferiority. Community-based tourism is one solution to this- this is when tourism planning and development takes place with the involvement and priorities of the local community at the heart of the project.

The human zoo: Further reading

As you can see, the human zoo is a harrowing part of our history in the Western World. An horrific, unethical practice, human zoos in the context that we knew them have not been around now for more than 60 years. However, there are remnants of the human zoo in the tourism industry throughout the world….

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