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Ota Benga, African native kept in zoo, kills self

An African native once kept in a Bronx zoo, Ota Benga, commits suicide. In 1906 the crowds thronged the monkey house exhibit at the Bronx Zoo (New York Zoological Park). Here were man's "evolutionary ancestors" - monkeys, chimpanzees, a gorilla named Dinah, an orangutan named Dohung and a African of short stature, misnomered a "pygmy," named Ota Benga. Ota Benga was brought from the Belgian Congo in 1904 by noted African explorer Samuel Verner along with other "pygmies" and displayed in an exhibit in the 1904 St. Louis world's Fair.

Ota Benga (or "Bi", which means "friend" in his language) was born in 1881, had a height of 4 ft. 11in. and weighted 103 lbs. Although he was referred to as a boy he had been married twice. White colonists had captured his first wife and his second wife died by snakebite. After the St.Louis exhibit, Ota found himself at the Bronx Zoo which at that time was under the direction of Dr. William T. Hornaday, who was considered a bit eccentric. Hornaday believed animals had nearly human thoughts and personalities, and he could read the thoughts of zoo animals. He "apparently saw no difference between a wild beast and the little Black man" and insisted he was only offering an "intriguing exhibit". The exhibit was immensely popular and controversial; the black community was outraged and some churchmen feared that it would convince people of Darwin's theory of evolution. Under threat of legal action, Hornaday had Ota Benga leave his cage and circulate around the zoo in a white suit, but he returned to the monkey house to sleep.

In time Ota Benga began to hate being the object of curiosity. "There were 40,000 visitors to the park on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman and child of this crowd made for the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park - the wild man from Africa. They chased him about the grounds at day, howling, jeering, and yelling. Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him." At one point, he got hold of a knife and flourished it around the park, another time he produced a fracas after being denied a soda from the soda fountain. Finally, after fabricating a small bow and arrows and shooting at obnoxious park visitors he had to leave the park for good. After his park experience, several institutions tried to help him. He was placed in Virginia Theological Seminary and College but quit school to work in a tobacco factory. According to Hornaday "he did not possess the power of learning". Growing homesick, hostile, and despondent Ota Benga borrowed a revolver, and shot himself in the heart, ending his life in 1916.

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