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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 6/1/16

America's Zoos: Racism And Selective Memory

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America suffers from selective memory and self-induced amnesia. It's the kind of spontaneous memory drunkenness that allows large sections of white American society to forget and ignore some very uncomfortable truths. And when something happens that serves to temporarily jolt them from this amnesiac state, the flood of emotions and knee-jerk reactions, tell the real story about induced racial forgetfulness.

There is absolutely no doubt that animal cruelty sparks immediate outrage from people who treat and love their animals better than many Black people. You hear white people equating and elevating their dog, cat or parakeet to the level of family saying about their dog Rover: "he not just a pet, he's family." See them on TV hugging and coddling their "boos and babies."

In mostly white America eyes their family pets are very different from Black, Brown and Latino peoples. They have choice words to describe "those people" from "super predators to n***ers" and other derogatory language not used to describe their dogs, cats or hamsters. In fact, the shooting of a lowland gorilla in a Cincinnati zoo has sparked the kind of outrage that is almost not seen when a Black, Brown or Latino child is innocently gunned down by cops without the slightest provocation or justification.

True, Black, Brown and Latino peoples, and some progressive white youths, have joined together to protest racism and runaway violence in many communities across America. However, I did not see the white outrage when Treyvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. I did not see white rage when he recently attempted to sell the gun that killed a Black child. His actions have been defended by those who say he has the right to sell the gun. Opposition condemnation of his actions has been seen as an infringement of his democratic rights. And that my well be true, but the perception of a man attempting to cash in and profit financially from his notoriety from gunning down an unarmed a young Black child, was to say the least, arrogant and disgusting.

Today, the furor over the shooting of the gorilla in a Cincinnati zoo continues unabated with animal lovers criticisms reaching a crescendo. There is a crucial issue here: the people who mourn the value of an animal's life while ignoring human suffering are guilty of a gross dehumanization of human life in general, and certain communities in particular. Moreover, human error on the part of the zoo and the child's mother has been criticized. That has resulted in law enforcement taking a hard look at the family -- a Black family -- and the competence of the mother to take care of her child. Some indignant people on social media want the mother charged with neglect even going so far as to call for her incarceration obliquely holding her responsible for the death of Harambe the gorilla.

But history is a real b*tch.

Consider that in 1996 a child got away from its mother and in almost exact circumstances fell into a gorilla's cage at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo. That time the hapless 3-year old was scooped up by a gorilla named Binti who was not killed. The difference then and now? Back then the child and its parents were white. In that case the parents were treated as celebrities and great sympathy was extended to them as local and national media touted "a miracle rescue." In the 2016 case, a carbon copy of each other, with only the ending different, a Black mother and father are being treated as though they committed a criminal act.

I cite these stories here to demonstrate the fact that many white people are more likely to mourn the demise of an animal, like Harambe the gorilla, than that of a Black or Brown person. And of course I'll hear the cacophony coming from people who will deny that race played any role in clouding or influencing their perspectives on the shooting of the 450lbs gorilla with the strength of 10 or 15 men. But the facts are facts -- a white child falls into a gorilla's enclosure and the ensuing rescue was somehow a Godly intervention and miracle. But a gorilla is shot and killed to save the life of a Black child and that child's mother's parenting skills have been called into question in a glaring racist double standard.

The logical conclusion to be drawn from this angry criticism and double standard is that a Black child's life is valued less and his mother guilty of criminal negligence. This is the ONLY conclusion left to draw when people start to assume that his life was in no danger and the decision of the zoo's authority to shoot the animal was wrong because the gorilla "was on the endangered species list." The inference here is that Black children are not on the "endangered" list and therefore his life was not as valuable as Harambe's.

This racist impulse is seen in the interaction between Black, Brown and Latino people and a privileged class in American society on a day-to-day basis. One has only to examine how institutional racism and dehumanization of the poor and working class in the context of the zoo industry to understand the conflation of marginalized human life, not considered as valuable as white lives, with animal life and the subsequent exploitation that happens.


Many people reading this piece will not be familiar with the name Ota Benga. He was born in the Congo and was "taken" (kidnapped) by white Americans who saw him as a living fossilized sub-human on par with animals like Harambe the gorilla. In 1906 he was housed in the primate exhibit of the Bronx Zoo. Benga was said to be "the missing link" and was forced to interact with primates and monkeys, shoot at targets with a bow and arrow, and wrestle an orangutan all for the amusement of a 99.9% white visitors and audience. To them Benga was a primitive, unintelligent species who belonged in a zoo eating and living with primates.

To them a human being, because of his facial and body size and skin color made him a sub-human whose life was on parallel with a gorilla and in many instances far lower. Such involuntary racism still exists today. The sad story ended when a traumatized and home sick Benga committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart. He was 32 years old. Although Benga's case might be one of the most celebrated of human confinement in United States zoos, it was hardly the first or unique. Both zoos and circuses, parts of the animal entertainment industry, have used marginalized and "other" non-white people as props for the sole purpose of profit and money. For example, P.T. Barnum, the circus industry's most celebrated mogul, showcased a captive black slave, named Joice Heth, in 1835, and the same Cincinnati Zoo in 1896 put on display 100 Sioux Indians saying that the zoo was "helping and civilizing" these captive native American "savages." Remember the literary characterization of the Native American people as "noble savages?" Indeed, this practice based on racial stereotypes has a long and checkered history.

Today, we do not remember that Salvadorian twins, Maximo Valdez Nunez and Bartola Velasquez, were exhibited in shows across Europe and the United States because of their small heads - the result of microcephaly a disease caused by the Zika virus that is transmitted by a mosquito bite. And during those times Black people were imported to the United States from Africa and presented to white mainstream society as "primitive," or "exotic" curios worthy of spectators gawking at them as they suffered behind bars in zoos across this nation.

Sure, Wild West shows, black face golliwogs minstrelry, and human exhibits have all ended in America's zoos. But we still see the very same arguments used back then to defend the entertainment-based showcasing of humans as animals being used today to justify the captivity and profit-driven use of animals as entertainment in zoos. And the jury is still out on the claim by supporters of zoos that they are good for animal conservation and protecting of endangered species. The fact is that many of these so-called conservation programs have not been very successful. Plus, holding animals in captivity is often exceedingly bad for the animals themselves.

Take for example the behavior of elephants, lions, tigers, hyenas, gorillas, other primates and other big cats. In the wild they have very long sometimes hundreds of miles of habitat ranges. Cooped up in zoos and fed food that they have not killed these animals have to adjust to lives in confinement which is very traumatic and depressing. No wonder many zoo-breeding programs have been so unsuccessful. Zoos therefore have very little to do with conservation and saving endangered species. That's just the public relations spin to justify the continued exploitation of animals for profit. Its that simple.

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MICHAEL DERK ROBERTS Small Business Consultant, Editor, and Social Media & Communications Expert, New York Over the past 20 years I've been a top SMALL BUSINESS CONSULTANT and POLITICAL CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST in Brooklyn, New York, running (more...)

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