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The Dark, Disturbing History Of Human Zoos

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Throughout history, the human race has acquired a reputation for being exceptionally cruel toward those who are different. People have colonized and enslaved others who did not share their lineage in order to assert prowess as the dominant group. However, of all the unjust actions that man has taken out on his brethren, human zoos stand out amongst the most unforgivable.

Human zoos are essentially the prerequisites to freak shows in that different looking people were held captive exploited for profit. While freak shows only tended to display those with deformities and/or strange talents, frequently the only qualification to be in a human zoo was to be of a different skin color. Non-European people, like those from Asian or African tribes, were essentially put on exhibit beside exotic animals, to to suggest a subhuman parallel.

These organizations called their disgusting presentations ‘Ethnological Expositions’ rather than human zoos. They claimed to display people in their “natural and native” states for the purposes of education, but these so-called exhibitions were grotesque examples of European superiority. And while some of the most famous pictures of human zoos come from Europe, they are not the only country guilty of such wicked transgressions.

The most popular era for human zoos spanned from the late 19th century until the 1950s(!), but there are earlier recollections of these displays, also.

In fact, back in 1519, when Spanish conquistadors stormed the ancient Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlan (now known as Mexico City) they came across Montezuma’s Zoo, which was filled with plants, animals, and, yes, people. While this is reportedly one of the first regular zoos ever recorded in history, jaguars, wolves, and sloths were placed besides hunchbacks, little people, and albinos.


After this zoo was discovered, the idea apparently spread to Italy during the Renaissance, when Cardinal Medici paraded Africans, Turks, and others alongside exotic animals at the Vatican. He openly called the people savages even though these ‘barbarians’ by many accounts spoke a multitude of languages besides their native tongues and were likely much more intelligent than their captor.

While some small displays of native children–those afflicted with microcephaly, and Siamese twins, in particular–popped up throughout the world, it wasn’t until the 1870s when the phenomenon seemed to really blow up. At this point, human zoos were found internationally in places like Paris, Barcelona, Milan, London, and even New York City.  Africans, Inuits, Samoan, and Sudanese people became commodities in these events and the growing success of zoos and touring shows just fueled the fire.

In 1889 the French put on the famous Paris Exhibition, displaying the amazing feat of building the Eiffel Tower, but lured unsuspecting punters in with their display of four hundred indigenous people.  In just 25 days, the Paris Exhibition had nearly thirty million visitors and their substantial profits inspired the United States to follow suit.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, otherwise known as the World’s Fair, in Chicago, IL was supposed to be the American architectural equivalent of the Eiffel tower. While many of those who orchestrated the event were determined for it to be a battle of intelligence and design, they still had to attract the everyday American. They did so, successfully, with the addition of human zoos. Covering six hundred acres, the Columbian Exhibition brought peoples and cultures from a staggering forty-six countries. And, yes, this is the same World’s Fair that serial killer H.H. Holmes used as his hunting ground during his active murdering years.

While these monstrous ideas seem to be echoes of the long since past, Belgium held their own World’s Fair in 1958 where one of the most infamous pictures of human zoos comes from. They displayed African and Native American children and, in the aforementioned picture, an old European woman offering her hand with delight to a young confused African child.

Human-Zoo-ChildThe idea of the very existence of human zoos was, not surprisingly, buried over the last fifty years but our mistakes should not be hidden. Humanity messes up. Granted we mess up a lot, but if we do not acknowledge our failures, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. Human zoos should obviously not be honored, but should be well-known nonetheless. Trying to sanitize the existence of human zoos and other misdeeds like the Japanese Concentration Camps or the ‘science’ of Eugenics serves no good purpose other than preserving the unrealistic image of a country.

Horror and true crime fans will likely be well aware of this, but more often than not, we do not need to fictionalize monsters, since the worst monsters of all are human.

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Written by Syl
Syl is a professional criminologist who shamelessly spends her time listening to true crime podcasts, watching horror films, and bringing real life horror to her written pieces.
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