I’ve just read this shocking account of how New York’s Bronx Zoo exhibited a kidnapped African boy in a monkey cage in 1906 – and spent 114 years denying its wrong doing.

Aside from the historic atrocity, it’s a stark example of behaving the wrong way in a crisis – exacerbating reputational damage by avoiding responsibility and denying the undeniable for more than a century .

It’s finally taken the Black Lives Matter movement to prompt an apology now.

Repeated denials 

The BBC article recounts the appalling story of how Ota Benga, aged about 12, was captured in The Congo by a US trader in 1904, taken to the US, paraded around in a travelling fair and then ‘exhibited’ in the Bronx Zoo in 1906. After drawing huge crowds for 20 days in the zoo, he was released following outrage from Christian ministers and some of the world’s press, including this piece in the New York Times. Ten years later, uprooted from his family and home country and suffering from depression, Benga killed himself.

In the many years since, the Bronx Zoo has repeatedly denied the incident. At various times, including in books published in 1974 and 1992, its directors and others suggested, despite proof to the contrary, that Benga was an employee working in the monkey cage …  that he’d been a ‘friend’ of his captor … and that he’d “enjoyed performing” for the New York crowds.

One of the most astonishing parts of the saga is that all this was exposed in a 2015 book, ‘Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga’, but still the zoo refused to apologise or even respond to media enquiries.  Until now.

Long-overdue apology

Putting aside that some of its wording is bizarrely pretentious (they’re apparently doing their part “to help the long arc of the moral universe bend further toward justice”), the zoo’s long-overdue apology deserves credit for unflinchingly acknowledging its wrongdoing, and for condemning its previous actions and those responsible. It has also published all the documents it holds relating to the incident.

This is good. It will finally enable the organisation deal with its past and move forward in a positive way. But it’s extraordinary that it took 114 years.

When wrong has clearly been done, it’s always best to take responsibility and address it head-on. Hiding or denying the facts can only exacerbate reputational damage – heaping negligence and dishonestly on top of an original crisis.

This happens all too often. Typically, it’s because the individuals to blame are still in charge: they can’t bring themselves to admit guilt, lose face and – in the worst cases – see their careers come to an undignified end.

What’s so surprising in this case is when the incident happened. The distance in time should have made it easy for the zoo to have long since investigated the matter, condemning its past and those involved, who are no longer alive. Incredibly, it took 114 years, an investigative book and the spotlight of the Black Lives Matter movement for this finally to happen.

 

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