The Inspiration Behind “My Human Pet”, The Story of Ota Benga
Updated: Sep 15
If we were to be taken by aliens would they treat a human with any kind of respect? I doubt it. We can barely get ourselves to the moon. We would be treated as lesser beings, no matter how closely we resembled those aliens. Not unlike how Americans and Europeans treated Ota Benga.
I am sure that many of my readers noticed the similarities between the character Ensley in “My Human Pet” and that of Ota Benga’s experiences with being bought in sold in the early 20th century ( minus the sex and the spaceships, of course).
I changed that Ensley did get her freedom and to return to Earth. And it was not just the guilt of Seb, but the entire crew feeling ashamed for how they had treated Ensley once they realized that she was just as sentient and intellectual as any one of them that provided her with the means to return to Earth.
I would like to imagine Samuel Verner and a lot of the people who came to know Ota Benga and respected him as a man felt the same way. But by the time Verner realized his mistake, I don't believe he had the money to send Ota Benga back to the Congo, nor did anyone else who felt for him as an equal man.
Thankfully, my book is fiction. Ensley had an entire crew that felt guilty for treating her like a pet and were more than happy to pay to get her back to Earth (probably so most of them could forget about their shame).
In case you don’t know Ota Benga's biography and are curious, please keep reading, but I must warn you it is a very sad story. It’s crazy to think that this all actually happened in the US in the 20th century, and I wish I could have written him a better ending to life.
A Short Biography of Ota Benga
Beyond comprehension, in 1906, the Bronx Zoo had a human exhibition. An African man was on exhibition inside a cage. Who was this man? And why did they put him in a cage at the zoo? His name was Ota Benga. He was originally from the Mbuti, a Congo pygmy that used to live in the equatorial forests near the Kasai River (what was then known as the Congo Free State). Two years prior to finding himself in a cage at a zoo, he had been on a hunting expedition in the Congo when the Force Publique attacked his village. His wife and two children had been murdered, and Ota Benga was subsequently taken by slave traders.
At that same time in 1904, American businessman and explorer Samuel Verner traveled to Africa under contract from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, which we all know better these days as the 'St. Louis World Fair', to return with an assortment of pygmies. It was his intention to display "representatives of all the world's peoples, ranging from smallest pygmies to the most gigantic peoples, from the darkest blacks to the dominant whites" to show what was commonly thought then among most white Americans and Europeans, to be kind of cultural evolution from the most barbaric to the most civilized. So, Verner purchased Ota Benga from slave traders for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth. Verner later lied and said he had rescued Ota Benga from cannibals, but this lie was no doubt said from the guilt of what he had done when he realized that he had destroyed another sentient man’s life.
After Verner purchased Ota Benga, he and the other Africans sailed to the US to be exhibited at the St. Louis World Fair. The Africans turned out to be one of the most popular attractions and Ota Benga was specifically mentioned in the local newspapers of the time. Visitors were curious to inspect his sharpened teeth. And it didn't take long for the Africans to realize they could charge money for the photographs they took with fair visitors and performances.
One newspaper wrote of Ota Benga that he was "the only genuine African cannibal in America", claimed,
"[his teeth were] worth the five cents he charges for showing them to visitors."
At this point, Verner must have felt the first pangs of guilt for putting Ota Benga and the other Africans on display for people to only view them as ‘savages’ because he took them all back to Africa. And it’s thought that a genuine friendship must have formed between the two men, because after Ota Benga’s second wife died, he chose to return with Verner to the US for a second time. (Oh Ota Benga if we could have given you a crystal ball!)<
Back in the US, Verner arranged for the Ota Benga to stay in a spare room at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC (the circumstances of this peculiar arrangement are grey). Ota Benga was given a proper suit to wear and a "position" at the museum entertaining visitors, but it wasn’t long before he decided he wanted to return to Africa. This wasn't surprising as, according to witness accounts, he was seen as a living, breathing exhibition of 'savagery' at the museum.
The writers Bradford and Blume imagined his feelings:
"What at first held his attention now made him want to flee. It was maddening to be inside – to be swallowed whole – so long. He had an image of himself, stuffed, behind glass, but somehow still alive, crouching over a fake campfire, feeding meat to a lifeless child. Museum silence became a source of torment, a kind of noise; he needed birdsong, breezes, trees."
Ota Benga tried to insist on his equality as a human being to his employers at the museum, who constantly represented him as a ‘savage,’ but it was futile. Since the museum refused to listen to Ota Benga, he could only use action to make his point. He refused to play the part of the 'savage' for museum guests, and the museum continued to refuse to see him as an equal, so the museum told Verner that had to find another place for Ota Benga.
In 1906, Ota Benga was moved to the Bronx Zoo. It is assumed Verner didn’t return him to Africa because, at that time, Verner was still struggling financially. William Hornaday, the director of the zoo, initially enlisted Ota Benga to help maintain the animal habitats, but there is no record of Ota Benga ever being paid for his work. And it wasn’t long before Hornaday noticed that zoo visitors took more of a real interest in Ota Benga. They liked him more than the animals on display, and he saw dollar signs. At first, Ota Benga was encouraged to spend a lot of time in the Monkey House, and then finally, Ota Benga and an orangutan named Dohong, to whom Ota Benga had taught tricks to, shared an exhibition. The zoo encouraged Ota Benga to hang his hammock in the Monkey House and shoot his bow and arrow for visitors. (This is 41 years after the Emancipation Proclamation).
The exhibition officially opened on September 8, 1906.
The sign on the exhibit read:
The African Pygmy, "Ota Benga."
Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the
Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Ex-
hibited each afternoon during September.
Many people were shocked and horrified at seeing Ota Benga at the zoo with the monkeys.
Reverend James H. Gordon, said this after seeing Ota Benga at the zoo,
"Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes ... We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls."
An editorial in The New York Times suggested:
"We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter ... It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies ... are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place ... from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date."
Hornday didn't care about the bad press he received. The money from Ota Benga was pouring in. So, to protect his exhibition, he gained the support of Madison Grant, then-Secretary of the New York Zoological Society, who lobbied that putting Ota Benga on display with the apes at the Bronx Zoo was natural. It comes as no surprise that this is the same Grant who became famous as a racial anthropologist and eugenicist a decade later, supporting the idea that some ethnicities were lower than others.
Finally, to please all parties, a compromise was struck, and it was decided Ota Benga could roam around the zoo freely. Unfortunately for Ota Benga, even being outside his exhibition, he was often taunted both verbally and physically by zoo visitors. Naturally, this caused him to become more mischievous and sometimes even violent towards visitors, and it wasn’t long before the Bronx Zoo decided that Ota Benga needed to leave and that the money wasn't worth it.
Again, Verner tried to find him employment it was not possible.
Eventually, Ota Benga was given to Rev. Gordon, who had been appalled seeing him at the zoo (see the quote above), and he placed Ota Benga in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage in Brooklyn that Gordon supervised. However, as the unwelcome press attention continued, in January 1910, Gordon arranged for Ota Benga to move to Lynchburg, Virginia, and live with the McCray family. Gordon also arranged for Ota Benga’s teeth to be capped and for him to be educated so that he could better fit into American society and possibly find real employment. For a while things seemed to be improving for Ota Benga. Once his English was good enough, he was able to get a job at a tobacco factory and began saving money to return to Africa.
However, Ota Benga's tale doesn't end well. As WWI broke out in 1914, all passenger ships between the US and the Congo stopped. Ota Benga became so depressed at the thought of never being able to return to the Congo that in 1916, at 32 years old, he built a ceremonial fire, removed the caps from his teeth, and shot himself in the heart.
He was first buried in an unmarked grave in the black section of the Old City Cemetery, but in 2017 received a historic marker in Lynchburg, Virginia.
(If you aren't sad now, are you even human?)
What does this have to do with aliens? If we were to be taken by aliens, would they treat a human with any kind of respect? I doubt it. We can barely get ourselves to the moon. We would be treated as lesser beings, no matter how closely we resembled those aliens, not unlike how Americans and Europeans treated Ota Benga.
Had Ensley been able to remain with Seb as a pet would she have been happy? I doubt it. What do we want most out of our lives to give them meaning? Freedom to make our own decisions and respect from the society we live in. Unfortunately, Ensley would have never had either of those things as a pet, and how long would it have taken before Seb resented her for his own guilt of buying her? Just as Verner felt the guilt of buying Ota Benga for a bolt of cloth and some salt. I have no doubt he felt such guilt that that is why he lied later in life.
Humans have foolishly sent our address to the rest of the galaxy. According to Time Magazine, two probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have had golden records onboard since 1977, giving not only music from our planet but also a message from former President Jimmy Carter and 115 analog-encoded messages telling aliens who we are and where to find us. The hubris of these people who thought this was a good idea obviously were never able to imagine themselves as Ota Benga or read books like “My Human Pet.” They could never imagine themselves as barbaric lesser people as seen by more advanced civilizations, and if we don’t get our act together, this will be humanity’s downfall (if we don’t kill each other first through war, AI singularity, or kill our only planet through pollution). Alien contact, at best, will be what happened to either of these two, Ensley or Ota Benga and at worst, our alienation as a species.
Bradford, Phillips Verner; Blume, Harvey (1992). Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo. New York: St. Martins Press. ISBN 978-0-312-08276-5.
Bradford and Blume (1992), p. 54.
"Man and Monkey Show Disapproved by Clergy," The New York Times, September 10, 1906, p. 1.
Keller, Mitch (August 6, 2006). "The Scandal at the Zoo". The New York Times.
"100 years ago today, Ota Benga ended his horrible life after caged as 'pygmy' at Bronx Zoo". RT International. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
Doss, Catherine (September 12, 2017). "Man caged in NYC zoo to receive historical marker in Lynchburg". WSET. Retrieved February 18, 2020.