One of the biggest arguments made against certain treatments of animals is that we would never do the same to humans. A recent protest in France involved half naked, animal rights protesters being dragged around and branded with hot irons, to try to highlight the double standard between the treatment of humans and animals. Protesters claimed we would never brand humans in the same way as animals, we would never run invasive test on them, and we would never put them it zoos. But all of these things have been done in the past.

Most people know of the atrocious conditions people were subject to in acts of war, but many people have never even heard of what has been done in the name of entertainment. In the late 1800’s an extremely popular attraction were the many ‘human zoos’, located all across western Europe and even New York. These human zoos displayed people kidnapped from their home country and displayed in cages. Displaying usually African or Aboriginal people, these  zoos attracted between 200 and 300 thousand people.

An advertisement for a human zoo in Germany

The height of the popularity of these human zoos were the World’s Fairs, which involved displays from all over the world. The 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, attracted an estimated 28 million people to its display of 400 African and Aboriginal people, who were stripped half naked and thrown in cages.

These human zoos were extremely similar to the zoos of animals we still have today. When they first opened their focus was to display the most exotic of people. writes,

“Carl Hagenbeck of Germany ran exhibits of what he called, “purely natural,” populations, usually East Asian Islanders, but in 1876, he also sent a collaborator to the Sudan to bring back, “wild beasts and Nubians.” The traveling Nubian exhibit was a huge success in cities like Paris, London, and Berlin.”

These exhibits then quickly turned into a place of pseudo science, with researchers trying to prove their theory of races.

An argument was also made for these human zoos as places for conservation. As recently as 1994, an Ivory Coast village was kept as part of an African safari in France. At the time certain people pondered whether displays like this could be used as a form of humanitarian aid.


It is horrible to think that the justification made for transporting people half a world from their homes, and then locking them in cages, is the same argument that is still made for zoos currently. We are told that zoos are important for research to help us better understand the animals with which we share the earth. We are also told that without zoos many animals would be extinct. The unavoidable fact is that current animal zoos, like human zoos of the past, are primarily for entertainment.

It is slightly ironic of animal rights protesters to make the claim that we wouldn’t treat humans the way we treat animals, because we already have. Why would people care any more now about animals in captivity when they didn’t care about the humans in captivity back then. I believe it is naive of animal rights activists to use campaigns and imagery as if they are hypotheticals, when for any cultures they are a very real part of their history.

If you would like to know more about human zoos, I would recommend these three articles which give a good overview of the topic: