The following statement has been released by the Wildlife Conservation Society President and CEO Cristián Samper:
I sent a message to all WCS staff on Juneteenth, 2020. In this letter, we sought to cast a necessary light on our past, examine our present, and commit to do our part to help the long arc of the moral universe bend further toward justice.
As the United States has in recent months confronted the systemic racism in our nation, and as we at WCS recognize our 125th anniversary, we have been looking inward, examining our history, and asking if there is more we can do to ensure that persons of differing races, languages, cultures, and economic status feel welcome and enjoy equal opportunity at our zoological parks in New York City and our field conservation sites across the globe.
In the name of equality, transparency, and accountability, we must confront our organization’s historic role in promoting racial injustice as we advance our mission to save wildlife and wild places. Two episodes from our history demonstrating unconscionable racial intolerance demand particular attention.
First, we apologize for and condemn the treatment of a young Central African from the Mbuti people of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. His name was Ota Benga. Bronx Zoo officials, led by Director William Hornaday, put Ota Benga on display in the zoo’s Monkey House for several days during the week of September 8, 1906 before outrage from local Black ministers quickly brought the disgraceful incident to an end and the Reverend James Gordon arranged for Ota Benga to stay at an orphanage he directed in Weeksville, Brooklyn. Robbed of his humanity and unable to return home, Ota Benga tragically took his life a decade later.
We further apologize for and condemn bigoted actions and attitudes in the early 1900s toward non-whites—especially African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants—that characterized many notable institutions at the time, including our own.
Specifically, we denounce the eugenics-based, pseudoscientific racism, writings, and philosophies advanced by many people during that era, including two of our founders, Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn, Sr. Excerpts from Grant’s book “The Passing of the Great Race” (with a preface by Osborn), were included in a defense exhibit for one of the defendants in the Nuremberg trials. Grant and Osborn were likewise among the founders of the American Eugenics Society in 1926.
We deeply regret that many people and generations have been hurt by these actions or by our failure previously to publicly condemn and denounce them.
We recognize that overt and systemic racism persists, and our institution must play a greater role to confront it. As the United States addresses its legacy of anti-Black racism and the brutal killings that have led to mass protests around the world, we reaffirm our commitment to ensuring that social, racial, and environmental justice are deep-rooted in our conservation mission.
To that end, we will build on the goals of our diversity, equity, and inclusion plan approved by our board in February, 2019. We are hiring a Diversity Officer to work directly with the CEO and COO to coordinate the implementation of the goals and actions in this plan and report on our progress. We will continue working to ensure diverse pools of candidates for recruitment, promotion, and succession planning, including our board and leadership.
We will publicly acknowledge the mistakes of our past. Today, we are making all known records we have related to Ota Benga available online, as we have to researchers visiting our Archives. We will develop additional projects to make our history accessible and transparent, especially to outside writers and researchers.
Today I challenge myself and my colleagues to do better and to never look away whenever and wherever injustice occurs.
Read our full message to staff here on our WCS website. At that web page, we have also posted digitized materials from our archives.
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