This Is Animal Crackers

When I was a kid, we spent large chunks of the summer at my grandfather’s house in southern New Hampshire. On one visit, we went to Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in nearby Hudson. Benson’s was part zoo, part circus, part kiddie amusement park. I have vague memories of seeing some animals in cages, watching some animal shows, and riding around the park on a little train. Feeling nostalgic recently, I wondered about the history of Benson’s; naturally, I turned to the Internet.

Original Newspaper Ad for Benson’s Opening in 1926.

I learned that Benson’s opened in 1926 but was in a period of decline in the 1970s when I visited. A new owner, Arthur Provencher, bought Benson’s in 1979 and tried to create publicity for the place. One stunt was an attempt to put the zoo’s 500-pound silverback gorilla on the primary ballot for the 1980 presidential election. Colossus G. Benson was driven to Concord, the state capital, to file the forms, but he was kept in the parking lot on a truck trailer, since a gorilla free in the statehouse was deemed too risky. Instead, a chimpanzee in a white tuxedo was sent inside with a note that declared Colossus’s candidacy. Provencher argued that nothing in the US Constitution prohibited animals from running for president. His dream was dashed when Colossus was rejected—not because he was a gorilla, but because he wasn’t thirty-five and didn’t meet the age requirement.

Colossus G. Benson Presidential Trading Card

Ultimately, Provencher was unable to turn Benson’s Wild Animal Farm around, and it closed in 1987, the victim of the economy and a growing understanding of how animals in captivity should be housed and treated. The land it sat on was eventually given to the Town of Hudson, who turned it into a public park in 2010. Some of the original landmarks, like the Old Lady in the Shoe shoe-shaped building and Colossus’s cage, were restored as part of the rehabilitation and are now available for families to explore. The new park gets excellent reviews on Trip Advisor, with one 2013 reviewer, Amanda6500, noting, “I think the favorite part of the park was the gorilla cage that the kids can play in . . . There is a gorgeous mural on the back wall and the kids seem to love the novelty of being in a cage.”

That metal-on-metal sound you are hearing in  your head as you read this is my Internet research coming to a screeching halt, as my brain, fully functioning in 2019, screamed, “Wait. What!? Do they though?” This casual 2013 comment was really jarring when juxtaposed with the fact that our current government has an actual policy of keeping kids in cages.

On an average day in the United States in 2019, our government has more than 2,000 kids being held, without their parents, by the US Border Patrol. In theory, the law says they can be housed for up to 72 hours, but then they are supposed to be released to a relative in the United States. In practice, kids are often kept much longer, and over the last couple of weeks, we’ve learned more about the conditions in which many of the children are held. They are often housed in make-shift cages with a mat on a concrete floor to sleep on. Sometimes, they don’t even have that, if the guards take the mat away as punishment. The government also withholds showers, soap, toothpaste . . .

One Trump administration lawyer tried to argue that they were only charged with maintaining “safe and sanitary” conditions, and soap and toothpaste were unnecessary to meeting that requirement. This prompted clapback on Twitter from Michael Scott Moore, who in 2012 was kidnapped and held for two and half years by Somali pirates. On June 22, he tweeted, “Somali pirates gave me toothpaste & soap.” David Rohde, a journalist kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008, retweeted Moore on June 24, and added, “The Taliban gave me toothpaste & soap.” What does it say about us when the US government has lost the moral high ground to pirates and the Taliban?

Meanwhile, we’re arguing semantics. Are these “concentration camps”? Does this constitute torture? The Trump camp argues no, but under a different presidency, if this were happening in a different country, we would be discussing human rights violations and talking about UN sanctions. A June 21 report by the Associated Press noted after a visit to the Clinton Detention Center in El Paso, Texas, that “kids are taking care of kids, and there’s inadequate food, water and sanitation for the 250 infants, children and teens at the Border Patrol station.”

The outcry after the report was so great that the acting head of Customs and Border Protection, John Sanders, stepped down, and most of the children at Clinton were removed to a tent detention center. But they still remain in the custody of US Border Patrol. I don’t think “Kids in Cages” was the legacy Sanders wanted to be remembered for. We citizens need to continue pointing out the depravity of the situation until the Trump administration as a whole is shamed into following the law and treating immigrants and asylum seekers humanely.

Thus far, however, the current government shows no signs of either shame or willingness to act to rectify the situation. Perhaps then, we need to get Ndume on the New Hampshire primary ballot. He’s a western lowland silverback gorilla who currently lives in the Cincinnati Zoo. Ndume is thirty-seven, so he meets the age requirement. He knows a modified version of American Sign Language, so he is probably better at communicating than some currently serving in government. Most importantly, Ndume knows what it is like to spend life confined—of course, his “cage” has plenty of room and is designed with his health and well-being in mind.

Text © Rebecca Bigelow
Photos © 1 & 2 public domain; 3 from The Lego Movie;
4 screenshot (6/30/19) of Moore’s Twitter post.

RESOURCES

On the history of Benson’s Wild Animal Farm:

On what is happening at the border:

On Ndume:

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