I recently visited Brookfield Zoo with my family during their Halloween event. We purchased a zoo membership in the summer of 2020 so we had a place to go drifting COVID and we renewed it this summer. We’ve been there many times over the past year and a half. 

A sign at Brookfield Zoo

This time, we wore Halloween costumes and enjoyed the warm fall day, taking in the sights of the animals and the decorations. We visited the Hamill Family Wild Encounters area of the zoo, as we have done many other times. We saw the parakeets, the wallabies, and then went to see the llamas. It was there that I noticed a sign that says: “With the arrival of the Spanish came new animals–sheep, horses, mules, and donkeys–and alpacas and llamas almost disappeared along with the Incas.”

I was surprised at this framing. The people of the Incan civilization did not disappear. They are the ancestors of the Quechua people who make up large portions of the populations of Peru, Bolivia, and a number of South American countries. This sign reinforces the idea that the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are gone. 

Some may argue that this is a small thing. A few words on one sign in one zoo. But it is from small actions and individual phrases that our society is constructed. Each of our choices is an opportunity to reinforce or undermine the status quo. So even these few words matter. 

Imagine an Indigenous child visiting the zoo. Maybe they are about 10 years old. Imagine them seeing a reference to other Native peoples disappearing. Imagine that this young person’s parents immigrated from Peru, or that they are from Peru. Imagine that they have Quechua ancestry, that they are seeing a passing reference to the disappearance of their ancestors. Imagine that this is just one of hundreds of such references that this young person has seen in their ten years of life. 

Brookfield Zoo has about 2 million visitors per year. Let’s suppose that the demographics of those visitors mirror the demographics of Chicago, with 0.4% of residents of Indigenous ancestry. That would mean that 8,000 Indigenous visitors come to the zoo each year. So let’s multiply the experience of our one Indigenous child by the thousands of Indigenous children who must visit the zoo each year. 

Brookfield Zoo, this sign should be modified or removed. What will you do to address this? 

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