• Germany's news in English

Zoo forced to rename primate called 'Obama'

Kristen Allen · 10 Jul 2009, 14:31

Published: 10 Jul 2009 14:31 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

This spring the zoo in the eastern German city named a newborn mandrill “Obama” after freshly inaugurated US President Barack Obama. But an advocacy group for black Germans demanded that the primate be renamed this week, calling the zoo’s choice racist.

“It’s a catastrophe,” director of the Initiative for Black Germans (ISD) Tahir Della told The Local on Friday. “Black people continue to be confronted by associations with the animal kingdom and primitivity.”

The baby mandrill, which belongs to a species closely related to the baboon, was born on March 23, Manuela Collmar, zookeeper at the zoo’s “Afrika Haus,” told The Local earlier this week. Each year the zoo names all newborn animals beginning with the same letter.

“This year they all begin with ‘O,’ and one of the zookeepers chose ‘Obama’ – it was meant to be positive and an honour in light of his visit to Dresden in June,” Collmar said, adding that neither she nor her colleagues were aware of the history of using monkeys to caricature and ethnically stereotype black people.

In an email response to ISD director Della’s complaint about the mandrill’s name on Thursday, zoo director Karl-Heinz Ukena echoed her sentiments.

“The possible associations of this name choice were not considered, and the racist charicterisation – particularly with the background that the US president recently visited Dresden – was far off,” Ukena wrote, adding that the zoo had meant to express its “esteem” for Obama.

Ukena went on to apologise for any “irritation” the name had caused.

The ISD responded with a request for the zoo to take the issue seriously and rename the mandrill.

The request at first went unanswered, and calls on Friday to the zoo revealed that Ukena had left his office on holiday.

However, later the same day, the zoo told The Local it had reconsidered and would rename the baby primate.

The zoo director was contrite about any possible offence taken, his secretary Annette Heine said.

“We will change the name to 'Okeke,' which means 'he who was born on market day',” she said.

Munich-based Della said he was surprised by the zoo’s change of heart, calling it a “small miracle.”

He said he has made “countless” similar complaints that have been repeatedly brushed aside.

“Most people think it’s enough to qualify offensive content by saying they didn’t mean it that way,” Della told The Local. “For a long time racism has been associated with the Third Reich, but Germans need to understand that there are other forms. There are so few black people in the country, however, that they see it as a small problem.”

The Dresden Zoo’s choice of the name ‘Obama’ for the mandrill is a sign of what Della calls a “subliminal racism” that exists in the country.

Indeed, just last week the United Nations’ special rapporteur for racism Githu Muigai said Germany needs to do more to tackle the daily discrimination of ethnic minorities.

Story continues below…

Living in a less diverse society than in the United States, Germans have often struggled to avoid racial pitfalls and cultural insensitivity. Earlier this year a company was criticised for selling chicken nuggets called “Obama Fingers,” in an apparent reference to African-American fondness for fried chicken.

But there have also been gaffes in America.

This February, The New York Post was slammed for running a political cartoon showing police officers shooting a chimpanzee while saying: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill,” just as Obama was having difficulty with the US Congress on efforts to boost the economy.

The paper said it had not intended to appear racist and was merely referencing a recent incident with a violent chimp in Connecticut.

Kristen Allen (kristen.allen@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Anger as Berlin scraps Turkey concert on Armenia genocide
The Dresden Symphony Orchestra. Photo: DPA

Germany's foreign ministry Tuesday scrapped a planned symphony performance on the Armenian "genocide" in its Istanbul consulate, sparking accusations that it was caving in to Turkish pressure.

Obama to visit Berlin in last presidential trip to Germany
President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel during a Berlin trip in 2013. Photo: DPA.

The White House announced on Tuesday that US President Barack Obama will be paying one last unexpected visit to the German capital - his last before he leaves office.

Hostility towards minorities 'widespread in Bavaria'
A village in southern Bavaria. Photo: DPA.

Hate and hostility towards groups deemed to be different are not just sentiments felt by fringe extremists, a new report on Bavaria shows.

Hated RB Leipzig emerge as shock challengers to Bayern
RB Leipzig. Photo: DPA

RB Leipzig's remarkable unbeaten start to the Bundesliga season has seen them suddenly emerge at the head of the pack chasing reigning champions and league leaders Bayern Munich.

Munich taxi driver in hospital after attack by British tourists
Photo: DPA

A taxi driver had to be hospitalized in Munich on Monday evening after three British tourists refused to pay their fare and then attacked him.

German police carry out nationwide anti-terror raids
Police outside a building in Jena during raids on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

Police forces in five German states carried out raids on Tuesday morning with the aim of tackling the financing of terror groups, police in Thuringia have reported.

The Local List
10 ways German completely messes up your English
Photo: DPA

So you've mastered German, but now it's time to learn English all over again.

Iconic German church being eroded away by human urine
Ulm Minster towering over the rest Ulm surrounding the Danube. Photo: Pixabay

It will now cost you €100 to spend a penny. That’s if you get caught choosing to pee against the world-famous Ulm Minster.

German small arms ammo exports grow ten-fold
Photo: DPA

The government has come in for criticism after new figures revealed that Germany exported ten times the quantity of small arms ammunition in the first half of 2016 as in the same period last year.

14-year-old stabs 'creepy clown' in prank gone wrong
File photo: DPA.

A 16-year-old in Berlin decided he wanted to scare some friends, but his plot backfired in a violent way.

Germany's 10 most weird and wonderful landmarks
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd