Tripp York really messed me up, man.
Based almost entirely on years of indoctrination by animal rights discourse and my own childhood experiences at the dismal Boise zoo, my most prominent memory of which is looking down into the barren concrete pits that housed two lethargic bears and knowing that something was terribly wrong, I have a well-honed skepticism about zoos, the people who work at zoos, and the people who pay to go to zoos. My 7-year-old has never been to a zoo. I boycotted my church’s fall picnic the year it was held at the zoo. City zoos and SeaWorld and roadside hellholes were all along the same spectrum of bad-for-animals in my book.
Enter York and his nuanced, carefully-researched, and practical-without-sacrificing-good-ethics take on the complex relationship between humans and animals in captivity.
In The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflection on Zoos, Conservation, and Christian Ethics (Wipf & Stock, 2015), York explores the uniquely human phenomenon of keeping other animals captive, not only in zoos and sanctuaries, but in labs, farms, and our homes. Since it is quite impossible for animals to live completely free of humans, how do we Christians talk about and into the peaceable kingdom promised in the Scriptures? How does captivity of animals in its various forms serve their end, the chief purpose of which is to glorify God? And if we agree that creation is good, how do we best embody that claim?
York began his inquiry in a way that, in our digital age, too few do: He forwent “hearsay, rumor, speculation, and untrustworthy internet memes” and began to visit and volunteer at his local zoo. He became a shoveler of elephant poop. And he spoke with many people who have devoted their lives to working with animals in captivity in zoos and sanctuaries.
“It seems that the people who most want animals to roam freely in the world, as if the world in all her nature and splendor is some sort of benevolent entity just waiting with open arms to care for her long lost children, are those people who have never experienced the terror and anxiety involved in having to constantly battle hunger, fatigue, and other animals just to survive from one day to the next.” (pg. 47)
Should wild animals be in the wild? Yes. But there is increasingly little “wild” in which animals can live and those of us in highly industrialized societies have a bad tendency to romanticize life outside the concrete jungle. Elephants in the wild, for instance, face the danger of poaching, planned culls, and the destruction of their natural habitat. Does that mean that we should round up all the elephants and put them into cages? York points out that there are no easy or blanket answers, that what is right for one animal may not be right for another.
Zoos and sanctuaries have the potential to be tools for education and conservation. They have the potential to inspire individuals and communities to live and advocate on behalf of a species not their own. Some are living into this potential, and some are not. We have a long way to go. York has convinced me that until and unless humans make extraordinary strides to preserve and expand natural habitats, zoos and other facilities that work to protect (not just display) certain species just may be their best chance at survival.
“Like all other animals on this planet, our only purpose, as well as theirs, is to serve the One that gives us life. Any other speculation about the purpose of other animals must be carefully weighed and measured against their primary purpose.” (pg. 75)
In the latter chapters of The End of Captivity?, York takes up the broader issues of animals in Christian life, examining what the Bible can tell us about human-animal relations and our roles and responsibilities in animal lives. Focusing on the animals we use for food, York examines the mass consumption of animals through an eschatological lens and wonders how our hearts and actions might change if we name animals well, that is, if “instead of calling animals food, cosmetics, medicine, clothing, and entertainment, we…refer to them as manifestations of God’s creative wisdom who are our covenant partners participating in God’s redemptive history.” (pg. 113) There are animals who are visible in our day-to-day lives: our pets, the neighborhood strays, urban wildlife, and (for those who have an affinity or passion) the animals who live in our local zoos. York points out that there are billions more animals whose lives and deaths are largely hidden from view but who are every bit as made and loved by God as our beloved dogs, or the majestic elephant, adorable lemur, or impressive boa constrictor living in the zoo across town.
York’s writing is thoughtful and funny, humble and well-informed. Committed to advocating well for all animals, York builds a big tent and encourages everyone who wants to do a little better by our animal brethren to come on in and have a chat. It’s a must-read for any Christian serious about protecting the planet and its many inhabitants.
My son’s school was scheduled to take a field trip to the zoo this afternoon and I was prepared, as I’ve done every year, to pick him up and spend the afternoon doing something else. The field trip was cancelled because of some bad weather, and when they reschedule…well, I may go along and see for myself what kind of job our local city zoo is doing at promoting conservation, caring for the animals they house, and educating the community about the life-or-death issues at stake. But I’m not as brave as York…I probably won’t be shoveling any poop.
This review was originally posted at EvangelicalsforSocialAction.org.