Freedom, Compassion, and Hard Choices

A review of The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflection on Zoos, Conservation, and Christian Ethics (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2015) by Tripp York

After a meeting, I looked at my phone to see that I had several missed calls and a voicemail from the head of the after-school program my young son attended. Without listening to the message, I immediately dialed the teacher, my heart racing. Turns out that my son had been worried sick about the field trip they were scheduled to take that day: he had not remembered it was happening and had not discussed it with me. It would be his first trip to the zoo, and he was concerned I would be mad at him for going. I told the teacher it was fine and to please let my son know she had spoken to me. When he got home that night, we talked about what he saw, how he felt, and whether I was upset (I was not).

Tripp York’s The End of Captivity? had a lot to do with my measured reaction to my son participating in the zoo field trip, something I swore up and down I would never allow. York’s book made me realize that much of my blanket condemnation of zoos came from miserable experiences I had as a child visiting the Boise Zoo. Even at a very young age, something seemed terribly wrong with keeping bears in barren concrete pits, confining monkeys to narrow cages with only a few vines and branches for exercise, and keeping piles of snakes together in small aquariums. No wonder the resident giraffe spit on everyone he could: I would have been mad, too. But my thirty-year-old experience at the Boise Zoo probably should not inform my whole opinion of all zoos. Indeed, one of York’s basic points is that we cannot simply paint all zoos with a broad brush.

York presents the reader with six movements and six interludes. First, he gives the reader an overview of the circumstances and questions that led to a Christian animal advocate volunteering for his local zoo. Second, York explores how humans experience zoos and what that might mean for the purpose and place of zoos in modern society: “I love and loathe zoos. I lament that they need to exist, but I am often grateful that they do exist. I am more excited, however, about what they can become. Their potential…” (York, 25). Third, we examine the tension between “freedom” and “conservation” with a particular focus on the crisis of the Baghdad Zoo during the U.S. invasion. These first three chapters serve mainly to provide a nuanced, balanced, and realistic overview of the situation that humans have created for animals, and to highlight a few of the ways that people are responding to that crisis in (hopefully) helpful ways.

After establishing an overview of current realities, York turns begins to unpack how a Christian worldview or faith ought to inform the human-animal relationship, with a particular focus on captive animals. York first explores the purpose of animals from a Christian perspective and examines how that purpose relates to what the Bible says about how humans are to practice dominion. In a book about captive animals, we’d be remiss to ignore the billions of animals kept in captivity for human consumption. York’s fifth movement explores the philosophical origins of his vegetarianism since, “the number of chickens killed per hour exceeds the total number of animals in all accredited zoos and aquariums in North America” (York, 87). In the final movement, York “disrupts the poverty of our imaginations” (York, 111) to combat the idea that because there is violence in the world now, we can be excused from pursuing eschatologically-informed behavior, and revisits an earlier discussion of naming: “Christians name other animals well when they are named eschatologically” (York, 112).

Book reviews are supposed, I think, to find something to nitpick, some point to make to let the author know they did not do everything exactly right. I’ll do that, but reluctantly. York has written a compelling, deeply personal, and nuanced book that helped me think more holistically about animals in captivity. If he ever does a re-write, I would ask for further exploration of two points: first, there is an underlying assumption throughout the book that extinction is bad and conservation of species is good. I found myself wishing he would acknowledge and explore that assumption. And second, I would like to hear more about why we call a small subset of captive animals “exotic,” explore how that might relate to colonialism, including a colonized faith, and examine the ways in which a decolonized theology might offer hope to animals in captivity.

In a fallen world, the “right thing to do” is not always clear. In addition to presenting a compelling theological case for animal protection, The End of Captivity? offers readers an introduction to some men, women, and organizations who are balancing this tension as they attempt to make a comfortable life for animals in their care. I may not agree with some of their tactics, but York has helped to humanize a group of people I had unfairly written off as greedy and self-serving. His work has made me more compassionate and more informed, and for that, I am exceedingly grateful.


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