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.


the greatest of these

An itty bitty preview of the opening of a chapter on loving the Other, from my forthcoming book with Zondervan.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Luke 6:27-28

I have never got along all that well with children. As a child, I chose books over other kids more often than not. I never had a huge group of friends, always preferring the steady company of a few intimates. As a high schooler, I got jobs in food service instead of spending my evenings and weekends babysitting for car insurance and spending money. So when I was pregnant with my son, I was grateful to read that some mothers don’t instantly bond with their newborns, and that it might take a while for him to grow on me, even after he’d grown in me.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, at his birth, I felt a powerful, visceral, overwhelming, aching love for this little purple-red creature. A love that has only increased as the years have gone on. A love that is courage-giving and terrifying, powerful and vulnerable and utterly confounding. Confounding in part because he’s not always very nice to me. There is a lot of whining. A lot of ingratitude. Some screaming and tantrum throwing and “I hate you’s.” He can be demanding, spoiled, selfish…just really obnoxious. There are times when I just want to roll my eyes, tell him to shut up, run away, show him how much worse he could have it.

But I love him with my whole heart. And when the day is over and he’s finally asleep, I look at his face that is a mirror of my own, and I listen to him breathe, and I curl his tiny fingers around mine and thank God for entrusting me with this miracle of life, this funny, sweet, smart, often-caring, fast-growing little boy.

As my son was born of me, we are born of God. The loving gaze with which I watch my son is tepid, the aching love a shadow compared to the fire of love God carries for us.

And so it should come as no surprise that the God whose love catalyzed a universe asks us to love not only those who are easy to love, and not only those to whom we are biologically pre-conditioned to love, but those who are least like us and who like us least.

Grace is costly, and love is hard.

Jesus’ life was an ode to the love of Other. He gathered rejects, bridged social and traditional divides, and turned the notions of hospitality, mercy, and justice on their heads. Piety is out, compassion is in. When Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, we learn that neighbors are those who love “the least of these.” In this chapter, we explore the limits of love. How are we called to extend mercy to “the least of these”? Who is our neighbor? And we will ask especially what it might mean to view animals as our creaturely neighbors and to extend neighborly love to them.

Desmond Tutu FTW

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Photo credit: Wa-J)

“It is a kind of theological folly to suppose that God has made the entire world just for human beings, or to suppose that God is interested in only one of the millions of species that inhabit God’s good earth.”

Demond Tutu has written the foreword for a new book by Oxford theologian Andrew Linzey, who has spent decades developing theologies that honor all of God’s creations.

Here’s the whole HuffPo article, which also includes:

“I have seen firsthand how injustice gets overlooked when the victims are powerless or vulnerable, when they have no one to speak up for them and no means of representing themselves to a higher authority. Animals are in precisely that position. Unless we are mindful of their interests and speak out loudly on their behalf, abuse and cruelty go unchallenged.”

I’m so excited.