On a hot, humid, July afternoon I took my daughter to our local zoo. The air was thick and chewy and the thermometer neared 100. We pushed through the turnstiles in pursuit of lemonade and her favorite section: the polar bear exhibit. On this particular day, the polar bears were in the shade, sleeping off the heat, rather than splashing into the pools and wrestling one another as they normally did. My daughter tugged at my arm and asked, “Mommy, don’t they like snow? Where is their snow? Don’t they live by the icebergs? It’s too hot here for them.”
Variations on her questions have been asked by others, from animal-rights activists to zoological organizations. Time magazine recently ran an article exploring the future of zoos, covering proposals such as “mega zoos,” which would give animals more room to roam, and “high-rise zoos,” which would allow birds to spread their wings in open air. The basic questions remain, however. Is keeping and displaying animals in captivity fair, appropriate, necessary, educational, or cruel? Is there a healthy intersection where education, entertainment, and conservation co-exist?
As I tried to sort through this dilemma, it occurred to me that perhaps the question for people of faith is not, “What is the future of the zoo?” but rather, “What is the future of God’s creation?” Genesis 1 reminds us that in the beginning, humanity and the natural world existed in perfect harmony. There were no fences or cages, no vanishing habitats or need for animal rights and rescue. God’s creation was one of balance and abundance.
We now find ourselves at a stage of human history where thousands upon thousands of species are extinct and resources increasingly scarce. Greed and unchecked development have led to the destruction of entire ecosystems. On the one hand, zoos can help raise awareness and educational opportunities to prevent further destruction. Many hope that they will inspire future generations of conservationists and activists. On the other hand, they can stand as shrines to the sort of exploitation that led to the destruction of many species.
Zoos hold treasures for us to celebrate, but they also are a reminder of our broken world.
When operated thoughtfully and safely, zoos provide an opportunity to recapture some of the majesty and wonder of creation. They can offer sober reminders of what once was and what God will one day restore. However, the fact that we have zoos at all is an indication of how far we live from God’s plan for this world. God invited humanity to be stewards of creation. We were told to live in such a way that promoted the health and flourishing of people and creation alike. Instead, we pillage and plunder it for our own agendas.
Zoos hold treasures for us to celebrate, but they also are a reminder of our broken world. A world where destruction, deforestation, captivity, and greed are rampant, where a polar bear curled up in the corner of a Midwestern zoo is normalized entertainment. Pause for a moment and consider how shockingly far that image is from the world God created.
For the Christian, the “future of the zoo” question is in many ways a question about our own future. For American Christians, our way of life and rate of consumption cannot be sustained. People and the planet are paying a hefty price to sustain our habits. The irony of the polar bears is that a day is rapidly approaching when they may be better off in a zoo than in their natural habitat. Warming temperatures, oil exploration, and habitat loss push them toward extinction.
The God who gives all creatures life and breath is sovereign over all and will, indeed, one day restore all to its former glory. Yet for the time we occupy in history, and considering the commission we are blessed to live out, zoos pose a challenging dilemma. Do they celebrate the beauty of the creatures they contain? Or do they lament the way our stewardship of God’s good world has gone awry?