When God said, “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” in the first chapter of Genesis, did he have the private menagerie of exotic animals that existed outside of Zanesville, Ohio, in mind?
It is one thing to “rule over” a domestic animal and quite another to try to control a jungle cat. I intrinsically feel something is wrong when I hear about people keeping tigers or lions around the house as pets. And something was wrong last week when exotic animal owner Terry Thompson apparently released almost 50 animals and then fatally shot himself.
Imagine being his neighbor and seeing a lion, a bear and a couple of tigers coming over the fence into your cattle field. Imagine driving down the highway and seeing road signs warning you to stay in your car because of loose exotic animals. It is easy to understand why law enforcement officers found it necessary to hunt down and kill the animals, but the images of those majestic creatures lying dead or being burned en masse are sickening. Among the dead were 18 Bengal tigers, an endangered species, which Columbus Zoo director emeritus Jack Hanna called, “The most magnificent creature in the entire world.”
The killings in Ohio raise questions about what the government’s role in regulating animal ownership should be. According to the Associated Press, Ohio Gov. John Kasich was criticized by the Humane Society for allowing a statewide ban on the buying and selling of exotic animals to expire in April. Are these laws examples of government intrusion into the rights of private citizens or are they examples of government’s obligation to protect the common good? By the end of the week, Kasich had signed an executive order tightening animal ownership regulations.
While the political issues endure, some theological issues raised by this tragedy are clear. Even if the intentions of Thompson and his wife had been to responsibly care for the animals (to “rule over them” in the best sense of Genesis 1), the realities of Genesis 3 and Genesis 6-9 provide a stark commentary on what happened. “It’s like Noah’s Ark wrecking right here in Zanesville, Ohio,” Hanna said.
The Noah’s Ark image is appropriate. Despite our tendency to decorate children’s nurseries and playrooms with colorful artistic representations of the ark, the story of Noah and the flood is terrifying. Yes, there is hope in God’s covenant and sign of the rainbow, but there is the wrath of God on display in the story, as God regrets making humans and the rest of his creation. People have failed, and God is not happy.
The sad truth is that it’s us, not God, that makes a mess of our planet. To the extent the carnage in Zanesville brings to mind the carnage in Genesis, the common denominator is not an angry God, but the inability of humans to get things right. We are broken people. We often hurt the very things God has entrusted to our care – we hurt the earth, we hurt each other, we hurt ourselves and we hurt the animals we share this planet with. The destruction of those great animals – animals that bear testimony to the wonder and variety of God as creator – is yet another sign of humanity’s failings.
What should “dominion” of animals that were never meant to live on a farm in Ohio look like? Sometimes dominion may be best expressed by leaving things alone.