As most of you have probably heard by now, yesterday, in an incomprehensibly bizarre and senseless act, the owner of a private wildlife reserve near the small town of Zanesville, Ohio set free all 56 of the “exotic” animals in his possession and then committed suicide.
The local police, fearing for the local population’s safety, attempted to re-capture the animals but ended up killing 49 of them. Of those, 18 were Bengal Tigers, which is especially tragic considering that there are only about 1,400 Bengal Tigers still alive in the entire world.
The human response to these events has been outrage, both at the owner of the private zoo and at the local police. Rather than debating the appropriateness of the police’s decision to kill these animals (given that the police officers likely had no training for this sort of event and most likely felt fear for their own lives and panic at the thought of being indirectly responsible for the loss of other human life, I am not sure it is fair to blame them for acting the way they did), I instead want to think about what our collective grief and outrage over these animals’ captivity and subsequent slaughter tells us about God’s intentions for non-human animal life, especially with respect to factory farming and zoos.
First of all, this tells us that non-human animal life has value and there are certain things that violate the nature non-human animals. In other words, just as God created human animals for certain a type of life, so did God create all other animals for a certain type of life. The type of life intended by God for each of God’s creatures corresponds to the nature that God gave to each of God’s creatures. Just as we know what type of life God intends for us in part by looking at how God created us (we have certain types of bodies and certain types of minds, etc), we can make similar judgments about other types of animals by looking at the way they were created.
Because of this, non-human animals are not “things” that have whatever value and use human beings assign to them; instead, non-human animals have a value and identity that is both independent from and prior to the uses that human animals envision for them. While human beings can use other types of animals, we must “use” them in a way that stays within the lines drawn by God at creation (and, so we human animals don’t get an overinflated notion of our own awesomeness, it would seem that God also gave the rest of creation permission to “use” us: right now, there are billions of bacteria–helpful and harmful–living in and thereby “using” your body for their own survival; green things like trees and plants “breathe” in the carbon dioxide that we exhale; fruits use us to transport their seed; flowers trick us into thinking them pretty, and when we die, our bodies decompose and return our energy to the soil and all that lives in it, etc).
Ultimately, just as there are certain things that human animals cannot do to other human animals (torture them, enslave them, rape them, deprive them of love and relationship, etc) so too are there things that human animals cannot do to other types of animals.
Judging from our responses to images of tiger corpses strewn across the ground and bears stuck inside a metal cages, it seems as though we think that captivity and slaughter are counted among those things that, in general, human animals should not do to other types of animals. Yet we live in a society in which some of our most celebrated (the zoo) and economically and culturally central (the factory farm) institutions are predicated upon the captivity (zoos), torture and unrestrained slaughter (the factory farm) of non-human animals. How should we think about this?
The Bible and Non-Human Animals
The Bible affirms this belief about the God-given worth of all animals. Think, for example of the story of Noah’s flood. When God advised Noah to gather up animals onto the ark, God did not simply tell Noah to pick whichever animals Noah liked the most or only those animals that were “useful” to humans; instead God commanded Noah to bring two of every type of creature–enough to ensure every species’ survival. Noah doesn’t get to decide the fate of non-human life; God does. And, although this might be a stretch, I think it is possible to interpret God’s decision to destroy non-human animals in response to rampant human sinfulness not as evidence of God’s injustice or arbitrariness, but as evidence of the deep interconnection of human life with all other created life. In this way, the Flood is not just a punishment for human sinfulness, but also a reminder and revelation of the deadly effects of human sinfulness on all created life.
The book of Leviticus also expresses belief in the importance of limiting human use of creation to certain narrowly-defined purposes. In Leviticus 11, non-human animal life is identified as being inviolable except for a few edible species. Neither does God allow people to do whatever they want with those species designated as edible. After they are killed, their blood must be drained (a way of returning it to God), which signifies that God, not humans, is the creator and master of non-human life. Such an act also would seem to serve as a reminder that, even though these animals can be eaten, they still have a dignity and worth that must be respected.
Similarly, Isaiah 14:5-8 celebrates the demise of the King of Babylon, who not only oppressed the poor but also chopped down the cedar forests in order to supply himself with opulent ornamentation. In so doing, he foreshadows contemporary industrial logging which has destroyed all but 5% of the United States’ old growth forests. The passage reads:
“The LORD has broken the staff of the wicked…that struck down the peoples with unceasing blows, that ruled the nations in anger with unrelenting persecution. The whole earth is at rest and quiet; they break forth into singing. The cypresses exalt over you, the cedars of Lebanon, saying ‘Since you [the king of Babylon] were laid low, no one comes to cut us down.'”
Thus, it is not only that the trees of the forest praise God, but also that persecution and misuse of the forest provokes God’s wrath. The King of Babylon misuses the trees of the forest both because he uses them to make luxury goods for the rich rather than serving the authentic needs of the human community and because, in using the forest to sate an appetite that is by definition insatiable, he does not use the trees–he uses them up, nearly eradicating them from the face of the earth.
What Does This Say About Zoos?
Without rehearsing the entire debate about the morality of zoos, I want simply to challenge us to think more deeply about the zoo as an institution in light of yesterday’s events. Is the fact that private ownership of “exotic” animals is private and public ownership of animals in the public zoos we frequented as children is public a sufficient reason to feel outrage at the former and acceptance and even affirmation of the latter? Certainly this distinction makes sense when we’re thinking about art (surely, no one thinks it is better for one person or family to ‘lock up’ a masterful work of art in their home than for this piece of art to be accessible to the public) but does it really work when we’re talking about animals?
First of all, even though we prefer public ownership of art, we do not think that the piece of art is being “wronged” when it is owned privately. Secondly, for the captive animal, is its experience of being in a zoo necessarily better or more natural just because this zoo is public? In other words, the morality of zoos pivots not on its value to human beings but on its value to non-human animals, or at least, that is the argument I am asking you to consider.
Of course, perhaps the best argument for zoos is that they serve as a refuge for endangered species. However, I think rather than leading us to normalize zoos, this should cause us to oppose those human, King of Babylon-type activities (overhunting and destruction of habitat) that cause endangerment in the first place. My fear is that zoos, rather than highlighting the evil activities that place animals in zoos and mobilizing us to act against them instead encourage us to relate to non-human animals primarily in light of the pleasure they give us rather than in light of the way God created them to be.
Finally, I want to think about why we became so distressed by the sight of slaughtered lions, tigers, and bears–to the point of expressing outrage at the responsible police officers (something which we do not reliably do when the victim of police killing is a black or brown human being) yet the practice of factory farming is not only accepted (most meals eaten in this country include factory-farmed meat) but vigorously protected by law. Here, I am talking not about the killing of some animals for food in the controlled way allowed by Leviticus but of the specific practice of factory farming.
Our reaction to the slaughter of lions, tigers, and bears should cause us to think more critically about the practice of factory farming and our participation in it. We should ask ourselves if the reasons that we give for thinking it ok to torture and consume without limit some animals (chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows) but grievously wrong to kill and/or capture others (lions, tigers, bears) a reflection of God’s authentically different intentions for these creatures or simply our after-the-fact justification of the righteousness of our own appetites? It would seem that God gives us license to kill only as many animals as is necessary to secure human flourishing, which would most definitely be many fewer than we currently kill.