A previous contributor to Our Hen House on the intersections of food and faith, the Reverend Lauren Lisa Ng lends her voice to the ever-changing discourse regarding animals in captivity via a review of Tripp York’s recent book, The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflections on Zoos, Conservation, and Christian Ethics. It seems the line between “captivity” and “freedom” may not be as clear as one may think, and that an ethical Christian response to the issue can provide some hopeful solutions.
Book Review: The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflections on Zoos, Conservation, and Christian Ethics by Tripp York
by Lauren Lisa Ng
I’ve finally stopped going to zoos. It took me a while – what with three little kids and their yearly school-sponsored field trips. For many of us, zoos occupy that final frontier to be stricken from our animal liberationist existence. We find ourselves uncomfortably straddling the amorphous line between freedom and education, idealism and realism. It is here that Tripp York proves himself quite at home as he invites readers of The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflections on Zoos, Conservation, and Christian Ethics (Cascade Books, 2015) to explore this ambiguity by temporarily laying aside the stumbling blocks of prejudice and presumption that threaten to impede such exploration.
If you’re looking for an unmitigated argument either for or against zoos, this book isn’t for you. As both an animal rights advocate and someone who has spent hundreds of hours working directly with animals in captivity, York speaks from experience when he says, “Like many other people, I love and loathe zoos. I lament that they need to exist, but I am often grateful that they do exist.” His contemplative wrestling turns to prophetic word with what he says next: “I am more excited, however, about what they can become.”
York clings to this hopeful position throughout his book. At every touch point along the way that has traditionally proven problematic for animal liberationists, York proffers a contrasting word. Refuse to even step foot into a zoo? York tells the story of his mother who finally consented and as a result, developed a heart for animal conservation. Hate how zoos charge patrons an admission fee to view animals as forms of entertainment? York contends that “the large contribution… zoos make to conservation and education would not be possible if no one paid to see the animals.” Prefer that captive animals be set free to live in the wild? York explains that animals’ existence apart from human intervention is itself nearly an extinct notion and that “the primary enemy of animal advocates, therefore, should not be those who house animals; the primary enemy of animal advocates should be the loss of our natural habitats.”
Herein lies my only critique of the book. In relentlessly presenting both sides of an, albeit, complex issue, York runs the risk of not saying much that’s definitive at all, at least in his opening chapters. His democratic musings can come across as waffling, even if his vacillations are genuine. This spirit of inclusivity does however lend itself to effective storytelling. Rather than try to provide a one-size-fits-all answer to the question at hand, York compiles a variety of perspectives from the people closest to the issue – those who hold animals in captivity and those who seek to free them. His narrative therefore reads like a compelling film documentary, speckled with just the right amount of humor and wit. (He describes in indiscriminate detail, for instance, his experience shoveling elephant dung as a zoo employee.)
Another example of York’s multifaceted approach to the topic at hand is his suggestion that zoos and sanctuaries are not polarities, but partners in what he describes as a symbiotic relationship. This symbiosis exists “backstage, while in public each looks down at the other a little for having differing priorities.” York’s prescriptive observation is that “each should support the other in that each does best what the other cannot.” Acceptance of this uncomfortable reality will require a larger framework in which to view their relationship and other muddy intersections of freedom and captivity. This larger framework comes in the form of theological exegesis.
As a theologian myself, the book really gained rhetorical momentum with his fourth chapter consideration of The Ongoing Task of Adam. The author describes four ways in which we name animals: “We give them scientific names, popular names, individual names, and – what I contend is a fourth manner of naming – relational names.” The fourth way of naming leads us to describe animals as pets, entertainment, accessories, research, boots, belts and trophies, to name a few. “The problematic nature of such naming,” writes York, “is that it tempts us to commodify other living beings. We are tempted to name in such a way that we are always the ones who benefit from this naming.” A brief examination of Scripture leads York to conclude that “animals do not belong to us, they belong to God,” “the ultimate purpose of other animals is to not serve us, but to serve God,” “God cares for all animals, both humans and nonhumans,” and “these animals, just like us, will forever reside in God’s kingdom.” The primary purpose of animals is then not for the sake of humans, but for the sake of their Creator. As Christians, if we are to accept this biblical truth, our ways of naming animals must undergo drastic transformation.
It is in these latter chapters dedicated to Christian ethics where York takes his strongest stands. On the subject of dominion he writes, “if Jesus is indeed our paradigm for living – then whatever form dominion takes it must look like the crucified servant.” On the common disconnect between advocacy and application, the author does not mince words: “those people who advocate for a better life for captive elephants (or any other species) take the easy and inconsistent road if they fail to make the connection between their diet and the welfare of animals such as pigs, cows, fish and chicken… rather than masquerading as an animal advocate, perhaps they should be a little more honest and say that they only advocate for the welfare of certain animals.” On the ethics of good and evil: “[Christians] must live as if creation is good, as if God has made a covenant with all of creation, as if the violent consumption of other animals is not a part of the original ontological peace God pronounced as good and fitting.” It is in this familiar space of Christian ethics that York’s intrepid spirit seems to shine through. At long last his argument is cogent, his words are unambiguous, and his theology is passionately persuasive. “If ours is a faith that is eschatological in nature,” he pleads, “what are we waiting for?”
This book reads as part memoir, part academic work. York’s style strikes a delicate balance of affability and provocation that makes the subject approachable from a variety of reader perspectives. And I’d be remiss not to mention that his comprehensive footnotes are like a delightful bonus book in and of themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed the anecdotes and bibliographical recommendations contained therein.
By its conclusion, York does his best to string together the various elements of his book while remaining true to his democratic ways. We don’t get to hear if sanctuaries are better than zoos, if captivity is better than “freedom” into habitats already irrevocably damaged by human intervention, if Christian ethics contains the solution to any or all of these problems. Like a true philosopher, York is able to function within this abstruseness. But like a true theologian, he is dis-eased by the present reality enough to leave us with a final prophetic word. In reference to St. Francis who was referred to as a walking “pardon of God” for always pleading the case of powerless animals to the powerful and mighty of his day, York writes, “We have it within our power to make the world a more hospitable home for all animals. I imagine this will require a lot of people committed to a lot of small acts of countercultural generosity. I imagine it will require a lot of people willing to adopt the kind of defiant and rebellious lifestyle that will enable us to become walking pardons of God.”
The Rev. Lauren Lisa Ng earned her Masters of Divinity from the American Baptist Seminary of the West/Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, completing her Masters thesis on the topic of Animal Theology: A Christian Theology of Compassion For Animals. She was ordained with the American Baptist Churches, USA in 2005. Lauren is also the blogger behind One Happy Table, a vegan recipe blog. She has previously contributed two articles to Our Hen House: The Church Potluck, Reimagined (July 2014), and Eating Our Way to Heaven: Food as Sacrament (December 2014).