Henry and I took a day off last week to visit a zoo north of us and take photographs. I will not name the zoo because we were not impressed with it. The cages were small. Noise from the nearby freeway was incessant and periodically punctuated by fighter jets screaming by overhead. The animals were clearly bored and sometimes suffering—one leopard was constantly chewing on its own tail and a red river hog trotted along the fence making sad bleating noises for attention. I came away feeling a real sense of heartbreak about what we do to so many of the animals we place under our “care.” Fortunately, this depressing experience was quite different from other zoos we have visited in the past.
Last week, many churches celebrated the Feast of St. Francis. It’s a popular opportunity to engage the young—and young at heart—by inviting them to bring their pets to church for a blessing. Back when we lived in Silver City, New Mexico, the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd would celebrate the blessing of the animals in a local park, and one parishioner would bring her favorite horse.
This year, St. Philip’s put together a full-day event with a variety of animal-themed events. There was a liturgy with blessings for pets, microchipping, a pet food collection (and a food truck for hungry humans), an art show, artistic activities, and live animal demonstrations. It was a fun day for families, friends, and their furry (and scaly) companions.
While such events are fitting tributes to our popular modern conceptions of St. Francis, I wonder what he would think about these pet-focused celebrations. Around the world today, there are so many animals who are not blessed by humans, but rather cursed through our disregard for the world they inhabit. I think of the countless creatures who have died in recent wildfires and floods that are caused by human indifference to global warming. I grieve the sad suffering of powerful and sometimes dangerous creatures who have been removed from their environment so we can gawk at them from behind fences and glass. They cannot understand why they are penned in.
Does this mean I believe we should close every zoo? No, it does not. We have visited facilities that work diligently to engage the animals in their care, teach new generations about the vast variety of life on this planet, and seek to keep species alive that are going extinct in the wild (again due to human factors such as territory encroachment and predation). You can learn more about the pros and cons of the modern zoo (and some ancient equivalents) here.
Instead, I’m finding myself thinking about how we tend to do the same with human beings. We put our brothers and sisters in cubicles and tell them to work all day without sunlight and fresh air. We conscript people to become soldiers in our wars and coerce our prisoners to fight wildfires. It seems we don’t know how to care for far too many of our fellow humans any better than we do our varied fellow creatures on this planet. I wonder what Jesus would say about all this.
Clearly, I found lots to ponder as a result of this recent trip to the zoo. I don’t have answers, but it seems to me that if we are called to be good stewards of God’s creation, we need to be thinking and praying about these things rather than taking our modern systems and perspectives for granted.
What do you think Jesus and Francis of Assisi would have to say about the concept of a zoo? What questions do you have about zoos, animal care, human care, and the agony of God’s creation?