A couple of weeks ago, I went to the zoo – or rather, the ‘Wild Animal Park’, just outside Dalton in Cumbria. We were away on holiday in our ‘home-from-home’ in Haverigg. From there it’s three quarters of an hour’s drive to Dalton. So we decided to take Jesse and John to see the animals. Carl & Wendy had been planning a trip to the park too, so they joined us for the day and we went together.
It’s a very worthwhile day out. It’s not a huge site: not like visiting a great safari park or an African game reserve. I suppose you could walk round the whole park in an hour. But in that hour you’d have seen a lot of creatures very close-up. You’d have visited Australia and had emus, kangaroos and wallabies feeding from your hand. You’d have been warned not to feed the lemurs (from Madagascar) which wander at will throughout the zoo. You’d have watched the Sumatran tigers swarming up poles to seize their meat at feeding-time. Hippos, baboons, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, fruit-bats and rhinos: they’re all there. And if you’re a Christian, you’d have been moved to wonder and praise again at God’s creative power and imagination. Some of the animals are so funny: you can’t watch the comic activities of the apes without laughing. And some are cute – the spectacled bears from Peru with their young. And some are simply majestic. Nobody laughs at a pride of lions. And all these beasts, in all their variety, were made by one Almighty Creator.
I enjoyed my day. And yet something niggled at me as I walked round. I was aware that this ‘Animal Park; was founded with a definite agenda in view – and you’re reminded of that agenda at every turn. The zoo was established by people who are deeply concerned about the environment, and it exists to persuade other people to take on that concern. As the website puts it:
‘Education and conservation works hand in hand here at South Lakes Wild Animal Park. Our goal is simple – if every person who visits us whether as part of a formal group or on a family day out leaves knowing one extra thing about animals, their habitats, the threats they face, how zoos fit into the ongoing effort to save and protect endangered species or with some ideas about how they personally can help- then we are on the right track. The whole team are committed to create an awareness and appreciation of the natural world and to inspire all visitors to care about and understand the Diversity of life on the Planet we share…’
Most of the animals in the zoo are there precisely because they represent endangered species. As you come to each enclosure, you’re confronted with notice-boards spelling out just how close this animal is to extinction; you’re invited to ‘adopt’ a bear or to finance a conservation team; at every feeding-time, staff give talks about the importance of conservation.
Why am I so wary of all this talk about the importance of the natural world? I think there are three reasons.
The first is that I’m conscious that many elements of the environmental movement are motivated by an anti-Christian, new-agey, pantheistic outlook. Many ‘green’ thinkers attack the Bible because it teaches that Man has a unique, God-given place as head over creation. They see everything in the universe as being equally sacred and say that no creature (animal, vegetable or mineral!) should be thought of as more valuable than any other creature. As one writer put it: ‘Our own human striving for self-realization is on an equal footing to the strivings of other beings. There is a fundamental equality between human and non-human life in principle…’ Or as another wrote, ‘Gaia theorists acknowledge humanity as important, but only important through being a creation of Gaia (ie ‘Mother Earth’). For deep ecologists, humans are no different from, and no more important than, worms or viruses..’ For people who share this attitude, human beings have no right to eat animals, to use them for medical experiments, to keep them as pets. Nor for that matter do they have the right to shoot a man-eating tiger which threatens a village in India. A friend of mine who worked in the environmental department of a certain city, tells me of the horror some of his colleagues felt when he suggested that trees which cut off the light from homes should be cut down. ‘Why should human beings be treated as more important than trees?’ they wanted to know. You see the same attitude in the ‘animal rights’ activists who will harass, attack and burn down the homes of anyone involved in animal experiments or in the fur trade.
How different the Bible’s teaching is! The Bible teaches that God has entrusted the earth to Man, and that Man is authorised to use other creatures for his own needs. God said to Noah, ‘The fear and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hands they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you…’
Now I’m not suggesting that the South Lakes Wild Animal Park is driven by the sort of hard-line environmental philosophy I’ve been talking about. In fact I’m sure that some of the ‘deep ecologists’ would be absolutely hostile to the idea of a park where animals are kept confined, even if it’s to conserve the species. But the knowledge that environmentalism is so often linked with an anti-christian attitude to Man and Creation has left me wary and suspicious.
The second reason I react instinctively against any hint of a ‘green’ agenda is that, even where it’s not linked with new age philosophy, it so often seems to me out of proportion. I can’t imagine myself getting involved in environmental campaigns when there are so many more pressing things to absorb my time, money and energy. Would I really spend money to ‘adopt’ a tiger cub in India when there are millions of children starving all across the world? How can I get worked up about baby seals being knocked on the head by hunters, while 180,000 unborn babies are killed in the womb each year in this country alone? If I want to get involved in political campaigns, surely my first priority must be alleviating human suffering and promoting justice among human beings? And as a Christian the one concern I must have before all others is to preach the gospel of Christ and to extend God’s kingdom by building true churches. Nothing must distract me from that one great priority. If unbelievers feel that they want to spend their lives saving the whale (or the Colombian spider monkey) that’s fine. But I’ve got bigger, more urgent matters to attend to – millions of men and women who have never heard of Christ.
And the third reason for my negative reaction whenever people urge me to be environmentally aware? Just that I wonder how much difference we can actually make. As with so many things, the little we can do seems so trivial. Is it really going to make any difference to the problem of global warming, whether I drive my car to the postoffice or walk? Can I really rescue the world from environmental disaster by taking my empty bottles to the recycling centre rather than putting them in the bin with everything else?
There you are. There’s my confession. Conservation? Environment? Ecology? The moment I hear the buzzwords I don’t want to know.
And yet, deep down I know that it’s not as simple as that. Because I know that God has commanded us to be concerned about the environment around us.
Man was told to tend the garden, not to ruin it. He was told to name the animals not to hunt them to extinction. He was told to subdue the earth not to destroy it. We read in Genesis 1 of God’s delight in all his creation, the way he’s spoken blessings over all living things. The Bible tells us that Man is authorised to use the world. But God has never given us the right to use it selfishly, irresponsibly or destructively.
Read the psalms and see how the psalmist delights in all the created order. ‘The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has his home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the conies..’ (Psalm 104: 16-18). Would the psalmist have been unconcerned if the cedars of Lebanon had all been cut down? Or the conies hunted out of existence?
I wrote a version of Psalm 104 while I was away on holiday. I found myself humming it as I went round the zoo:
How many are your works, O LORD Eternal!
In every one your wisdom you’ve displayed.
The earth is full of creatures without number,
All by your power and for your pleasure made.
If you believe that, you can’t be indifferent to the natural world.
So, don’t turn a deaf ear to the concerns of the environmentalists. I still don’t think I could justify pouring my money, time or energy into their projects. But I’m glad that someone’s trying to save the last giraffes in West Africa. And yes, I’ll take those bottles to the ecocentre. And Anne will carry on using re-usable nappies whenever she can rather than the disposables which are guaranteed to clog up the landfill sites for a thousand years to come. The fact that we can’t do much doesn’t mean that we should do nothing.
And yes, do take a trip to the zoo some time. You’ll enjoy it.