That our relational naming of animals has life-or-death implications is evident when York considers the logical and moral inconsistencies held by many zoo critics and other animal advocates. In York’s experience, many people who argue against exhibiting elephants (or killer whales, or dolphins, to name a few others) – or advocate for better conditions for captive elephants – do not show the same concern for the billions of food animals kept in inhumane farming conditions (chickens, cows, pigs). Their advocacy, he proposes, is selective and self-serving. York asks, “How can we think well about animals in captivity – whether in zoos, sanctuaries, circuses, or conservation centers – if we refuse to discuss the fact that the number of animals kept and killed per day in US slaughterhouses is greater than the number of animals in all of the world’s zoos, sanctuaries, circuses, and conservation centers combined?” (87). It’s a fair question, though it doesn’t make the critics’ concern for zoo animals any less valid.
How does a culture of conflicted “lovers of certain animals” (87) improve its practice of dominion? Can we live toward a peaceable kingdom? What would the peaceable kingdom look like, in reality? In just a few paragraphs in his final chapters, York reflects on these questions and, in the process, articulates a compelling Christian theology of animals. In the eschatological view of Christianity, all creation exists to glorify God. Our treatment of other animals should honor and enable their role in fulfilling this vision. “So, instead of calling animals food, cosmetics, medicine, clothing, and entertainment, we should begin to refer to them as manifestations of God’s creative wisdom who are our covenant partners participating in God’s redemptive history” (113). This means our treatment of animals in captivity must go beyond providing basic necessities (at a bare minimum) to providing whatever it takes to help them flourish – to “find comfort, ease, and enjoyment” in their captivity (125). We can argue – you’ll forgive the phrase? – until the cows come home about whether animals such as elephants belong in captivity. It is, in York’s view, an unfortunate reality: “…we have somehow made the entire world inhospitable for elephants” (128). Our challenge is to make captive life as hospitable as possible – at the same time, working to extend that hospitality to all animals on earth. That work, York notes, must be taken up by all of us – not just zoos and sanctuaries.
Early in the book, York explains that his title “The End of Captivity,” has two meanings – a reference to the continued existence of zoos and other captive facilities, and a reference to the purpose, or telos, of captivity. His consideration of the need for zoos as safe havens and conservators for certain endangered animals is balanced. His treatment of zoos’ claims of effective education and outreach may be less so; in this area, the perspectives of critics seem to get less air-time than those of enthusiasts. York asserts that zoos have the potential to (re)shape our views about the place of humans and other animals in creation, but that begs such questions as how?, what might they do differently? and who’s views, in particular? Given York’s unique experience, one wishes those questions were answered. Indeed, in describing the goals of his project in the book’s introduction, York poses more questions than he ultimately answers. This could be frustrating to the reader, but it also thought-provoking: by the end of the book, it’s clear that we must be better neighbors and friends to the nonhuman animals around us; it’s up to us to figure out how.
Marilyn Matevia is a science writer and web manager for a national animal welfare organization; in the past, she worked as a zoo- and lab animal caregiver.