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A Review of
The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflections on Zoos, Conservation, and Christian Ethics
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2015
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Reviewed by Marilyn Matevia
According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, more people visit zoos in the United States each year than attend games for all four major league sports, combined. It’s an impressive number, especially considering that zoos in many parts of the US have lower attendance during winter months, while sports events draw crowds throughout the calendar year. For many, there is undeniable attraction and entertainment value in a zoo visit, or we wouldn’t be flocking to the gates in these numbers. What accounts for the attraction? Why do we find animals in zoos so enthralling?
These are among the questions Tripp York asks in his new book, The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflections on Zoos, Conservation, and Christian Ethics. He also poses the more fundamental questions behind them: what does our fascination with captive animals reveal about us, and about our views on our place – and their place – in creation? Why do we keep animals in captivity (especially in zoos and aquariums)? More importantly, when we keep animals in captivity, are we enabling, or thwarting, their God-given purpose? And what IS their God-given purpose?
To look for some of his answers, York – a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College – apprenticed himself as a Keeper Aide in the elephant habitat at the Virginia Zoological Park. For two years, he mucked stalls and exhibits, talked to zoo staffers, and listened to visitors. He acknowledges that the history and continued existence of zoos is not without controversy, and describes himself as a life-long animal advocate whose own opinions on zoos are “horribly conflicted:” “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” (25).
Zoos and their proponents argue that, in addition to entertainment, zoos provide education – raising awareness and concern about threats to animals in “the wild” – and contribute financially and logistically to conservation efforts around the world. Critics argue there is little empirical evidence that zoos change (or enlighten) attitudes about animals, and that – with a few noteworthy exceptions – zoos’ contributions to conservation efforts are very small percentages of their investments into their own facilities. York stakes out a pragmatic middle ground, suggesting that for some animals, the alternative to life in zoos (or sanctuaries, or preserves) is death, and ultimately, extinction. And while some argue that, for formerly wild animals, life in captivity is no life at all, York points out that today many zoo animals are in fact born in captivity and know no other life, and that there are few truly “wild” spaces left where animals are free from human interference and have resources adequate to sustain their populations. Further, York truly believes zoos “have the capacity to alter our way of seeing the world” (10), and that “We should, and must, demand that zoos begin to concern themselves with what they say about us just as much as what they say about their inhabitants” (25). This is an intriguing and complicated idea, given the varieties of cosmologies represented by any zoo’s visitors on any given day. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really come back to it.
For York, how we see ourselves in creation is revealed by the “relational” names we give other animals. The relational name reflects the purpose or role those animals have for human beings – e.g., pet, food, companion, research, livestock – and ultimately determines “how [animals] will live and die” (71). He asks if our naming is “theologically appropriate.” From a brief but representative survey of biblical texts, York concludes that “whatever purpose animals have it is directed first and foremost toward God and not toward us” (75). Our naming of animals should therefore be “more sacramental,” and our practice of dominion (Gen. 1:26) “must indicate the kind of care and concern God practices in relation to creation” (76). Following theologian Andrew Linzey, York argues further that Christians must “imagine the concept of dominion from the specific focal point of Christianity: Jesus… if Jesus is indeed our paradigm for living – then whatever form dominion takes it must look like the crucified servant. That, I imagine, changes everything” (77).
 See, for example, Rob Laidlaw, “Looking at Fragments of Nature: A Perspective on Zoo and Aquarium Captivity,” in (ed.) John Sorenson’s Critical Animal Studies: Thinking the Unthinkable (Canadian Scholar’s Press, 2014).