The End of Captivity? (review)

The End of Captivity?The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflections on Zoos, Conservation, and Christian Ethics. Tripp York. Cascade Books, 2015. 135 pages.

The End of Captivity? is a short, open-ended Christian meditation on humans and their effects on wild animals. The book is both challenging and infuriating at the same time. It is challenging because it asks us to question the basic logic that puts animals in zoos. But it is sometimes infuriating because, as the author points out, human dominion over the planet is so complete that there isn’t very much space around for wild animals. Where, exactly, can we send them?

The book progresses not through challenging proposals, but through questions, thoughts, and dialogue. A good portion of this brief book consists of lengthy interviews he conducts with Greg Bockheim, a zookeeper, and Mindy Stinner, a conservationist.

At the outset zoos seem almost too easy a target, at least for vegans and animal rights activists. It is a simple thing to be outraged by zoo “atrocities” such as the 2014 killing of Marius, a healthy giraffe by the Copenhagen zoo, which sparked international protests. Wild animals imprisoned? How hard is it to see that there’s something wrong here? Why don’t we just release them back into the wild?

Of course the answer comes back — and where, exactly, would this “wild” be? He lets Mindy Stinner answer the question:

When a child asks me why we don’t just let our tigers go, I ask them how they would feel waiting at the school bus stop knowing that a dozen tigers roamed free nearby. So why not send them back to India? We pull up a map of the population of India, which pretty much answers the question itself. (P. 56)

Even the remaining “wild” places in the world exist there because of human-imposed barriers, wilderness areas carefully marked off to keep the wild animals in and the humans out. Many people instinctively feel that there should be room for all the animals that we control in the world, all the abandoned dogs and cats, and all the wild animals born into zoos.

But we come back again and again to the fundamental question: where, exactly, are you going to put them? Yes, it’s an atrocity, but what precisely do you propose to do about it? Eventually, it looks like wild animals will be displaced from the entire world, except in specifically protected areas — zoos, sanctuaries, or protected wildlife and wilderness areas.

York later moves on to consider all captive animals, including animals on factory farms, and vegetarianism — which he hates to talk about. “I am very reluctant to stand in judgment of what other people eat. I know that irks some of my vegan and vegetarian friends, but I am often more bothered by their sanctimonious condemnation of other people’s diets than I am by other people’s diets” (p. 90). Sanctimoniousness is certainly a tactical error, especially for a vegan in the American south. But while I often cringe at inappropriate vegan remarks, I also remember PETA’s advice: “never be silent.” For us, the suffering of animals is an awkward problem, as we navigate the various social protocols; for the animals, it’s life itself.

But for this book, he fortunately takes up the subject of vegetarianism anyway. He tries to orient his views within Christianity, quoting from familiar Bible verses such as Genesis 1:29 (plants are our food), Isaiah 11:6–9 (the peaceable kingdom), Matthew 6:26 (God cares for the birds of the air), Luke 12:6 (not a sparrow is forgotten by God), and others. In addition to the usual reasons for being vegetarian, he adds this: “I am a vegetarian because any eschatology grounded in the kind of hope that does not overturn our violent natures is not much of an eschatology.”

Reliance on scripture to prove a point about Christianity makes me a bit uneasy. Can’t one prove almost anything by quoting the right texts? Is this the direction we want to take Christianity? What about Genesis 1:26, the assertion of the right of human dominion over the whole earth? Or the countless animal sacrifices in the Old Testament (Leviticus 3 ff.), Jesus eating fish after the resurrection (Luke 24:42–43), or Paul’s statement that it is all right to buy anything sold in the meat market (I Corinthians 10:25)?

At the same time the book provokes other questions, first about zoos and wild animals in general, and secondly about Christianity’s role in all this. York draws attention not only to the problem of human domination, but of the “natural” cruelty of nature. He tells a story about a small girl at the beach frantically trying to rescue small fish (the bay anchovy?) stranded in pools as the tide went out. Try as she might, she was able to rescue only a small percentage of them. York writes that he wanted, but was unable, to ignore “the absurd splendor of a billion little ecosystems home to so much pain and suffering.” Here we have an awareness and a pessimism worthy of the Buddhist assertion that all life is unsatisfactory — the first noble truth.

Is there anything we can do about the wild creatures so rapidly disappearing from the earth? The author hints at, but nowhere makes explicit, any radical proposals which might make it safe for wild animals and ecosystems. Here’s the kind of proposal I might have expected the author to make, which I can make right now: the entire country could go vegan and completely divest itself of livestock agriculture. Then, we could return the areas formerly dedicated to livestock agriculture, mostly in the middle of the country, to wild animals. A lot of it would revert to forest, which would help with climate change, taking a significant chunk of carbon dioxide out of the air. We could connect the human areas together with protected roads, trains, and bicycle paths, with overpasses for wild animals so that this new wilderness in the heart of America would not be broken up.

It’s really cruel and unreasonable to send elephants and giraffes back to Africa, and not just because of the animals. How do you suppose the people in Africa feel about having a bunch of elephants dumped in their back yard, when their own attempts to scrape out a living on the land comes into conflict with these animals? Why not give us the responsibility for these wild animals? We can afford it, and we could turn much of the country into a gigantic wildlife sanctuary. Then North America might more truly resemble the time just 20,000 years ago, when camels, horses, tigers, giant sloths, and elephant-like creatures (mammoths and mastodons) roamed the land. (To be clear, this is my suggestion, not York’s.)

Do you think Christianity could get behind such a proposal? I doubt it, but this is the kind of action that is required if we are going to have a shared future with other animals — or perhaps, any future at all. It is certainly something that vegetarians and vegans should be thinking about. Megafauna (large animals), by biomass, are overwhelmingly humans, their pets, and their livestock. About 1/3 of this “human” portion is humans, and 2/3 is livestock. The biomass of all the large wild land animals — the great apes, elephants, giraffes, lions, rhinoceroses, and so forth that we see in zoos — is less than 10% of the total biomass of our livestock on the planet.

By drawing attention to the reality of wild animals on the planet, Tripp York has made an important contribution to the problem of conservation in Christian ethics. We have not just dominated the wild places on the earth, we have destroyed them, and the day of accounting cannot be far off.

8 Replies to “The End of Captivity? (review)”

  1. A lot to think about here. I was reminded of the Sunday Morning segment about photographer Joel Sartore’s efforts to photograph species that may soon be extinct. On his web site he makes this stunning and alarming claim: “Half of the world’s plant and animal species will soon be threatened with extinction.”

    I love your vision for a brighter future for wild animals. No, I don’t think “Christianity” per se could get behind such a proposal. At this time in history, Christianity is so splintered and the term is fraught with ambiguity. But I agree with this: : ….(A)ny eschatology grounded in the kind of hope that does not overturn our violent natures is not much of an eschatology.” Making the commitment to eliminate meat from the diet can be a start of a compassionate lifestyle for many people because, having dared to buck the status quo in that one area, you begin to see other areas where it is it is possible and desirable to do so. I do not think you could have envisioned such a future for wild animals without having taken so many other steps toward compassion. It is part of a process.

  2. Another excellent contribution to the blogosphere. So vegans often dismiss the issue with respect to farm animals with comments like “They will quit feeding them stuff that makes them more fertile, their numbers will drop drastically and the process of liberating them would be very gradual anyway.” But surely we will still have cows, pigs and chickens etc or so I would hope. Should they become companion animals? Makes sense at least for pigs and chickens but they would still be confined by breeders and then held in captivity in the same sense that my dog is “captive.” They do keep cows for companions in India, but I’m not sure how prevalent that could become in the United States. So I suspect captivity is here to stay.

    We need to focus on environmental enrichment for small captivity areas and large habitats for lions, tigers etc. Some zoos are good such as those with large free range habitats especially if they are home to animals with injuries and birth defects. I grew up in Tallahassee which had a zoo with large natural habitats. Most of the animals had invisible problems such as heart defects or paralyzed wings and would not have survived the wilderness. I seriously doubt that the liberation of animals will be problem free. So we need to start thinking about it.

    However, stereotyping of Christianity and Christians needs to go. Christianity and even biblical Christianity can accommodate such ideas as animal liberation. Look at the sweeping changes on the issue of homosexuality and a new environmentalist Pope. I just had coffee with my new UMC pastor, a bright young Duke Seminary graduate with many progressive ideas and a thriving church with weekly attendance of 800 while the average church in this town draws 35-50 ppl a week. Fundamentalist churches are seeing number losses now and progressive churches are seeing huge growth, not necessarily denominational growth; but individual progressive churches that have struck a proper balance between tradition and progress are growing rapidly.

    1. Drew,

      I’m not sure what, precisely, would happen if we just turned all domestic livestock loose in this new wilderness area. Since they have been so heavily genetically manipulated (e. g. to be overweight), they probably would not do very well in the wild. They would likely dwindle sharply in numbers; perhaps they would revert to type after a few generations, so you’d see pigs looking more like boars, etc.? We’d have to consult the experts, but it might be relatively most humane just to spay or neuter most of them and keep them in more humane captivity for the rest of their lives, and reserve the wilderness area for the truly wild animals.

      1. Yes but I think these wonderful species should be preserved. Pigs are great companion animals and brilliant. We need huge, probably government funded sanctuaries

  3. PS: thanks for posting because I have the book and have been putting off reading it. I will probably write my own review.

  4. Thanks for the post. I always enjoy reading them.

    I’m overwhelmed by the scope of the problem of animal exploitation and it’s role in anthropogenic global warming, environmental destruction and diseases of affluence; the lack of any realistic solutions; the unwillingness of the majority of people, especially those of faith, to face the problem or take any action; and the incredible disorganization, powerlessness and failures of those who do.

    I’m very disappointed that this author clearly missed an opportunity, and experience my own despair that he regards ‘sanctimoniousness’ as a worse evil than all the collective evils of animal cruelty, the gluttony of the sick, widespread habitat destruction, global ‘scorching’ , and the curses of out grandchildren.

    I share your despair,

  5. I live in Mid Wales, UK. I recently did an MSc in Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies and my thesis was on whether our county, Powys, could feed its population in 2020, in the light of post peak oil and climate change, therefore independent of any imports. The result was a vegan diet would nurture us all using just 18% of land currently used for agriculture. This would free up vast swaths of land for forestry, fuel and wilderness. Basing agricultural production on permaculture ‘zoning’ I also calculated the land take around each town for its local production. It was easy to map the wilder places after that.
    I don’t think we will be able to release our current livestock back into wilderness necessarily as they are possibly reliant on the system we have with antibiotics, inherent physical deformities, etc. What we can do is connect with the ‘rare breeds’ associations who still have, if you like, ‘original species’ of sheep and cattle etc. These animals would easily slip back into the landscape. Their ‘telos’ has not been so drastically interfered with. This has been a dream of mine for a long time, but with, apparently, only 2% of UK consumers being Vegan/Vegetarian I cannot see how we will ever bring it about outside of dealing with a holocaust. The human race is reactive not proactive.

  6. Captivity of other species should not be “here to stay.” There is a gross ecological cost to keeping captive canines and felines as pets. I certainly don’t endorse the further control of “liberated” species (e.g. pigs) as pets. As it stands, from my perspective, we kill roughly ten billion land animals annually to feed at least one-half billion American “persons.” Yes, I include our captive canines and felines as part of this crude calculus. Even if all captive animals had vegan-style diets imposed upon them, our growing of crops–to the detriment of other species–would still involve the unnecessary devastation of lands for particular species, obviously, based on our prejudice.

    Remember, we continue to abominate the domesticated canine and feline. Many pampered, privileged and preferred canines and felines in this country are living better than humans (this isn’t a speciesist observation).

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