Then God said to Noah, “Leave the boat, all of you—you and your wife, and your sons and their wives. Release all the animals—the birds, the livestock, and the small animals that scurry along the ground—so they can be fruitful and multiply throughout the earth.” Genesis 8:15-17 (NLT)]
The National Geographic Photo Ark is on display at our local zoo. This travelling exhibition features large-scale animal portraits taken by Joel Sartore, a man on a quest to photograph all of the world’s animals. Sartore has photographed a little more than 9,800 of the 1.2 million species of animals that have been identified by zoologists so far.
Attributing human traits or emotions to non-humans is anthropomorphism and I admit being guilty of it as I viewed Sartore’s amazing photographs. An embarrassed-looking mandrill with its hand covering his mouth seemed to be politely concealing a burp. With his cocked head and puzzled expression, a white arctic fox looked perplexed. The Sumatran rhino’s wistful look made me wonder if he knew there are less than 100 like him on the planet. Clearly unaware that he also is an endangered species, the giant panda looked content and rather pleased with himself. The young chimp appeared to be proudly flexing his biceps, as do toddlers when they want to show how big and strong they are. The Sumatran tiger lay regally, his head erect with paws crossed in front of him as if the photographer had posed him for his royal portrait. A black-footed ferret seemed forlorn, as if he knew that only a few hundred of his species still live in the wild. Perhaps my favorite photo was that of a bashful Brazilian porcupine on his hind legs. Looking a bit anxious, he was scrunched over a bit, legs squeezed together, with his front paws tucked down between his legs. He looked just like a toddler who desperately needs to go potty!
The purpose of the National Geographic Photo Ark is to use “the power of photography to inspire people to help save species at risk before it’s too late.” Although ours is a small zoo with only 70 species and just 52 of Sartore’s photographs on display, the amazing diversity in God’s creation was evident in both the enclosures and photographs. Sadly, many animals had words like “endangered” or “at risk” beside their names. God entrusted mankind with the task of looking after His amazing creation and we haven’t done a very good job of that.
The extinction of various species has always existed (i.e. dinosaurs) but it is increasing at an alarming rate. If the current trend continues, it is estimated that one in every three animal species on earth now will have disappeared by the end of this century. Following the flood, God vowed to never again destroy all living things. He won’t have to; we seem to be doing that on our own!
As we left the zoo, I thought about my anthropomorphic view both of Sartore’s photos and the zoo’s residents. Perhaps God gave us the tendency to attribute human emotions to animals so that we’d connect with them. It’s when we connect that we begin to care. Martin Buber said that, “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” While I’m not sure exactly what Buber meant, the eyes I looked at told me to care.
Scripture is filled with admonitions to care for animals; domestic animals were not to be overworked or treated cruelly and Jesus told us that God knows when even a single sparrow falls to the ground. What does God think when an entire species ceases to exist? All of creation belongs to Him and we are little more than tenant farmers responsible for its care. When God gave us dominion over the earth, He expected us to behave conscientiously and we will be held accountable for the way we’ve tended His world. Are we good stewards or have we become exploiters? Will our zoos become the arks of the future and the only place God’s beautiful creatures will exist? Noah once saved the animals; can we do anything less?
It is folly to think that we can destroy one species and ecosystem after another and not affect humanity. … When we save species, we’re actually saving ourselves. [Joel Sartore]