Fall 2016 · Vol. 45 No. 2 · pp. 239–241 

Book Review

The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflections on Zoos, Conservation, and Christian Ethics

Tripp York. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015. 158 pages.

Reviewed by Trevor Bechtel

I wonder what three-year-old Isaiah Dickerson was thinking during the ten minutes he spent with Harambe, a seventeen-year-old mountain gorilla, in Harambe’s enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo on May 28th of this year. As you may remember, that event sadly ended in Harambe’s death (to insure Isaiah’s safety) and endless recriminations for Isaiah’s parents for not keeping him out of the enclosure.

Our culture is badly damaged in terms of how we think about animals. We are now just starting to wake up from centuries of thinking about animals as property, as machines, as food, as disposable. Across the church and the academy, and in moderated and unrestrained public discourse, disagreements about what animals are, who they belong to, and how humans should relate to them are polarized and antagonistic. The killing of Harambe is a good example of this pitched controversy. {240}

Tripp York’s seventh book, The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflections on Zoos, Conservation, and Christian Ethics, is therefore a welcome addition to the literature that Christians can read to begin to think and talk and work our way out of our current confusion about animals. The double meaning of his title—should we end zoos, and, what is the goal, purpose, or end of zoos—serves to guide his thinking throughout the book. York is concerned both with what humans are doing when we hold other animals captive in zoos and what the animals that find themselves in zoos are doing. The guiding question, “How does the captive animal serve the purpose of that which she was created to serve?” (xix) is carefully and creatively framed. It should decenter most readers and force us to consider not just our relationship to these animals but also their relationship to God. It is therefore the right question to ask and in the asking alone most who encounter this book will find their viewpoints altered. This strong thesis is tempered on the next page by this statement, “Ultimately, all I offer here are a few modest reflections on the time I spent working in a zoo as well as my time with innumerable folks working in various sanctuaries and wildlife centers.” In the end, this book fulfills only this more modest proposal, perhaps with the purpose of leaving readers to answer the stronger thesis themselves.

York begins the book by explaining how he came to spend three years as an “avid shoveller of poop,” even though he had “long been suspicious of the place, purpose and role of zoos” (1). It’s an interesting story and he contextualizes it over the next few chapters with historical anecdotes and interviews with zookeepers and animal conservationists. One of the book’s major strengths is found in the way that York is able to work from personal experience to address both the advantages and disadvantages of zoos. A comment about his mother is telling: “I tell this story for one simple reason: to demonstrate that one can go from visiting a zoo to acting to save endangered and threatened species. In my mother’s case, that meant becoming a supporter of the World Wildlife Fund. I can attest to the fact that her sudden concern for animal conservation was directly due to her visit to the zoo” (24). York engages the possibility of animal freedom in a human-controlled world and the vastly decreasing space for wild animals, especially big wild animals that need significant space to roam. His telling of the story of the lions of the Baghdad zoo is compelling.

The second part of the book contains an exploration of the human task of naming the animals and considers all the “names” we have for animals. He asks us to consider what it does to us when we call an alligator a belt, a deer a trophy, or a cow, supper. A convinced vegetarian, he considers the connections between captive animals that entertain or are {241} conserved in zoos and captive animals that become our food in factories and other farms. The most substantive chapter of the book is York’s excellent essay, “Can the Wolf Lie Down with the Lamb without Killing It?”, reprinted from A Faith Embracing All Creatures, which York co-edited. The personal nature of York’s writing throughout is engaging and refreshing, and the book has an interesting structure with an introduction and epilogue bookending six short chapters, each of which are followed by a three- to four-page interlude in which York tells an interesting side story or anecdote.

As a collection of anecdotes that encourage further thinking on an issue we all need help thinking through, The End of Captivity is very successful. I was hoping for more, and anticipate what may be forthcoming in a future book. I was left wanting at a number of points. York includes two interviews which each take up more than half of the first two chapters. The interviews are excellent but York abruptly ends both chapters with the interviews. I was disappointed that he did not at least summarize these interviews in some kind of conclusion. At a number of points his argument is taken up in list form, e.g., animal names (71), Bible verses (7–75), reasons to be vegetarian (95–98). I don’t have anything against interviews or lists but in this book they take the place of sustaining an argument, which is badly needed. When I finish reading a book like this, I would like to know what the author thinks the end of captivity is. York gives us what we need to begin to address the question, and, as he reports many of his experiences, engages our imagination throughout. But in the end his book left me hanging.

Trevor Bechtel is a theologian and a musician with twenty years of professional experience focused in higher education administration and teaching. He is the author of The Gift of Ethics, published in 2014 by Cascade Press.