A Christian Guide to the Zoo

Summer is in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere, and if you haven’t yet made a family visit to the zoo, perhaps it’s just around the corner.

The zoo is a wonderful opportunity for the Christian — both for personal worship and worldview formation. Here’s an effort to help Christians, who should be the best of all zoo-goers, make the most of their experiences this summer.

1) Prepare ahead of time.

The day before, or morning of, you may want to re-read Genesis 1–2, Psalm 8, or other biblical texts that address animals (like Isaiah 11:6–9, James 3:7, or Job 38–41 below). Pray that God would make the zoo a rich, spiritual experience as you have a chance to observe up close some of his creatures you typically don’t see.

Parents may want to consider rallying the troops for a short Bible reading and explanation and prayer time before hitting the road. Set the tone early that the zoo can be a profound spiritual experience of learning and worship for the children of the Father who made the animals.

Perhaps check the website of the zoo the week before. Most will have some feature to help plan your day and a zoo map to give you the lay of the land.

2) Be astounded by the animals.

Here’s where we just dive in and enjoy the best of what the zoo has to offer. Linger and read the descriptions. Pause. Observe. Delight in the details, and discuss how God has equipped the different species for their varying settings and environments. Try to notice the distinctive features of each animal, and consider what this particular creature is saying about God. The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1) — and so do his beasts if we have the eyes to see.

Compare your relative smallness to the elephant or the hippo, or the towering giraffe. Survey the raw strength and agility of the bear or the gorilla. Imagine what it would be like in the wild to stumble across a lion, “mightiest among beasts” (Proverbs 30:30), and thank God for good fences. Smile at the oddness of the ostrich and the playful penguin. Ogle at the rhino. Be sobered by the shark, the alligator, the crocodile. Laugh with the hyena and the silly monkey. Try to catch the eye of the tiger.

3) Be humbled to be human.

As amazing as the animals are, don’t let this important zoo lesson be lost on you and your crowd: Humans are the really spectacular creatures. Celebrate with Psalm 8.

What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. (Psalm 8:4–8)

The zoo is a living testimony to James 3:7: “Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind.” It’s a zoo lesson we too often miss. What’s even more impressive than whales communicating with each other is that some zookeeper just communicated it to us with more conciseness and clarity than any animal will ever achieve.

Wayne Grudem draws attention to this comparative wonder in his Systematic Theology chapter on “The Creation of Man.” Yes, the animals are “good” (Genesis 1:21, 25), but not until the creation of humans does God say, “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Out of all the creatures God made, only one creature, man, is said to be made “in the image of God.” . . .

No animal will ever spend an hour in intercessory prayer for the salvation of a relative or a friend! . . . [E]ven in developing physical and technical skills we are far different from animals: beavers still build the same kind of dams they have built for a thousand generations, birds still build the same kind of nests, and bees still build the same kind of hives. But we continue to develop greater skill and complexity in technology, in agriculture, in science, and in nearly every field of endeavor.

Our likeness to God is also seen in our human creativity in areas such as art, music, and literature, and in scientific and technological inventiveness. . . .

In the area of emotions, our likeness to God is seen in a large difference in degree and complexity of emotions. Of course, animals do show some emotions . . . . But in the complexity of emotions that we experience, once again we are far different than the rest of creation. (442–447)

For the Christian, a trip to the zoo is not just a chance to learn about the animal creatures, but gain perspective on the impressiveness of the human creature as well. And most of all, it’s an opportunity to learn about the Creator himself.

4) Marvel at the Maker.

Even more spectacular than the beasts is humanity — and even more spectacular than humanity is God. For the Christian, the progression of our amazement from a good day at the zoo goes in this sequence: from animals, to man, to the Maker himself.

He striped the tiger and spotted the leopard. He’s infinitely “bigger” than the elephant, “smaller” than the tiniest critter, and admirably fiercer than the greatest lion. The raven, mountain goat, wild donkey, wild ox, ostrich, horse, hawk, eagle, Behemoth and Leviathan — all have something to say about the incomparable majesty of their Maker in Job 38–41. And not only is he the Maker of them all, but in his Son, he has stooped to add humanity to his divinity and become our Redeemer.

When Christians marvel at our Maker, we mean not only the God who made everything, but the God-man who was his happy agent in creation (John 1:3; Hebrews 1:2), upholds the universe now (Colossians 3:17; Hebrews 1:3), has done the decisive work of redemption (Colossians 2:13–15; Hebrews 1:3; John 19:30), and is bringing to pass a new and even more mindboggling creation.

If angels “long to look” into such a salvation (1 Peter 1:12), how much more would the animals?

5) Consider the coming new creation.

As spectacular as God’s first creation is, the consummated final creation of our Redeemer will be even better. For now, the created world and its creatures, impressive as they are, remain under a curse because of our rebellion against God (Genesis 3:14–19). If we marvel now at God’s created world, how much more will we stand in awe in the coming new earth.

Animals will be there, it seems, and it will be even more glorious than nature red in tooth and claw.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. (Isaiah 11:6–9)

God didn’t create the animals only to wipe them away, but decorate his eternal glory and serve humanity’s everlasting joy. While the Bible doesn’t promise that all dogs go to heaven, or that your favorite pet will be there, we can bank on it being brilliantly better than even the best day at the zoo.