CINCINNATI (BP) — Local Baptists have expressed support for the Cincinnati Zoo’s decision to shoot and kill a 450-pound gorilla in order to protect a 3-year-old boy who fell into the animal’s enclosure over Memorial Day weekend.
Much of the reaction was released to Baptist Press the same day the boy’s family shared a statement with media outlets expressing “praise” to “God for His grace and mercy.” The child, whose name has not been publicized, suffered only “a concussion and a few scrapes” after being picked up and dragged by the gorilla, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
“We continue to … be thankful to the Cincinnati Zoo for their actions taken to protect our child,” the family said in a June 1 statement, according to the Enquirer. “We are also very appreciative for the expressions of concern and support that have been sent to us.”
In the days following the incident, social media has been abuzz with opinions for and against the zoo’s decision to kill Harambe, a male western lowland gorilla who was part of an endangered species. A Facebook page called “Justice for Harambe” received 100,000 likes by May 31, the BBC reported. Another page called for a June 5 protest at the zoo, according to the Associated Press.
Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard told AP he was certain the boy’s life was in danger because the gorilla was agitated and disoriented and could crush a coconut in his hand.
A ‘godly impulse’
Ken Slaughter, a Cincinnati area pastor who has written a book on hunting and serves as a certified Ohio hunter safety instructor, told BP those whose grief over Harambe’s death exceeds their joy that a child was protected are not “thinking consistently about the value of human life compared to animal life.”
God values animal life, as evidenced by His creation of diverse animal species in the Garden of Eden and His protection of those species on Noah’s Ark, said Slaughter, pastor of Mt. Repose First Baptist Church in Milford, Ohio.
“It’s a very godly impulse to preserve and protect animals, especially endangered ones,” Slaughter said. “However, the care that we extend toward the animals is of a lower priority than the care we give to human beings, who are created in God’s image. If it’s a choice between a human life and an animal life, there is no choice because the human life is infinitely more valuable.”
Mark Snowden, director of missional leadership for the Cincinnati Area Baptist Association, agreed.
“Our zoo was started back in 1873 and has cared for animals very well,” Snowden told BP in written comments. “I went to this zoo as a child and always felt that this zoo was treating animals as well as they could. They employed experts in their field and understand each animal and their likely response to situations.
“As a Christian,” Snowden continued, “I believe God expects us to care for His creation, including putting down an animal in a humane way, should it be a threat to someone, especially a child. We live in a fallen world and until Jesus returns, ethical choices must favor those created in His image” and “charged with being caring stewards of His incredible creation.”
Heather Kuruvilla, associate director of the Center for Bioethics at Cedarville University near Dayton, Ohio, said killing the gorilla was sad but “the best option available.”
“As stewards of God’s creation, we are obligated to treat animals with respect,” Kuruvilla, who also serves as professor of biology, said in written comments. “Humane treatment of animals, as well as responsible stewardship of land and ecosystems, should be a high priority.”
Harambe’s death “was sad simply because an animal had to die in order that a young child’s life would be saved,” Kuruvilla said. “The gorilla was killed humanely; nonetheless, it was unfortunate that an animal had to die at all. I’m sure the owners of the zoo are looking at the situation to see if there’s anything else they can do to make their enclosures safer. If the child had not fallen into the enclosure, this difficult decision would not need to have been made.”
The Enquirer reported that Cincinnati police will “review” the actions of the boy’s mother and others and consider whether criminal charges should be filed.
Christian roots of animal protection
Michael Haykin, professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., told BP animal protection has a long history among evangelicals but has been coopted and perverted by some Darwinists and secularists.
Beginning in the 18th century, Haykin said, key Christian figures in the movement to abolish slavery “also became aware of unnecessary cruelty to animals,” including sports like bear and bull baiting in which dogs killed larger animals in a savage manner. British abolitionist William Wilberforce along with hymn writers Augustus Toplady (“Rock of Ages”) and William Cowper (“There Is a Fountain, Filled with Blood”) were among those to advocate the humane treatment of animals on biblical grounds.
Toplady believed there will be animals in the new heavens and new earth, Haykin said, though not the specific animals humans know in their earthly lives. Wilberforce cofounded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne, whose personal piety became legendary and whose annual Bible reading plan remains in use, devoted an entire sermon to the ethical treatment of animals.
Haykin noted that all these early advocates of humane animal treatment believed humans “have priority in creation.”
Yet evangelicals withdrew from the animal protection movement in significant measure during the 20th century because many sought to avoid the error of theological liberals, who “focused on the societal impacts of the Gospel to the expense of the Gospel,” Haykin said.
As evolutionary theory influenced the animal rights movement, the cause was further distanced from its Christian roots, resulting in phenomena like protests over the killing of the Cincinnati gorilla, Haykin said.
“It’s amazing that in valuing animal rights, we’ve actually lost the value of human beings,” Haykin said. “… To say we should have saved the gorilla rather than the child — there’s something deeply wrong with that.”