Visitors to the London Zoo a couple of weeks ago saw what you might call an unusual exhibit. The eight new inhabitants of the zoo lived and ate and played in a cage in front of visitors, just like all the other species. Except that these new creatures were humans.
The “Human Zoo,” as the exhibit was titled, was just what it sounds like: a cage of humans in their “natural habitat.” For a few days, the residents of the cage had their own space next to the zoo’s primate area, where they played board games, listened to cricket on the radio, and waved to visitors. For the duration of that weekend, “Homo Sapiens” was just one more primate species on display.
At first, the “Human Zoo” doesn’t sound like such a big deal—just a silly stunt to get a little publicity. But there’s a worldview behind it that is deeply troubling. Listen to the reasoning behind the exhibit, from zoo spokeswoman Polly Wills: “Seeing people in a different environment, among other animals, teaches members of the public that the human is just another primate.”
Tom Mahoney, one of the participants in the Human Zoo, put it even more plainly: “A lot of people think humans are above other animals. When they see humans as animals, here, it kind of reminds us that we’re not that special.”
Exactly the problem. To many people, it may sound noble and generous to put apes on the same level as ourselves. But think about what we’re really saying when we equate humans with animals. We’re ignoring the fact that in our Creator’s eyes, we are indeed “special.” We’re not raising animals to our level; we’re lowering ourselves to theirs.
Though animals may have many wonderful qualities, to place ourselves on their level is to ignore the gifts and responsibilities that God gave human beings, when He created us in His own image and made us stewards over all the rest of His creation.
Wesley Smith recently touched on this when he wrote in the Weekly Standard, “The great philosophical question of the 21st Century is going to be whether we will knock humans off the pedestal of moral exceptionalism and instead define ourselves as just another animal in the forest. The stakes of the coming debate couldn’t be more important: It is our exalted moral status that both bestows special rights upon us and imposes unique and solemn moral responsibilities—including the human duty not to abuse animals.”
You would think people who work in a zoo would know this. Anybody who’s watched the Discovery Channel for more than a few minutes can tell you that nature, left to itself, can be violent and cruel. If we really were no more than animals, our primate friends would be in deep trouble. It’s our human knowledge and wisdom that teach us how to care for them and why we should bother.
So for the animals’ sake—and more importantly, for ours—let’s hope the London Zoo’s lesson backfired. Let’s hope that visitors to the “Human Zoo” came away with no more than a memory of humans in a place where they don’t belong.