When my son was two and half years old, he came to visit me at work. He was pretty excited because I am employed by one of the most kid-friendly workplaces in the world … the zoo!
After lunch, we walked through the tropics building to visit some of his favorite animals including the sun bears and the Komodo dragon. Next, we walked past a black and white animal with a stout body and a long nose. A woman standing nearby explained to her toddler, “Look honey, that’s an anteater.” My son tightened his grip on my hand and said “No!” He looked at the woman and corrected her loudly “No! That’s a tapir!” While slightly embarrassed, I felt a flash of pride sweep through me as I thought, “That’s my boy!”
As a professional zoo educator for over twenty years, I know the first thing most people want to know about an animal is its name (followed by what the animal eats, if it’s poisonous and whether it would beat a great white shark in a fight!). Most animals have several names depending on whether you are talking about their Latin species name (Canis lupus familiaris), common name (dog), or the individual names used by their caretakers (Fido). One of the greatest honors for a biologist is the opportunity to name a previously undiscovered species.
But why are these names important to us? Well, according to Genesis 2:19, naming animals is our job. “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”
So God asked us to name our fellow living creatures. Have you ever stopped to wonder why? Why would God have us name His animals; why didn’t He just tell us their names? The Creator of every living creature clearly knows them much more intimately then we ever could. But God told us to name all the animal species – from ladybird beetles to sea slugs to resplendent quetzals. He even let us give His animals crazy names like spiny lumpsucker and fried egg jellyfish. Why?
One possibility is that God knew that the process of naming His creatures would require us to learn about them. To name something well, you really have to know it. The Greek form of hippopotamus, for instance, means “river horse,” the Malay translation of orangutan means “man of the forest,” and armadillo means “little armored one” in Spanish. These names describe key characteristics of the animal that help us understand them more deeply.
Naming something also creates a connection between the named and namer. This power of names to connect humans with animals is clearly demonstrated by watching a family picking out a new pet at the dog shelter. The dog that they pick out and name “Copper” is fundamentally different from any other dog they may have looked at before. Copper is now part of the family.
We see this at zoos as well when visitors come back again and again to see how Packy the elephant or Sparky the sea lion is doing. While some people take issue with naming “wild” animals, the reality is that zookeepers get to know the animals they work with so well that to not name them would be to deny their connection with them.
God wants this connection to take place. By giving us the job of naming animals, He encouraged us to get to know His animals and to care for them – to be stewards of His creation. Unfortunately, like most things God asks us to do, we haven’t followed instructions very well. Instead of getting to know and understand the animal world, we have become increasingly separated from creation. Research has shown that today’s children can name hundreds of corporate logos on sight but less than ten common plant and animal species. We have literally “lost” their names! The end result of this lost relationship is evident with thousands of animal species threatened with extinction from habitat loss, poaching, climate change and pollution.
If the ecological damage created by the loss of biodiversity doesn’t move you to spend more time with animals, God has another reason for us to consider. “‘But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; … In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.’” Job 12:7,10. God wants us to get to know animals because as we study them we learn about our shared Creator. Animals demonstrate everything from God’s power (Psalms 104) to God’s compassion (Luke 12:6) to God’s creativity (Job 39-41). They represent a large part of God’s general revelation to mankind. When we ignore animals, we miss an opportunity to understand God more fully.
So, what are we supposed to do? Go out, discover and name a new animal species? Maybe… scientists believe there may be nearly 7 million animal species yet to be discovered. For starters, though, you can simply become more connected with the animals and plants in your own neighborhood.
Download iBird on your phone and invite all the kids in your neighborhood to join you on a bird scavenger hunt. Name the squirrel that steals from your bird feeder. Find a worm digging in the garden – have your kids name it and then rebury it somewhere else. Later that night, make up stories about what “Bob” the worm is doing. You will be amazed how much more interested your kids will become in gardening!
It’s time to get back to our original calling. More Christians need to be able to tell the difference between a tapir and an anteater, to recognize the call of a robin, and identify the tracks of a rabbit in the snow. Understanding animals better brings us closer to the amazing birds, insects, fish and mammals that God has created and the One who created them all.
Grant Spickelmier is the education curator at the Oregon Zoo and head of the Education division. Grant has worked for over 20 years in the field of conservation education inspiring individual and community action to protect threatened wildlife. A lifelong Christian, Grant is interested in helping followers of Jesus rediscover their God given role as stewards of creation. Grant holds B.A. degrees in both Biology and Education and a M.S. in Conservation Biology from the University of Minnesota. Grant is a member of Village Baptist Church in Beaverton, Oregon.