The Stewardship of Polar Bears

Over the long weekend, I caught a few minutes of a show on the Discovery Channel. It was showing an elaborate rescue operation somewhere up north. A polar bear had somehow managed to get himself stuck on a rock ledge about a hundred feet above the sea, with no discernible way of climbing up to firm ground or down to the water. The local authorities had taken it upon themselves to rescue the bear, and it soon turned into an entertaining debacle. They tranquilized the bear (leading to the frightening scene of a police officer patting the bear on its back to see if it was asleep), then tried to load it onto a gurney, which broke, which lead to them tying the bear into a net, but the knots came undone, and the bear plummeted into the water, landing next to a small police boat, and so on.

It struck me that one could criticize the rescue as dangerous, or a waste of time and money, or simply foolish. The bear didn’t “belong” to anyone, it wasn’t endangering anyone, you could even argue that polar bears can handle rock ledges just fine, thank you. But I’ve never heard anyone note the strangest thing about such animal rescues: the fact that we feel obligated to try them in the first place.

Imagine waking up one morning and find yourself tied up in a sling, operated by a pair of raccoons. “Good morning,” they say. “You fell out of bed last night and we were trying to prop you back up. Hope we didn’t wake you.”

Or take the opposite of animal rescue. When a child takes pleasure in torturing animals, we take it as a sign of serious emotional problems, and step in to intervene. When our cat was about 6 months old, we came home to find it playfully batting our pet hamster back and forth, softening it up before the final attack. No one suggested that our cat had emotional problems because it treated the hamster as prey. Yet even with animals that we eat – that are bred and raised for the sole purpose of eating – we expect them to be treated humanely. Animal cruelty is a crime punishable by serious prison time.

Which brings me to a puzzling passage of scripture, Genesis 1:28, God’s initial command to the human beings:

Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.

Rule over dogs and cattle? OK, I can see that. Cats? Maybe, if they’re in the mood. But “the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground”? Some like to explain the early passages of Scripture as a kind of “Just So” story, explaining natural phenomenon observed by the ancient Hebrews in anthropomorphic and divine language, sort of like ancient science, but less accurate.

It’s difficult to imagine, though, that they could have imagined that they somehow “ruled” over hawks, buzzards, dolphins, tuna, lions, wild boar. And yet there it is, in both Scripture and in our daily experiences. For whatever reason, we human beings feel responsible for the animals around us, even those that are of no “use” to us, even putting our lives at risk in our very attempt to help them. Even without the instruction of Scripture, we feel this need to exercise stewardship, like park rangers of the planet.

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