In the tight-laced society of 18th and 19th-century England, bull baiting, bear baiting, and cock fighting were popular forms of entertainment. Thanks to the efforts of William Wilberforce and other evangelical Christians (who were hard at work abolishing slavery at the same time), these activities were not only outlawed, but are now viewed through 21st century eyes as the acts of savagery they surely are.

Certainly, circuses, big game hunts, and Industrial Age-era zoos don’t descend to the same level of depravity as animal fighting for “sport” does. But might these be lesser forms of barbarism even so?

This week’s horror story of exotic animals released by their suicidal owner in Ohio makes the answer obvious, I think. The event was a disaster just waiting to happen. Long before law authorities (who had little or no choice of actions given the danger posed by the loose animals to humans) shot nearly 50 tigers, lions, and other exotic animals, these creatures should have received the protection of the law. Their troubled owner had a long history of felony animal abuse charges, and his state is one of several with little or no regulations on ownership of such animals. With better laws and effective enforcement of those laws, this tragedy—including the suicide of the owner whose increasing desperation about his circumstances with the animals he harbored seems to have triggered the chain of events—could have been averted.

But for Christians, this case highlights important aspects of stewardship that transcend matters of public policy. The situation speaks to our obligation to bring to bear not just legal standards, but also religious, social and personal influence on matters of animal welfare ...

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