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The Gospel According to the Zoo

Zookeepers in Osnabruck, Germany, are building their own metaphorical Noah's Ark to teach school children stories from the bible, incorporating gazelles, lions and even ostriches.


Animals at the Osnabruck Zoo are part of the cast of the story of creation this summer.

A gaggle of school kids is gathered in front of the goat enclosure at the local zoo in Osnabruck, Germany. Like most young children, they are intrigued by the creatures and poke their fingers through the fence, attempting to grab hold of the animal's horns.

But today's lesson for the third-grade class from a local elementary school is neither about zoology nor biology. Instead, the pupils are participating in a new educational program created by the zoo that uses the menagerie of creatures to tell stories from the Old Testament as part of a year-long series of cultural events celebrating the Year of the Bible.

Noah's Ark


Animals found in Christian scriptures are the focus of the tour. From the gazelles that can be still be found grazing on the plains of Israel today, to lions, ostriches, wild donkeys and even the Mediterranean gecko, the links between the Animal Kingdom and the Kingdom of God are not to be trifled at. It was that truism which prompted freelance theologian Elenore Reuter to approach the Osnabruck Zoo with her idea for a new kind of spiritual tour.

Officials at the zoo say Reuter's plan initially surprised them, but rather than concluding that she was one atom short of a molecule, they soon found a corollary between her idea and the work their basic mandate as zookeepers.

"We'd never looked at our animals from this perspective," says Jörg Flisse, who heads the zoo's education department. "But then we thought, that preserving creation and presenting the zoo as a kind of Noah's Arc is one of our most fundamental tasks."

Reuter has trained 40 biology and theology students to take school children on the zoological bible tour this summer. Many biblical references to animals, she says, have deeper meaning that require explanation.

Explaining biblical creatures

"Have any of you ever heard of the term, 'scapegoat,'" Reuter asks the school children, who are still trying to get hold of the goat's horns.

Many have, but don't know why. "People turned a goat into their scapegoat," Reuter tells them. "They laid their hands on the goat and hoped that by doing so, they would transmit all their sins onto it. Then they would send the goat off into the desert (and pray that the Lord took the goat as a sacrifice)."

Other zoo animals also display God-like characteristics. One passage in the bible likens the lion roar to the word of God. "The lion has roared: who shall not fear? God has spoken," it says.

And some animal references in the bible are inaccurate and can be misleading. References to an ox and a donkey in the Bethlehem stable where the Bible states Christ was born are erroneous. The idea came in the 3rd century AD, inspired by a verse in the book of Isaiah, which states "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider." In the same vein, the eagle mentioned in the Old Testament was, in fact, a vulture. The change of species came resulted from an error when the Old Testament was translated in Greek.

But there are some basic biological facts that cannot be overlooked. "The disciples ask Jesus what happens with rich people," Reuter says. "Luke gives his answer: 'For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

Reuter is clearly on a mission to educate. "Everyone knows that a camel can't get through the eye of a needle," she says.