Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, Bristol’s very own Christian-led zoo, sprinkles some unusual messages in among its furry friends. But are these really a good reason to ban your kids from visiting?
Words and Photo: Joe Skirkowski, Bristol Cable Media Lab Trainee
My parents worked full-time, so when I was a kid I went to a childminder after school and on some school holidays.
From time to time we got treated to a day out. One of the places we went to fairly regularly was Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm near Failand – and we’d have a wicked time.
For those who have never been, Noah’s Ark is – from a child’s perspective at least – a zoo with a load of playgrounds. It has a massive death slide, animals from chickens to elephants, plus you can feed goats and ride around in a tractor. As you can imagine, it’s a decent kids’ day out.
But, I found out a few years ago, my mum ended up banning us from going there because of the zoo’s ‘ideology’. I didn’t understand why – but it was explained to me that Noah’s Ark is run by a Christian group that promotes creationism and teaches science as ‘another faith’.
My trips to Noah’s Ark happened while I was at primary school in the early 2000s. I don’t know how things work now, but back then assembly still began with sitting on the floor and singing about Jesus. This felt normal to eight-year-old me, so if Noah’s Ark was preaching something similar, perhaps it’s no surprise it went over my head.
Having childhood memories tarnished is a bit gutting though, so I decided to return to Noah’s Ark to see what it’s really all about.
Waiting to be bombarded
Upon arrival I headed to ‘Elephant Eden’ just in time for the zoo keeper talk. I half expected to be bombarded with theology, but none came. The talk was all facts about elephants, their health, where they’re from and so on. Basically everything you would expect from a normal zoo.
As I was about to leave though, I saw a small section of laminated paper to the far side of the information boards that read: ‘Elephant Eden: For elephants worldwide, to the glory of God.’ The poster described how the owners of Noah’s Ark had “prayerfully concluded that it was God’s will to build Elephant Eden”, and God had answered. Slightly unconventional – but hey, just a small sign, right?
And so I walked on around the whole zoo, listened to several keeper talks and checked out the animals. Opposite the rhino enclosure, a seemingly random prayer on a signpost stuck out of a bush. Was it fair to describe this as discreet biblical product placement – or just a couple of harmless signs? Perhaps my mum’s concerns about the zoo’s ideology were over-egged.
’Questions for every thinking person’
With that in mind, I decided it was time to seek out the Holy Grail, so I walked to the education centre. “Did the first life make itself, or could it only come by divine design?” read a poster above a seating area next to one of the main kids play areas. Now we were getting somewhere. In here three walls were covered in posters explaining the zoo’s ideology.
The posters cite everything from medieval parchments that trace the lineage of English kings back to Adam and Eve, to the bible being the world’s best-selling book (followed by Chairman Mao and Harry Potter) as “historical proof” of the legitimacy of creationism.
The claims made in some of these posters were pretty out there as far as predominantly secular (according to the last census data) Bristol goes. One proclaims that Noah having three sons explains why there are three races of human. Another reads, “The brain has been designed to detect God too, who has a ‘best plan’ and purpose for each of us.” A third claims, “Life comes from other life… it cannot bubble out of chemicals or a warm pond, whatever TV presenters say!” – before going on to lambast David Attenborough and Brian Cox for “promoting their own faith”.
All these posters are, though, too wordy to be aimed at children. I struggled to make sense of parts of the information being put forward – for an 11-year-old to understand it, they would need an understanding of biology, evolution, micro-organisms, geology, anthropology and the Bible to name just a few.
On the wall of one room there’s a poster titled, “Questions for every thinking person”. Listed below it are three rhetorical sounding questions about the origins of life. Because of where these posters are located, they must be aimed at adults who are waiting while their children play. I’m not convinced the best time to try and convince an adult about the origins of life is while they’re trying to make sure their child isn’t drowning in a ball pit, but, hey, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
I left Noah’s Ark with mixed feelings. The biblical posters are odd, impenetrable, and could at least do with some new design to spruce them up and get the message across. Personally, I don’t think zoos and creationism work well together – but when was the last time an evangelical christian group decided to change tack because of a disgruntled atheist’s article?
At the end of the day though, what I mostly saw were families with young kids (much like me a few years back) enjoying a nice day out. The creationist thing is a weird addition, but would I ban my kids from going because of it? No, I don’t think I would.