I went to a Creationist Zoo for Darwin Day and this is what I found

The animals went in two by two, Hurrah! Hurrah!

On this day in 1809 Charles Darwin was born. Darwin, best known for his contributions to evolutionary theory, established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, and in a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection. [source]

I personally gained a better understanding of evolutionary theory through the books of Professor Richard Dawkins, such as ‘The Ancestors Tale’, ‘The River Out of Eden’ and ‘The Blind Watchmaker’. I would recommend such books to anyone who is undecided on the subject, or who wants to grasp the subject and explore it as fully as possible. It can be confusing, especially with alternative ideas being presented as valid science. Creationism, for example.

Creationism refers to the religious belief in a supernatural deity or force that has intervened directly in the physical world. At the Church of England Primary School I attended we were taught that it might be possible that natural biological processes don’t account for the complexity of life on our planet and that these had been created by a higher being.

Looking back at the education I received from my school as a young child I am horrified at how strong a religious agenda there was throughout the curriculum, often with a blatant disregard for science and facts. The teaching of creationism as somehow equal to evolutionary theory is a direct attack against decent science education. No child should be denied access to factual information. “Teaching the Controversy” should not be up for debate in the context of the science classroom, and yet it is creeping further and further through the door with a sugar coating of ‘just asking questions’ or ‘exploring alternatives’.

Recently, Professor Alice Roberts called for more debate about the teaching of creationism in schools, stating that “creationism has the potential to ruin a scientific education”. Roberts pointed out that although state schools, including free schools, were not allowed to teach creationism as a science, there were some private schools which did. She said “presenting a religious creation story as a scientifically valid alternative is nonsense.” I fully agree.

This came days after the Noah’s Ark Farm Zoo in North Somerset was given another award in recognition of its educational work. Professor Roberts, along with Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, wrote to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, to express concern at the Zoo’s recognition. You can read the letter in full here.

In it Roberts and Copson state that ‘it is clearly not the case that this organisation offers good quality learning outside the classroom; indeed, the Zoo’s approach runs contrary to Government policy on the teaching of creationism … The Department for Education has made it repeatedly clear that young earth creationism and related theories are incompatible with the established scientific consensus, and therefore should not be taught as such. And yet throughout its materials this Zoo promotes a creationist theory known as ‘recolonisation’, which rejects both evolution and more common young earth creationism in favour of a third explanation … It is therefore difficult to see how a school visiting such a Zoo is compatible with the Government’s policy on creationism’

This is indeed alarming, and with this in mind I decided that I had to check this zoo out for myself. With a week off from work and nothing much to do I thought I’d celebrate Darwin’s birthday by checking out Noah’s Ark. I had no idea what I was in for.

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With the current battering the country is getting from ferocious storms I couldn’t have chosen a worse time to visit the zoo which is based in and around a working farm in South Wraxall, in North Somerset. It’s quite open to the elements. I battled almost-horizontal rain and boarded a bus at Temple Meads train station and asked for a combo ticket – a £15 ticket that gets you a return trip between the station and the zoo and entry to the zoo as well. The driver looked at me as I stood dripping rainwater all over his bus and said, dryly, ‘you do realise it isn’t an actual ark, right?’ and then laughed.

The roads changed from inner city to country lanes, puddles of water were sent splashing over other cars in giant waves by the bus, and at one point we had to stop because the strong winds had blown the engine cover open. I sat, alone on the bus, wondering why I had left my nice warm house. We got to the zoo, the bus pulled away leaving me standing on the side of the road, and as it grew smaller and smaller in the distance I realised I was quite alone, with just two horses huddled in a field as the wind howled around us.

The wind. Oh… the wind.

The zoo was quite empty for the duration of my visit, with just myself and a group of Primary School children wandering around. Most of the animals were huddled inside in the warm away from the unrelenting rain and wind. There was one ape swinging around on the tyre swings but it too was sent scurrying inside when a piece of the plastic corrugated roofing of a nearby cage for parakeets was sent smashing into the wall of the reptile house, just feet from where I was standing. I headed inside after that, scurrying from building to building as fast as I could to avoid other potential debris.

I’m not entirely sure why the animals had access to the outside areas with the weather as bad as it is, and when I entered a lot of the enclosed spaces I found it quite sad to find animals in small spaces that smelt quite bad. The monkey room, for example, had four ceiling-to-floor cages in it and there was a strong smell of urine.

There was a sign on the wall that stated

Primates – or more accurately titled ‘brachiates/arm swingers’

The Latin name ‘Primates means ‘one of the first / excellent / noble’. This was chosen for Darwinian reasons’, assuming these mammals are related to man because of some physical similarities. However, there is no evidence that non-human primates are more intelligent than parrots, dogs, horses, dolphins, or are related to man. A more descriptive name would be the Latin name Brachiates which means ‘to move by swinging with the arms, from one hold to another’

Outside and just around the corner from the Apes and Monkeys are four pens holding pigs who, when I visited, were all huddled in corners aware from the cold. I couldn’t see any access to an indoors area for them and that made me really sad. A sign outside their pens stated, among other things

Forbidden Meat

The many breeds of domestic pigs carry a health risk in some countries as they are scavengers and do not ‘filter out’ the contamination they eat in the way ruminants (cows, sheep, deer) do. This is probably the reason that pig meat was forbidden to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. Some other religions also forbid it

There were weirdly placed religious messages throughout the Zoo, including, for example, on a sign outside a bird enclosure that read:

Why do they sing? 

To sound a warning / to call each other or sing to each other / to mark their territory / to encourage the leader (quiet honking in flying geese) / To frighten their prey (Owls and Hawks screech) / Because they are happy! / to praise their maker

Another sign talks about the characteristics of certain bird calls and states

DESIGN: These features [a/n: tone, pitch, chords, mimicking calls etc.] go far beyond what it biologically an advantage, and point clearly to a musically minded creator.

I next wandered to the area of the zoo with the more exotic animals such as lions, tigers, Rhino, Zebra and Giraffe. It saddened me to see a tiger pacing in an enclosure smaller than the one that houses three zebra, and a lion doing much the same. Their enclosures were smaller than the garden behind the house I grew up in.

Oddly, on the wall outside of their enclosures, where there are large windows through which you can watch them when they are inside, there was a poster titled ‘prayer of dedication of the tiger territory, and one that threatens to throw visitors to the big cats should they knock on the windows. You’d think Christians wouldn’t throw such a threat around lightly… but there we go.

I visited the Giraffe house and then made my way past the Rhino house on my way out of the zoo to catch the next bus home. As I passed by the hedge maze I found a sign with a bible quote on it: ‘Then Jesus said ‘come to me all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’.

How about no, Jesus?

Throughout the park there is an unsettling theme of religious scripture and teachings but I’m not sure that the children who were some way ahead of me on their class trip adsorbed much of it at all. At one point, as our paths crossed as they left the tigers just as I was arriving there, they could all be heard going ‘rooarrrr, roaaaarrr’. It would, of course, completely depend on the context of the trip and how it was used once back at school… and this is what worries me. It worries me because of one particular room at the zoo.

Inside there is a huge model of the Ark with animals entering in pairs, with some already in the boat. The walls around the room are covered with creationist literature and there is a voice guide that you can listen to at the press of a button – but it wasn’t working when I tried. On board the ark you can see T-Rex next to the Giraffes, and Triceratops next to the Elephants. There are floor plans available that show where everything would have been – like pigs next to the bears just across from the bedrooms and bathrooms, and there are Question and Answer cards on the table around the Ark with statements like:

Q: ‘What food did god allow after flood; that was no included for Adam and Eve?’
A: ‘Eating meat was allowed after the flood. Before this most people would have been veggies.’

Q: ‘How long were they all on the Ark?’
A: ‘Noah broke out after a year and 10 days’

Q: ‘Why were so few people saved?’
A: ‘There was lots of spare room on the Ark. More people could have been saved if they were willing’

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I really love visiting animal sanctuaries, auariums, wildlife centres, safari parks and zoos, but I came away from Noah’s Ark Farm Zoo feeling quite unsettled. I was disappointed with how uninterested most of the animals seemed to be with their surroundings – Zebra huddled in a lean-to, monkeys all clinging to the cages of their enclosures, the roof of the bird enclosure almost smashing into me, the roof of the farm sheds flapping around and allowing the rain inside, tigers and lions pacing… as a zoo it was underwhelming. As an educational facility it was alarming.

On my way home I stopped via the gift shop and bought some pens, a book called ‘Evolution: Fact or Fiction?’ and picked up a free flyer produced by the zoo titled ’20 differences between Ape and Man’. The selection of books on sale was outstanding and in no way biased. I giggled at my purchases on the train ride home, but then the seriousness of this hit me. The fact that this facility has a clear religiously motivated agenda in direct opposition to evolutionary theory teachings and is still receiving awards despite this makes me wonder what is in the future for science education in our school.

Let us hope that we do not have a fight in our future like the battle faced by the National Centre for Science Education who have been opposing efforts by creationists to weaken or block the teaching of evolution in the US for more than two decades. However, if we tolerate the nonsense presented at the Noah Ark Farm Zoo being a part of the education offered to school children then that could be a reality we have to face. If we are complacent and allow non-science to be offered up on the same plate as science we are doing future generations a disservice.

Published by

Hayley Stevens

Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

25 thoughts on “I went to a Creationist Zoo for Darwin Day and this is what I found”

  1. The great flood, that’s the myth when god killed all but a handful of humans and animals, the first holocaust by a mass murderer.
    I can only thank you for braving such a terrible place on such a terrible day so that the rest of us don’t have to. These places need to be starved of visitors, especially schools. From what you have described the animals seem to be the big losers in all this.

  2. I think I would have been pulling my hair out and really sad at the animals predicament. Was there a chance for you to write what your thoughts were, like a visitors book?

  3. Glad “One of us skeptics” actually went there to check the place out, to find out if it was as bad as they said it was. Unfortunately its seem’s that all has been said is true and it makes it even more worrying such a place does get awards.

    We own you Hayley, £15 refund, bottle of wine to get over the trip and price of a couple of boxes of Lemsip to help you the cold you probably get for going out on such a foul day.

  4. There seems to be a contrast between how the zoo present themselves (on their website, for example) and what the reality is like for those who actually visit. While the education resources provided on the website aren’t great, they don’t seem obviously alarming. For example, while the suggestions for post-visit workshops on adaptation and habitats clearly hadn’t been written by a biologist, they seemed more amateurish than creationist. Reports from people who have actually visited the zoo, however, suggest to me that their creationist message is much stronger than they are letting on.

    Earlier this week, they published a response to criticism from the BHA and Professor Alice Roberts, accusing them of deliberate misrepresentation. (You can read it here: http://www.noahsarkzoofarm.co.uk/pages/plan-your-visit/news-blog.php)

    I think the response is rather muddled, failing to recognise the reasons for concern, while also stating that they “encourage people to consider the different views and the scientific theories that shape our thinking and reach their own conclusions”.

    Though I do wonder if the response is disingenuous. For example, they say:

    “Prof. Roberts has not seen or been part of a school visit to Noah’s Ark and has not spoken to our Education Officers about the content of their workshops or teaching, although she was invited for an official visit by Directors last year and did not respond. This raises serious questions about the validity of her comments.”

    They will be well aware Professor Roberts visited the zoo last year. They will have seen her article in the Guardian describing her visit. I think it very misleading that they didn’t mention that.

  5. Generally speaking I’m an atheist but see little benefit from this type of blog post; ones where a skeptic visits a cretionist zoo/spirituality festival/alpha course… with a clear agenda of disparaging it. Of course the disparagement is always justified by broadening the debate to the more general evils of religion (Did you know that in some private islamic schools they teach kids how to torture kittens!) I always suspect that the real motive is simply to make yourself appear more enlightened and superior to whichever fruitcake set up an ark in sommerset. If this is indeed the case then well done! You and your scientific method are a hell of a lot closer to the truth of life than these Noah loving nut jobs. Unfortunately, you also come across as supercilious or ‘dawkinesque’ which perhaps you will see as a good thing. If you get off on this kind of thing might I suggest you pay a visit to the developing world where they have magic sky wizards falling out of their arses and you could laugh at them 24/7. Alternatively you could do something more challenging and positive.

    1. A clear agenda? you mean the bit where I heard somewhere was bad and instead of just accepting the word of others I went to see for myself? Oh yeah. You got me. I had an agenda. Also, who says I’m not doing something challenging and more positive? Bit rude to assume, isn’t it? Blimey!

    2. And that loud whooshing noise was the point flying right over your head, Matt. This place is not a church, or a mosque, or a Bible-study group. It got official Govt recognition for (mis-)educating children.

      It’s a religious institution masquerading as a teaching zoo. That’s the point. To expose it is extremely positive, and more challenging than – for example – rebutting pompous, poorly-written, amateur-psychologist criticism of the same.

  6. Looks like you had an interesting time!

    I have to disagree a little with Josephine about the website. The educational resources aren’t great, that I agree with, but if you dig a little deeper into the site, there is a very clear religious and creationist message. Biblical quotes to support their position and refutation of evolutionary theory are plain to see.

    I wonder, Hayley, did you get the chance to talk to any of the staff? I’m always interested in the opinions of the folks who work in these kinds of places. I wonder how “hard sell” the staff are on school tours and such.

    Anyway, glad you made it. The photos suggest fairly windy conditions!

    1. I saw hardly any staff except for in the shop, cafe and ticket booth. There were people walking in and out of the ‘staff only’ areas but I didn’t get chance to interact. People were staying out of the weather.

    2. You’re right – there are some very clear creationist messages on the site. I hadn’t dug deeply enough, clearly! Still, I wonder if there’s a reason you have to dig, if it’s been deliberately left out or toned down in the educational resources bit.

      And something I didn’t mention in my original comment – it looks like there could be grounds for concern over the conditions the animals are being kept in.

  7. If you can honestly say that you visited the zoo with an open mind, and were open to the idea that it might have been quite good, and had no intention of writing a snide review prior to going, then please accept my apology. Additionally, I’m sure you do challenge yourself intellectually and have a positive effect on those around you; it was unfair of me to suggest otherwise. It’s just that I’m not sure this was the best use of your intellectual focus.

  8. Sterling work, Hayley. You went so I don’t have to.

    And Matt, no matter how open one’s mind is, a display teaching that dinosaurs and elephants might have walked side-by-side onto Noah’s Ark is absurd. Anyone who is open-minded enough to think this a historical or scientific reality is at grave risk of their brain falling out.

  9. Interesting that Dawkinsesque is used as an insult by one commenter. I’d be proud to receive that and take it as a compliment. This came across as a fair account of a visit to an establishment that is anything but fair to it’s inmates, it’s visitors or to the theory of evolution.

  10. There are many eminent scientists who believe in a 6 day creation and world-wide flood. This is not popular in today’s secular, liberal society though. For more info on what these scientists believe please see http://www.answersingenesis.org. There is info there on the latest debate with Bill Nye also.

  11. Most of their website is fine, and I must admit I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt when they say in their response to the Alice Roberts criticisms that the school visits are all about the animals and they don’t bring in the religious side unless requested to do so. (They say in their response that Alice Roberts has not attended a school visit – if that’s true it is unfortunate, as she should base criticism on evidence.) My suspicion is that most teachers wouldn’t stand for a zoo preaching at their children, and the zoo wouldn’t be able to operate as a business if they did.

    However there is a section of the website labelled ‘Earth History’ (http://www.noahsarkzoofarm.co.uk/pages/about-us/earth-history/earth-history.php) where things get rather shaky. What’s particularly worrying is they link to their ‘sister website’ Earth History (http://www.earthhistory.org.uk), which is full of pseudo-science. My mind was particularly boggled by this statement: ‘The speed of light is controlled by the zero point energy of the vacuum – a matter of ongoing research in physics,’ which in the words of a great physicist is so bad that it’s ‘not even wrong.’

  12. On 11th Feb, the Bristol Post published an article headed “Longleat lions’ problems “started at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm””. It has been taken down (but has been cached so is still readable).

  13. Now, I’m not arguing against any of the second half of your blog where there’s just a little crazy juice – but there’s one pretty massive factual error in the first half:your definition of ‘creationism’ (which, unfortunately, is exactly the same kind of errors Dawkins keeps making no matter how many people explain it to him – but, ho hum, he sells lots of books with not really caring about the facts and creating straw dogs).

    You assume that a range of beliefs in a divine being having some hand in creating the universe all boils down to a very literal 6 day creationism (how the term is usually used). In fact, there most Christians – perhaps the less vocal ones – are happy to believe in evolution. Some may say that God began the universe then took a ‘back seat’, others that evolution was God’s tool of choice to create the world – not that dissimilar from a sculptor loving creating his piece of art one careful stroke at a time.

    I’m not asking you to agree with any of these. You can think they’re all equally as silly. What you can’t do is assume they’re the same.

    It reminds me of when Dawkins wrote in the God Delusion that God couldn’t possibly be real, because how could something that complex have evolved so far ahead of humans? You don’t need to believe in God to know that people who do believe in him don’t believe he’s subject to the same laws of natural selection!

    1. Read the Appendix to ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. Dawkins presents research findings on belief in the different forms of creationism that you describe so you’ll be able to quantify their extent (instead of making vague references such as ‘most Christians-perhaps the less vocal ones’). Failing that, continue putting words in Dawkins’ mouth.

  14. Peter,

    Are you really saying God created the universe and then took a back seat for 13.8 billion years until he sent Jesus?

    What was he doing? Why this 13.8 billion year lack of interest in humanity? He doesn’t sound like a very nice bloke to me 🙁

  15. Good review. You Brits need to keep up the fight. In America it’s gotten so bad that there are strong proponents of rolling back both the scientific revolution and the enlightenment. These anti-intellectuals have significant political power. This is why the Higgs boson was discovered in Europe, and Texas just has the ruins of a facility similar to the LHC that was never completed.

  16. Brilliant article Hayley Stevens. Thank you for braving the wind and rain to write this. I’m staggered that something like this exists near where I grew up and I thank you for bringing it to the attention of a wider public. Your writing was incredibly fair as well as justifiably critical of the zoo’s policies towards the animals and knowledge.
    I have to take issue with one of the commenters here: Matt, ‘generally an atheist’ you strike me as a theist troll parading as something you’re not to attack this article. I’d bet money you’re the same person as Peter what with you both being so aggrieved by Richard Dawkins.

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