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.
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 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
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
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’.
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’
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.