The Common Question

When people find out that I’m a zookeeper, one of their first questions is “What is your favourite animal?” I usually say that it is too hard to choose, but really I mean “I have so many I don’t want to overwhelm you.” Red Pandas, African Penguins, and Purple Throated Fruit Crows sit near the top of the list but I could go on for a while about many others. But one question I don’t believe I’ve ever been asked is “What is your least favourite animal?” For one, it isn’t a common question like the reverse of it is. For another, I think most people assume that zookeepers love all animals. While that is true in a sense, there are species I have little interest in working with: venomous snakes, most insects, sharks, eels. Again, the list could go on, and I bet if it did, I would surprise you with a few of the entries. Perhaps the most shocking to people is that I don’t really like dogs.

Yep, you read that right. Dogs. They’re everywhere. Most of my coworkers have one or want one.. or twelve. They’re seen as friendly, devoted, loving, funny, and cute. I just don’t get it. It isn’t that I’m afraid of them, though I have a healthy respect for what a dog can do in the wrong circumstances. I just have a deep seated, visceral aversion to them. I can’t really explain it and it seems I can’t really change it, though I have tried. At home, I much prefer the company of cats. Dog people tend to see them as aloof, useless, and grumpy but I love my two fur balls.

I’m thankful that God doesn’t keep a list of “least favourites.” He loves every person. And He isn’t just like Santa Claus with a job to do that includes loving people. He doesn’t give good things to those He loves and skip over those He doesn’t. He doesn’t keep a list of naughty people and a list of nice people. It may seem like He does when the Bible says that there is a special book and if your name is in it, you get to live with Him forever. That book is a list of those who accept His ultimate Love and leaves out those who reject Him. If I were writing that list, it would be biased and constantly changing. But God created us to be loved by Him and glorify Him in return. He wants all of us to choose to have our names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. My name is written in there, and, because of His grace, I couldn’t erase it if I tried.

The Extreme

One day when I was scanning through the TV channel guide, I noticed that it must be a slow day for the sports channels because one was showing a spelling bee and the other was showing something unique: Extreme Ironing. Seriously, it exists! Extreme Ironing. Apparently, it was started buy a guy who needed to iron, but wanted to be rock climbing instead.

Ever since that day, I’ve joked that I have my own version of an extreme chore: Extreme Gardening. I practice this “sport” when I have to climb the mountains in my penguin exhibit to care for the plants growing in the small pockets of soil along the sides. It can be a bit crazy to climb the mountain with a bag of tools and a roll of garbage bags. It is also crazy trying to climb back down the mountain with tools and full garbage bags.

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Penguin Rock

Recently, I have added a couple of new extreme chores to my list. I was practicing this morning with one of my coworkers who is also training for extreme chores. We started with a session of Extreme Window Cleaning and finished our “workout” with some Extreme Vacuuming. What makes these things extreme? Well, the fact that we have to use SCUBA gear to do them. This morning my coworker and I had to get into our hippo pool (with the hippos locked securely in their stalls of course) and clean the underwater viewing windows before using a pool vacuum to suck up hay and leaves on the bottom of the pool. It can be quite a workout but I find it fun. After an hour in the pool wiping algae off the windows and siphoning the bottom of the pool, I really just wanted to continue swimming around. Instead, I got out of the pool and moved on to more normal chores like feeding birds and washing dishes. Not even in the same league of fun 😉

This got me thinking about some of the things we humans try to do to gain favour with God, or even earn our way into Heaven. Most are “mild” like praying, lighting candles, or trying to live a moral life. Others are much more extreme. In the past, people would punish themselves with itchy clothing or even whip their backs until they bled. Today, there are groups who isolate themselves and live under very strict codes of ethics and rules for living, all to make themselves pleasing to God.

I’m sure there are many more intense ways that people today strive to fulfill the requirements for entering Heaven. But the price is much too high for any human to pay it. God requires absolute perfection and total sacrifice for us to enter Heaven. The good news is that the price has already been paid! Jesus, God’s Son, was born on Earth, lived a completely sinless life, then died in an intense, extreme way, all to pay for my sins and yours. But Jesus’ extreme acts didn’t end there. Three days after being buried, Jesus rose from the dead. The fact that He didn’t stay dead means that His sacrifice was accepted and His work was done. There’s a ticket for Heaven with my name on it, and it is imprinted on my soul so I can never loose it. You can have one, too. All you have to do is acknowledge your need for redemption, accept Jesus sacrifice on your behalf, and ask God to make you His own. No rock climbing or SCUBA required.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that who ever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Yes, Jesus Loves Me

Jesus loves me, this I know,

For the Bible tells me so.

Little ones to Him belong.

They are weak, but He is strong.

 

I am broken. Doesn’t He know?

I try to hide it, but it still shows

Still, He came down from Heaven above.

Died on a cross to show me His love.

 

Jesus died to make me clean.

Now my sins cannot be seen.

He rose up from the tomb.

Now He’s in Heaven preparing my room.

 

Yes, Jesus loves me.

My Lord Jesus loves me.

Oh, Jesus loves me.

The Bible tells me so.

The Important Questions

This morning when I was driving to work, I was listening to the lovely soundtrack to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the first of the most recent movie adaptations of CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Listening to the deep tones of danger and the dancing notes of wonder, I asked myself a very important question – which classic fantasy realm would I rather live in: Narnia or Middle Earth? My very quick response was Narnia. But why? I do thoroughly enjoy JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. I can totally see myself in the horse-centric culture of Rohan, but something about Narnia speaks to me more. The two fictional realms have a lot in common. Both stories have a self-important villain who seeks to conform the world to their own moods. Both stories have unlikely heroes who face the villain with more courage than anyone would believe they had. Both lands fall into a brutal war. And both stories end with victory for the heroes. But while Middle Earth seems like the kind of place you could have a good life, Narnia feels to me like the kind of place where dreams could be fulfilled. It has a bit more brightness – more hope.

I then turned the question to the Science Fiction realm. Would I like to live in the Star Wars universe or the Star Trek universe? Again, the answer was easy: Star Trek. I’ve always been more of a Trekkie, but that wasn’t the whole reason. Again, both realms have similarities. There are alien cultures I like, and some I don’t. There are planets full of happy people and planets ruined by war. But to me, the Star Wars universe seems like a place where you might have a good life, but the Star Trek universe seems geared toward fulfillment. It is about wonder and discovery.

I arrived at work and was brought back from my daydreams about fictional worlds into the real world. I have a good job, doing what I’ve always wanted to do. I have a home, pets, and food on the table. And yet, I still dream. Some dreams can be fulfilled here, but many are unrealistic. Earth is a place where I can have a good life. But Heaven is where dreams will be fulfilled. It won’t be what some believe it will be: a place where their every desire and every loved thing from Earth will surround them for eternity. It will be a place where dreams so wonderful we can’t even comprehend them will be real. Desires we don’t even know we have will be met. And all of it will be filled with the eternal presence of God and the light of Jesus.

 

The Focus

When I was growing up, my parents planned wonderful vacations for our family. My dad does a great job of researching beautiful places and interesting attractions in cities all over North America, and even in the UK. One thing was always consistent: if there was a zoo nearby, he planned for us to spend at least part of a day there just for me. Of course dad, mom, and my brother found them enjoyable, too, but it was clearly a choice made for my interests. Because of this, I can honestly say I’ve visited most of the prominent zoos in the US and Canada as well as some I’m sure most people haven’t heard of. These ranged from small, privately owned collections to the “big guys” like Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Busch Gardens, and San Diego Zoo. When I was a kid, it was all about seeing animals I’d only seen in books or getting different views of long time favourites. After I started my Zoo Animal Technology classes in college, I found my focus shifting. I was now an “insider.” I’d been behind the scenes in a couple zoos, seen how the work was done, so I found myself evaluating the exhibits as much as the animals in them. Now that I’ve been a zookeeper for 10 years, I do this even more when I visit other zoos. Of course, I still love the animals and I’m always exhilarated to see a species I’ve never seen before, but I’m also keeping a sharp eye on the design of the exhibit. I look for clever ways of concealing barriers and doors. I evaluate how easy the job of the keeper working in that exhibit might be. I may even criticize the designer for making “mistakes” that detract from the effectiveness of the display.

The other day, I had a few extra moments between tasks at work and I spent time watching one of my all time favourite zoo animals: the red pandas. The younger one was jogging around his exhibit, clearly enjoying the cool but sunny day. He would climb up one side of a tree and down the other. He climbed all over the platforms artfully placed between the trees. He even showed off one of the Red Panda’s special skills – using his super sharp claws to climb head first down a tree trunk. I smiled the whole time and delighted in the giggles from the children around me, laughing at the animal’s antics. I thought, “This is why I’m a zookeeper.” It isn’t because I’m an intense environmentalist, though I agree that conservation is vital. It isn’t because I have a desire to be an educator. It is because I love animals. I love watching them. I love hearing them. I love sharing them.

Lately, I’ve heard sermons and radio talks about Christians today losing their focus on what the Christian life is all about. I think they caught my attention because I see that in myself. The Christian life isn’t about the “exhibits” – going to church, reading your Bible, talking about the community events you’re volunteering at, or taking a stand on issues. The Christian life is about Jesus. Putting those other things before Him in importance is like building a zoo exhibit before deciding what animal will live in it. I might put in some beautiful fake logs, a climbing structure, and a deep pond and have a habitat that perfectly resembles a clearing in the woods of North America, but if I try to put a Tibetan Yak in there, it would make things difficult and confusing for the Yak, the zookeepers, and the visitors. We can put all the emphasis on being the most faithful attendee in our Sunday School class, but if we don’t know Jesus, we’re just wasting time. We can wave a sign in front of an organization we disagree with, but if we’re doing it for ourselves instead of for Christ, we’re just taking up space. Sure, God can use anyone and anything for His purposes and make it work. Just like the exhibit at my zoo that used to hold Mountain Goats and now houses Penguins. It has had modifications that make it work quite well. But nothing makes the same impact as something purpose built. Putting the focus on the animal’s needs builds the best exhibit. Putting my focus on Jesus Christ builds an effective life.

Hebrews 12:2 “Keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.”

The Characters

When I picture a room full of people I have learned valuable lessons from, there is quite an unusual crew surrounding me. Some are tall and some are short; some are clean and some are dirty; some are old and some are young; some are blonde and some are blue. All have their names and stories written for millions to read. Here are a few of them.

Merlin – Power comes with great responsibility for the good of others.

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Nightcrawler – “Don’t judge a book by its cover” isn’t just a cliche.

 

 

Tony Stark – The soft interior under your armour may be the strongest part of you.

Peter Pevensie – The strongest way to lead is to lean on the strengths of others.

Susan Pevensie – A scientific mind is an asset only when it doesn’t crowd out childlike faith.

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Edmund Pevensie – You can move past your mistakes with the love of friends and family.

Lucy Pevensie – The seemingly insignificant things can often be the most valuable.

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Severus Snape – Doing good things doesn’t make you a good person.

 

 

 

Johnny Rico – Don’t let people underestimate you, even when they are right.

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Kathryn Janeway – When you need to be strong, be very strong, but never forget that you may get just as far or farther with softness and a smile.

 

 

 

 

Nehemiah – Pursue something you believe in.

Noah – Follow God’s plans.

Samuel – Listen.

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Daniel – Quiet, steady faith can be a radical thing.

 

Fictional characters can feel real to us. Ironically, the real people whose stories are told in the Bible often feel like fictional characters. But whether they came from the mind of an author or the hand of the Author doesn’t change the fact that we can learn from them.

The Little One

 A lot of times when we visit zoos, we like to see the “unusual” animals – the smallest species, the largest, the fastest, or the strongest. In some cases, we ooo and ahhh over rare colour variations like white tigers and albino pythons. As a penguin keeper, I’ve always kind of hoped one of my penguins would hatch out in a unique colour variation called leucism. Leucistic animals simply have less pigment in their scales, hair, fur, or feathers so they are a lighter or sometimes pure white version of the normal colouring. This sounds like I’m describing an albino animal but the difference is that leucistic animals still have the normal skin and eye colour where albino animals have no pigment there either. The white tigers I mentioned before are good examples. They still have stripes but they are lighter brown and the orange areas are white instead, but if you look at their eyes and lips, you will see they are the normal colour. Leucistic penguins end up having white feathers in the normal places and blonde feathers where they should have black or grey feathers. 

 

A leucistic African Penguin among his naturally coloured counterparts


Our colony of penguins has yet to produce a leucistic chick, but we recently had another type of unique baby: the smallest African Penguin I’ve ever seen. His name is Thumper and though all penguin chicks are adorable, he has an extra measure of cute! The average weight of one of our penguins is between 2.8 and 3.3 kilograms (around 7-12 pounds). The other two chicks raised with Thumper, Chip and Marty, weigh right around 3.0 kilograms. Thumper weighs just 2.0 kilograms. Thumper is just small proportioned all over. He has tiny feet, a short beak, and dainty wings. In fact, when we put his identification band on his wing, we only used 4 plastic beads instead of the usual 6 because that would have made the band wider than his wing. I love all of the birds I care for, but I readily admit that Thumper holds a special place in my heart.

 

Left to right: Chip, Thumper, and Marty

 
When Jesus was on Earth, He often picked the unusual people to pay attention to. Not the ones we would pick: the strongest, the smartest, the richest, or the best looking. He chose the weak, the humble, the faithful, the willing, and the child-like. Even His disciples were the “wrong” people for someone who was expected to save the world. Most had ordinary jobs like being fishermen. And yet, God used every single person that Jesus chose for great things. Even if that great thing was just going back to their town and telling their friends and family about Him. It is actually a wonderful thing to realize that God doesn’t need us to be extraordinary before He can use us. He makes us extraordinary when we are willing to be chosen by Him.

But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or his stature, because I have rejected him. Man does not see what the Lord sees, for man sees what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart.'” 1 Samuel 16:7