I’ve always been fascinated by the size, strength and intelligence of elephants. They are beautiful creatures with complex social lives, regularly observed grieving the loss or death of others in the herd. I’ve had two experiences with elephants in their country of origin, and the difference between them helped shape my perspective on animal rights.

In Thailand, my encounter with an elephant broke my heart. The last thing I expected to see when looking out the window of a McDonald’s was an elephant. I later learned it’s not uncommon to spot elephants on the streets of Bangkok, particularly in tourist areas. I sat quietly and watched as an elephant wrangler paraded his poor creature, asking tourists for “donations” to feed her or take a photo with her. Some were happy to oblige.

I had never seen a skinny elephant before, her ribs clearly visible beneath her tough hide. What really got me, though, was the sadness in her eyes and the way she moved; a jungle animal trapped in a city, solely to make its owner as much money as possible.

It should be noted that there are several organizations in Thailand doing amazing work in animal protection and conservation. Unfortunately, those who don’t care about their animals are more visible, because they allow easy photo ops for social media.

Kenya, like many sub-Saharan African nations, is dealing with a poaching crisis. Elephant tusks and rhino horns are still a valuable commodity on the international market. Despite the government’s efforts to crack down with stiff penalties— including the possibility of a life sentence in prison—many animals are still killed every year.

While living in Kenya, I visited the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program, in Nairobi National Park. These baby elephants had often, but not always, been orphaned as a result of poaching. Visitors to the program learn more about wildlife and the charity’s efforts, and can interact with the elephants during set hours. I watched as the handlers bottle-fed the calves with care and love that seemed to come from genuine affection. They respected these elephants and everything seemed designed to encourage their health and welfare.

Not everyone has the means or opportunity to travel, but we may be able to see our favourite animal at a zoo or marine wildlife park. However, serious questions need to be asked before visiting. Who benefits from the animals being kept in captivity? Are these creatures better off than they would be in the wild, or are they simply a draw to bring in revenue? And if so, where is this money going—to conservation or profits for the owner? These questions cut to the heart of our humanity. Are we people of compassion and caring? Do we extend this to all of God’s creatures, great and small?

In the creation account in Genesis, humans are given “dominion” over the earth (see Genesis 1:28 KJV), a word best translated as “responsible stewardship.” It describes living with, working alongside and caring for those under your sovereignty. But too often, it has been interpreted as “domination,” leading to the destruction of species and habitats, with the belief that God gave the world to us for our use.

It’s true that this planet and its resources are a gift from God, but just as you wouldn’t unwrap a hand-knit sweater from your grandmother on Christmas morning and then burn it in front of her, we shouldn’t destroy the beautiful home God made for us.

Proverbs 12:10 says, “The righteous care for the needs of their animals.” Similarly, in Job 12:10, we are reminded that, “in [God’s] hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” Animals have intrinsic value as part of God’s creation and we should love them as he does.

Adam’s first job was to name the animals and care for the Garden of Eden. As humans, we are called to be good stewards of the earth, including animals. Let’s make a conscious effort to only support people and places that benefit all creation. The elephants of the world will thank us.

Darryn Oldford is a senior soldier in Toronto.

Photo: FarAway/iStock via Getty Images

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