The Zookeeper’s Wife – Movie Discussion
The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on the true story of a Polish zookeeper, Jan, and his wife Antonina. It’s the story of their zoo and the animals and the people that they cared for during World War II. It’s a war story, don’t be mistaken. It’s hard and sobering and brutal and horrific as any story of that time must be if it tells the truth. It’s also hopeful and inspiring, as light shines brightest when it’s dark.
I discussed the book here, so I don’t want to repeat that discussion. (Also see quotes from the book here.) What I want to discuss here is something that I’ve been wrestling with as I read and watched this story. I think the issue is related to the value of life. We know about the horrors that were done to mankind during this time, but I hadn’t thought about what happened to animal life during that time. But when man goes to war, animals suffer, too. Warsaw was bombed and the zoo was a victim. Many of the animals died then, and others were suddenly freed from their cages and terrified, running rampant in the city. Think about it—lions, elephants, hippos, buffalos, etc.—terrified and running wild in a city full of people and carnage. It’s understandable that people would really have to shoot the animals to protect themselves. Soldiers then went into the zoo and shot any remaining animals that, if loosed would also become a threat. That was awful to watch, but understandable in the circumstances.
What was far less understandable was when the Nazi’s later came by, drunk and wanting some “fun”, and killed the remaining animals for a laugh. Animals that were caged and harmless. Animals that were Jan and Antonina’s beloved pets. There was no sport in it and no plan to use the meat for food. It was just plain bloodlust.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise. If you don’t value human life, why would you value any life? I think the thing I’ve been pondering, however, is why we all reacted so violently to the killing of the animals, and less so to what was happening to the people. It was all horrific, granted, but I found myself more emotional when the animals were killed, both in the book and in the movie. And I found the same reaction in my fellow movie goers.
I get that maybe a small part of that is that we have been aware of the crimes against humanity, but the crimes against nature were a newer concept for me, at least. But I think it goes beyond that. I think it’s similar to the fact that we react more emotionally when it’s a child that dies, or perhaps an old woman. It’s something to do with innocence and threat. When a baby is killed, we are incensed because that child has done nothing to deserve it, he’s innocent. We are also incensed because we know that child is not a threat. An infant will not take a gun and kill a Nazi. He’s innocent and poses no threat. We feel similarly about the little old grandma. The baby issue is also heightened by our awareness of the wastefulness of it. A whole future lies ahead of it, but is thrown away. The little old lady is slightly less disturbing because we have the small comfort that she’s lived her life.
But what about the animals? It is probably true that the most disturbing deaths were those who were shot for sport, the innocent and harmless animals who posed no threat, and whose deaths served no purpose. Although, to be fair, it was painful to see the elephant and lion killed, too. Yes, it was understandable as they did pose a danger, but the wastefulness of such majesty and glory was all the greater anguish.
I think perhaps there is another reason why this strikes such a nerve in our souls. It’s not that we have lost our sense of the value of man and elevated creation above him—although that is true for some (I think of people who spend their lives fighting for a species of rodent, but who care not for the unborn child, for example) I don’t think that is what was we were all feeling in that theater. Instead, it was a realization that some deaths (more than others) are a violation of what God has entrusted to our care. Our first order of business, back in Genesis, was to care for creation. We were entrusted with the animals (and earth in general)—to care for them, provide for them, protect them. They are lesser beings so our responsibility is all the greater to do right by them. The same is true for children and little old women (and widows and orphans, and the poor and the lost and the lonely and the refugee, etc.). They are not lesser beings in terms of value, obviously, but they are less in terms of their ability to care for themselves. They are vulnerable and God commands us to treat with special care the things that are vulnerable. We are not created to be bullies but guardians.
So, when we see bullies murdering some creature that is vulnerable, that we have a particular responsibility to look out for, it affects us deeper. It hurts more keenly. To be clear, it’s not that some lives matter more than others, but that our responsibility is different to some than others because of their level of vulnerability/ability to do for themselves.
That is also what makes Jan and Antonina such heroes, and such great examples of the Christian life. They risked their own lives and even their son’s life to care for those who were vulnerable. To give a Jew a cup of water, in Warsaw, was to be shot on the spot. If Jan and Antonina were to be found out for harboring Jews, they wouldn’t have only been killed themselves, their son would have been too. They truly had the kind of hearts that God intended for man to have—that of guardian for all created things, animal and human, and especially all things vulnerable…even at the risk of their own son.
Questions for Discussion:
- Have you ever wondered why we are sometimes more horrified by cruelty to animals than cruelty to humanity? Or why cruelty to children is more horrifying than cruelty to a grown man?
- Have you ever thought about how the level of responsibility God has given us towards other living things varies based on their level of vulnerability? What do you think about that?
- What are the vulnerable beings (animal or human) in your life that you have been entrusted to guard and look out for? How do you do that? Are there opportunities for you to step up and protect or provide for something vulnerable around you that you may be able to (or need to) embrace?
- Jan and Antonina risked their son’s life, but saved hundreds of Jews. Would you be willing to risk your child’s life for others? How does it make you feel that the Lord did that for you?