In the tight-laced society of 18th and 19th-century England, bull baiting, bear baiting, and cock fighting were popular forms of entertainment. Thanks to the efforts of William Wilberforce and other evangelical Christians (who were hard at work abolishing slavery at the same time), these activities were not only outlawed, but are now viewed through 21st century eyes as the acts of savagery they surely are.

Certainly, circuses, big game hunts, and Industrial Age-era zoos don’t descend to the same level of depravity as animal fighting for “sport” does. But might these be lesser forms of barbarism even so?

This week’s horror story of exotic animals released by their suicidal owner in Ohio makes the answer obvious, I think. The event was a disaster just waiting to happen. Long before law authorities (who had little or no choice of actions given the danger posed by the loose animals to humans) shot nearly 50 tigers, lions, and other exotic animals, these creatures should have received the protection of the law. Their troubled owner had a long history of felony animal abuse charges, and his state is one of several with little or no regulations on ownership of such animals. With better laws and effective enforcement of those laws, this tragedy—including the suicide of the owner whose increasing desperation about his circumstances with the animals he harbored seems to have triggered the chain of events—could have been averted.

But for Christians, this case highlights important aspects of stewardship that transcend matters of public policy. The situation speaks to our obligation to bring to bear not just legal standards, but also religious, social and personal influence on matters of animal welfare and creation care.

I, for one, have never experienced pleasure in viewing beautiful, mighty beasts in confinement, much less in watching a creature as magnificent as an elephant being coaxed into performing silly tricks like standing on a stool for the sake of a few philistine “oohs” and “ahhs” from onlookers. Those who do find enjoyment in such would likely lose all mirth with the knowledge of the sinister underworld of wild animal trafficking.

On the other hand, this is not an argument for an absolutist position against all human enjoyment and use of animals. I don’t believe God’s call for human stewardship of or dominion over his creation is quite so black and white. (Indeed, I own—and terribly spoil—hunting dogs and riding horses.) Rather, responsible stewardship requires wisdom, discernment, adaptability, and most of all love—love for the Creator first and, flowing from that, love for his creation.

When I was in grade school, my fifth grade class took a field trip to the circus. I don’t remember a lot about that day, but two memories stand out as though it were yesterday. The first memory is of a funny red, white, and blue hat my classmate Katie bought there and wore on the bus ride home. The second memory is something I saw from the bleachers where I was seated with my class during the show: A cage was set off to the side of the performance ring. Inside the cramped, barred confines, a tiger stood, swaying his head back and forth, as though hypnotized, for the entire performance. I don’t believe I saw much else that day; I couldn’t take my eyes off that creature, the sight of which robbed me of any of the joy that children are supposed to experience at the circus. It was the last circus I ever attended.

The use of mules for plowing or chickens for eggs, and the enjoyment of dogs for companionship or goldfish for beauty are not the same thing as making a bear dance in a dress or whipping a lion into submission so a man can put his head inside its mouth. The former demonstrate respect for both Creator and creation—the latter mere foolishness at best.

God, in his good and inscrutable ways, saw fit to create some species of animals as more suitable (with varying degrees of exertion on our part) to human companionship and domesticity, and he made some less so. Like the many variations of weather that God created, He made some animals to be enjoyed, some to be admired from afar, some to be fed from and some to be fled from. Good stewardship is in knowing, and respecting, the differences.