A man in Alberta has declared his zoo a religion in an attempt to thwart government efforts to shut it down. Lynn Gustafson made the declaration after the province revoked his license on the grounds that the facility, called GuZoo by its owner, was being improperly managed and desperately needed improvements. The dispute is just another example how the definition of religion, and limitations on religious freedom, have been put to the test.
GuZoo, which lies in Three Hills, 140 km northeast of Calgary in the heart of the Canadian prairies, was granted a seven-day permit to prepare for decommissioning, but this was extended by two days. Gustafson initially considered asking for a license on the condition that he make facility improvements, and even considered selling his animals to taxidermists, but ultimately decided to turn his zoo into a church, invoking Section 2 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the protections for religious freedom included therein.
But how can a ménagerie of wild and exotic animals constitute a legally incorporated religious organization? Gustafson’s daughter-in-law, Irene, explains that Gustafson has decided to turn his zoo into a sanctuary for the stewardship and protection of wild animals. While articles of incorporation are not technically required to start a new church, it is commonplace for a religious society to seek incorporation if it wishes to buy a property on which to build a house of worship, explains Sharon Lopatka of Service Alberta. If the application for incorporation goes through, GuZoo would become a legally recognized religious organization with its own place of worship and its own creed: the protection of nature’s creation. Theoretically, the site could even host a congregation that meets regularly for sermons on wildlife stewardship.
Despite Gustafson’s vision of turning GuZoo into a religious society, some government officials maintain that the facility breaks the law. Dave Ealey, a spokesman for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, disregards Gustafson’s efforts, citing the importance of other considerations. Calling the zoo a religious sanctuary or house of prayer and worship “really has no bearing on our decommission order”, he says, arguing that Gustafson “can call it what he wishes, but it’s still captive animals that need to be properly managed”. For officials such as Ealey, the need to manage natural resources in a sustainable and efficient manner is just as important as the right to establish and run a religious society.
Ministers, priests, and pastors ordained online in nondenominational churches such as the ULC Monastery have similar concerns to those of Gustafson. In both cases, the issue at hand is how to define a religious society, as well as how far the government should go to limit the free exercise of religion. People who decide to get ordained online so that they can marry their friends and relatives often meet resistance from county clerks and other officials because they did not undertake conventional minister training and education, and internet churches are often criticized for conducting its ministry through the Web rather than in a brick-and-mortar church; similarly, people like Gustafson meet resistance from government officials because their houses of worship do not meet traditional definitions or guidelines.
As a member of an interfaith online church, and as somebody who may have experienced criticism or resistance over your religious practice, what do you think about Gustafson’s effort to save his zoo by turning it into a house of worship? Do other factors, such as proper wildlife and natural resource management, deserve serious consideration as well? What do you think about forming a religious society focussed on the stewardship of wildlife? Make your thoughts known.