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Proposed Biblical Exhibit Sparks Debate at Tulsa Zoo


The City Parks Board in Tulsa, Oklahoma, votes tomorrow on a controversial exhibit proposed for the city zoo that would describe the origins of the universe in biblical terms. The board is reconsidering an earlier vote to mount the exhibit at the zoo. As NPR's Greg Allen reports, the clash between science and religion is dividing many in Tulsa.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

There's a lot at the Tulsa Zoo that bothers Dan Hicks. Hicks is a longtime Tulsa resident, a 43-year-old architect who was born in Africa, the son of missionaries. For the past 10 years, he's been on a mission of his own, crusading to bring the creationist viewpoint to the Tulsa Zoo. In answer to those who say science and religion shouldn't mix, Hicks says there is already lots of religion on display at the zoo, and he's happy to point it out, starting at the zoo's entrance where there's a huge granite globe representing the world. It's part of a fountain, and on the globe is an inscription.

Mr. DAN HICKS (Tulsa Resident): And it says, `The Earth is our mother. The sky is our father.' Now this is pantheonism. This is a native and American religious statement, and it's not just here. It's in another place in the zoo. It's almost like this is the theme for the zoo, is this pantheistic message, `The Earth is our mother. The sky is our father,' obviously, a religious message.

ALLEN: And there's more. Hicks takes visitors through the Masai village, part of the zoo's Africa section, which includes displays on the Masai's animist religious beliefs, but to Hicks, one of the zoo's most overtly religious displays is outside the elephant house. It's a six-foot-tall hand-carved granite statue from India.

Mr. HICKS: This is Ganesha, the son of Shiva, one of the primary deities in the Hindu religion. Here we have a three-dimensional representation of a Hindu deity. You don't get much more religious than that. Now I'm not calling for these things to be removed. I'm saying if we're going to have an open marketplace of ideas, why not allow the creationist viewpoint?

ALLEN: That was a proposal Dan Hicks brought last month to Tulsa's Park and Recreation Board. He helped design an exhibit that he would like to see included in the zoo's timeline gallery. That gallery was inspired by astronomer Carl Sagan's writings. Visitors are asked to imagine the universe's 15-billion-year history compressed into a single year.

(Soundbite from exhibit)

Unidentified Man: And the dinosaurs flourished and died between the 24th and the 28th of December. The human species has only been in existence for the last 90 minutes of the cosmic year.

ALLEN: Hicks' proposed exhibit is based on the first verses from Genesis. The biblical story of creation, he believes, would balance the zoo's exhibit on the beginning of the universe, what he calls a naturalistic theory presented as fact. The zoo says it doesn't allow members of the public to design and mount their own exhibits at the city-owned institution. And zoo director Stephen Walker says Hicks is wrong to say that exhibits like the granite globe, the Masai village and the statue of Ganesha are religious expressions. Walker says the Tulsa Zoo is also a living museum that presents its animals alongside the cultures where they're found in the wild. The statue Ganesha, for example.

Mr. STEPHEN WALKER (Director, Tulsa Zoo): ...is shown as an art form, just like if you could put Michelangelo's "Pieta" somewhere. It is shown as an art piece, and we're talking about how these people have taken elephants and incorporated them into their art.

ALLEN: But those arguments did not stop the park's board from approving Dan Hicks' proposal. In June, the board voted three-to-one to include Hicks' display as part of a larger exhibit designed by zoo staff on the creation stories of various cultures. To the surprise of some on the board, a small firestorm erupted. Although Tulsa has long been connected to evangelist preachers like Oral Roberts, it's a town built with oil and gas money that takes pride in its cultural institutions. A committee of interfaith religious leaders, lawyers and science educators quickly mobilized to fight what it saw as an attack on the zoo, and members of the board, including board President Walt Helmerich, took note. Helmerich, a well-known community leader who originally voted for it, says the board now is reconsidering that decision.

Mr. WALT HELMERICH (Board President): I would just as soon it hadn't happened, but since it has, I think the best thing to do if we need to present it is present it in a group of others, and that way it's educational.

ALLEN: The Park Board meets tomorrow to try to find a way out of a dispute that some members worry has made Tulsa a laughing stock. Board Chair Walt Helmerich concedes that any compromise is unlikely to satisfy patrons like Dan Hicks. It's also unlikely to mollify those in Tulsa who believe religion should be kept out of the city zoo.

Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.