Remember the Shoah, Not Just the Holocaust

At the Women’s March on Washington, actress Ashley Judd made a speech which has since gone viral in liberal internet circles. In the speech, a slam poem written by a 19-year-old in Tennessee, Judd says she is a “nasty woman” — but “not as nasty as a swastika painted on a pride flag.” She “feels Hitler in these streets” and invokes “gas chambers” to describe conversion therapy. Judd ends on an uplifting note, saying that women of all religions are birthing “new generations of nasty women,” Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh alike. But despite invoking Nazism in blatant language, she does not mention Jews.

Do you see the problem here? Does the omission glare at you, too?

Judd is right about echoes existing between Nazi Germany and America’s current political situation. Those similarities are important to point out — and many left-wing individuals are doing so, rightly. But in post after post I’ve seen decrying Trump as a fascist, warning of the rise of actual neo-Nazism disguised as the “alt-right,” almost no one has mentioned Jews. They bemoan the dangers facing other marginalized groups — Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, LGBTQ individuals, the poor, sexual assault survivors, the list goes on and on — but somehow, despite the fact that they’re talking about Nazism, they never consider that maybe Jews are worried, too.

I understand why many people don’t think of Jews as a population in danger. In many ways, they’re right. President Trump has crafted no policy to target Jews, unlike his proposed wall on the Mexican border or his ban of Muslim refugees. Moreover, in the U.S., most Jews — specifically Ashkenazi Jews — are white, with accompanying privilege. That classification is relatively new, having arisen only in the past 70 years, but it is true all the same. In our everyday lives, we are not discriminated against the way Muslims are, the way African-Americans are, the way any person with dark skin is. I benefit from white privilege every time I walk down the street. I’m not afraid of policemen because I’m pale as a lily, and I can trust they won’t care about my faith.

But if you’re making the argument that Nazism is rising in America, you can’t act like that won’t affect Jews.

For all our privilege now, Ashkenazi Jews are also the population most deeply affected by Nazism. Most Jews have many relatives who died in the Holocaust, and that’s not even mentioning the literal millennia of persecution we faced beforehand. I don’t need to tell you Hitler killed six million Jews: you’ve had that number drilled into you already. But I don’t think non-Jews usually know that those six million were half of Europe’s entire Jewish population, and a third of all Jews worldwide. I don’t think most non-Jews understand what it feels like to know someone tried, and nearly succeeded, to exterminate your entire people. And I really, really don’t think non-Jews realize how terrified so many Jews are now that Nazism may be making a comeback, because if you realized that, I’d like to think you’d mention it.

And you’re not. Speeches like Judd’s at the Women’s March exploit the Holocaust for effect without acknowledging its catastrophic outcomes for the Jewish people. Posts condemn the alt-right’s Islamophobia without noting its intrinsic anti-Semitism. Articles discuss the rise in white nationalism without realizing Jews aren’t included in that vision, no matter our skin color. We stand on lines between the categories that fit everybody else: we are white but not to everyone, we are European except that Europe tried to kill us, we have privilege but we are not safe.

Anti-Semitism still exists today, and Ashkenazi Jews still rightly fear it. With a president who was elected with neo-Nazis’ and white nationalists’ support, we confront that bigotry more now than we have in decades. If Nazism is, in fact, rising again, Jews will be among the most endangered.

I’m not asking you to say Jews may be deported. We have no reason to think that’s true. Nor am I asking you to prioritize Jewish lives over the many others that need more protecting. But the next time you connect the Holocaust to America today, don’t just remember how it happened. Remember who it happened to: remember the Jews whom it meant to extinguish.

And if you think my plea doesn’t apply to you, ask yourself this. Between January 9 and 18, more than 40 Jewish Community Centers received bomb threats. I didn’t see a single one of my non-Jewish friends post about it; only one even mentioned it, a week later.

If the buildings threatened had been mosques, would you have cared?

In “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” an Exciting Return to the Wizarding World

Since the night of November 8, I’ve needed joy. Tonight, I found it, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling’s new addition to the Wizarding World.

Based off a Hogwarts textbook, which Rowling wrote in 2001 to raise money for charity, the film Fantastic Beasts is Rowling’s first foray into screenwriting. She delivers a smart, funny, exciting movie, directed well by David Yates, with a plot full of promise for fans of the books.

After a brief, confusing first scene, the weakest part of the movie, we meet our hero, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist and the author of the aforementioned Hogwarts textbook. Scamander disembarks a ship in 1926 New York, holding a briefcase full of magical creatures. From here on, the movie takes flight.

New York City is bustling and dark, and looks almost surprised when magic disrupts it. More bewitching, appropriately, is the world inside Scamander’s briefcase, with pockets of different habitats conjured to suit his beloved beasts. Richly colored and animated, innovative and entrancing, this world is as gorgeous as the creatures it shelters. Every beast, from the tiny, dependent Bowtruckle to the magnificent Thunderbird, is stunning — and more than a few could eat Donald Trump, a fun thought.

Of course, such wondrous creatures can’t be contained in a mere briefcase. Some of the beasts escape, which provides the main thrust of the movie. Along the way, Scamander meets Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an ex-Auror for MACUSA, the Magical Congress of the United States; her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a Legilimens, otherwise known as a witch who can read minds; and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj, the American word for a Muggle.

These four become a lovable quartet, cementing what I’ve found most distinctive about Rowling’s storytelling: her ability to craft characters so human, so real, I care about them as much as I do living people. The actors’ sterling performances help in this endeavor, led by Redmayne’s lithe, awkward, earnest Scamander, a hero all the more endearing for being a bit odd. Waterston plays Tina, who starts out wary of Newt but warms to him, as driven, brave and kind; she and Newt have promising potential. Sudol’s Queenie, meanwhile, is warm from the outset, beautiful and giggly, as charming as she is bright. Fogler rounds out the four with sharp comic timing as Kowalski, and is winningly astonished by most magic. Viewers can relate.

We meet less charming characters as well. Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) leads the Second Salemers, who want to expose and exterminate witchcraft in the United States. She approaches Henry Shaw, Sr. (Jon Voight), a newspaper magnate, and his sons, prohibitionist senator Henry Junior (Josh Cowdery) and Langdon (Ronan Raftery), hoping to convince them that magic exists, too. Among Barebone’s adopted children is Credence (Ezra Miller), a trembling, rigid, shell of a person, one of the mysteries the film explores. Colin Farrell rounds out the count, playing the shrewd, powerful Percival Graves, the head of MACUSA’s Department of Magical Law Enforcement.

You may have noticed a theme among the main actors so far: they’re all white. The lone exception is Carmen Ejogo, who plays MACUSA president Serafina Picquery. I’m disappointed Rowling did so little to diversify her characters, particularly after the Potter novels’ criticism on that front. Still, I have hope: the end of the movie leaves room for new characters, who may be people of color. So, too, does it seem likely that sequels will include characters of different sexualities. In addition, Tina and Queenie’s last name suggests they are Jewish. If so, they are the second and third explicitly Jewish characters in the Wizarding World, and the first Jewish protagonists. (If they aren’t, I will personally throw a riot, because I have waited 14 years for this.)

Besides the film’s diversity oversight, however, it shows a keen awareness of modern political issues. Themes of xenophobia, authoritarianism and extremism course through the movie, setting the tone for conflicts to come.

I’m crossing my fingers, though, that even with those conflicts, the sequels maintain Fantastic Beasts’ delicate balance. It is warm and dark, witty and action-packed, engaging for the eyes and the mind in equal measure. Fantastic Beasts provided a potent antidote to my post-election sorrow, and is a welcome extension of my favorite world. 

And its twist at the end, like the movie itself, is typical Rowling brilliance.

After the Apocalypse

I’ve never been afraid to be a Jew in America before.

Tonight isn’t the first time I’ve felt these fears during Donald Trump’s campaign. I’ve felt them ever since Trump told the Republican Jewish Congress they wouldn’t vote for him “because I don’t want your money.” I’ve felt them ever since he and his sons started retweeting posts and images from anti-Jew white supremacists. My fear has intensified, steadily, since Trump retweeted an image of a Star of David emblazoned over money, and reached a peak when Trump used his last campaign ad to decry “a global power structure” represented solely by Jews.

At least, I thought it was a peak. But I was wrong. Tonight, after it became clear Donald J. Trump would become the next President of the United States, I sat in my room and cried for more minutes than I can count. For the first time, I am truly afraid to live in my country.

I haven’t talked about these fears during this election cycle because, of all minority groups, I have the least to fear — and that’s saying something. My terror shouldn’t take away from the sheer dystopia facing all people of color, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, low-income people with government health care, sexual violence survivors, millions upon millions upon millions of people in our country who aren’t safe here anymore. I don’t expect government policy to adopt anti-Semitism, although I write that with some hesitation. But Trump has enabled anti-Semites, brought their bigotry back into the mainstream, and created a space for hating Jews that our country has not seen since World War II.

Again: I’m lucky. I’m white. I’m upper middle-class. But I am terrified for my friends, for my family, for the Jewish children I hope to bear one day. I’ve always known I would be an overprotective mother, that I would find plenty to worry about for my children: bullies, tough schoolwork, heartache. Never before have I worried that my children might be called kikes. Never before have I had reason to fear for their wellbeing because of their ethnicity and religion. Never before have I felt my family would be unsafe not just while living in America, but because we live in America.

I’ve always said with pride before that I look Jewish, and that my dad does, too. I’ve loved that with one look, maybe two, people can recognize the identity I love so deeply. Now I’m terrified. I’m terrified that with one look, a stranger will decide I am less than human. I’m terrified that they will decide the same about other people I love, too.

To my friends of color: I don’t know how you’ve made it this long, with this much fear. I’m so sorry for any way I’ve contributed to that. To however small an extent, I know your fear now. I don’t know if I have your strength to bear it.

All my life, Jewish elders have told me anti-Semitism is a cycle. You don’t know what it’s like, they said, but it’ll come back. It always does. I shrugged it off.

They were right.

I don’t want the Trump voters reading this to unfriend me or distance themselves from me personally. That’s not our way forward as a nation. But I want you to know that you have plunged my life and the lives of millions of others into uncertainty and horror. I want you to know that when — not if — someone calls me a yid, you are to blame. I want you to know that you have wrenched America away from all its claims to democracy and equality. And if you are a Jew, and you voted for a man who exploited anti-Semitism in order to gain votes, you should hang your head in shame. I pray for you, because you need it.

For that matter, we all do.

Why Bob Dylan Deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature

My father and I have sung lullabies since before I can remember. We started our tradition when I was infant: he would sing; I would cry. Sometimes, I’d quiet down and listen. As I grew older, I began singing with him. Our lullabies feel as imprinted upon me as nails on my fingers. They remind me of home, like the scent of fresh challah or the first bite into my dad’s shortbread cookies.

Five of those lullabies are Bob Dylan songs. They soundtracked my childhood, and as the years progressed, the full Dylan canon began scoring my life. My parents are chiefly responsible for my musical tastes, and my dad in particular encouraged my appreciation of Dylan. He included Dylan in the same category as only a select few singer-songwriters — Tom Waits, John Prine, Joni Mitchell — whom he considered geniuses for their writing as much as for their music. Yet as wonderful as those other artists are, Dylan reigned, and reigns, above them. As Dylan himself told the Rolling Stones, as recorded in Christopher Sanford’s biography, Keith Richards: Satisfaction: “I could’ve written Satisfaction, but no way you fuckers could’ve written Tambourine Man.”

That’s basically right, but with an asterisk. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were musical geniuses. Their discography includes some of the best instrumental composing, from “Satisfaction” to “Gimme Shelter,” in all of English music. In no world, however — in no iteration of themselves — could Jagger or Richards have written the lyrics to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Or “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or “115th Dream,” or “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” No one besides Bob Dylan could. Dylan is, of course, an excellent musician, and perhaps indeed could have penned the chords to “Satisfaction.” But Dylan’s extraordinary, rather than merely wonderful, talent has always been his writing. It is in the literary sphere that Dylan has thrived and soared. It is with his words, not his beats or riffs, that Dylan has articulated the angsts, joys, rages and fears of an entire generation, and many people after that.

Dylan is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. That includes all novelists, all playwrights and poets. So, too, is Dylan one of the most unusual. He is a poet, yes: one glance at the lyrics to “Mr. Tambourine Man” conveys that. But, more specifically, he is a bard. Today, our use of “bard” usually refers to a famous poet or minstrel — hence William Shakespeare being called “the Bard of Avon.” However, a true bard, in the original sense, is a professional story teller: one who, through verse and music, orally tells his or her tales. This sense of the bardic tradition has declined, but the fact we still read “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” shows that it remains central and influential to modern literature. Dylan, today, carries the mantel that almost 3,000 years ago Homer bore.

For that reason, Dylan does not just fit squarely within the bounds of literature, albeit at its outskirts. He is also one of the most innovative and important literary figures today. Dylan, and few others, keeps alive the ancient intersection of song and story that has proved so powerful. What’s more, he has integrated the bardic tradition into popular culture, earning it modern fans around the world.

Dozens of writers besides Dylan would deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature: Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie, Joan Didion, Philip Roth and Haruki Murakami come to mind. Less widely recognized writers, from underdeveloped countries, would deserve the award as well. That’s the case every year. Dylan, in particular, doesn’t need the recognition or money a Nobel Prize brings. However, the bardic tradition does need a Nobel Prize — and it has just won its first in the award’s 115-year history. Moreover, Dylan himself deserves his Nobel Prize, for returning the bardic tradition to prominence in modern consciousness, for writing some of the greatest poems and lyrics of the 20th century, for widening the bounds of literature to include him and the ancient art he represents.

One day, I will sing lullabies to my children, and I will include Bob Dylan’s songs among them. In that way, when my children are too young to read, I will introduce them to the world of stories.

In ‘The Hammer of Thor,’ Rick Riordan Throws Convention Out the Window

***SPOILERS for Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan, which you should all read, suggested age range be damned.***

When I read the first book in Rick Riordan’s series about Norse gods in the modern world last year, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer, I noticed something unusual: the main character lacked a love interest. Samirah al-Abbas, the young Muslim woman Riordan created to fill the Strong Female Lead role, was engaged to and in love another character. Magnus Chase, the protagonist of the new series, had no romantic options in sight.

So I knew, when I picked up Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor last week, that Riordan would introduce a new character to serve as Chase’s love interest. I just didn’t expect her to be a gender-fluid, transgender person.

Alex Fierro was assigned male at birth, but realized when she was young that she identified as both male and female. Because of her gender fluidity, her parents kicked her out, making her homeless as a mere teenager. She asks her companions to call her “she” or “he” based on which gender she identifies with more on a given day, rather than using the pronoun “they.” (She usually feels more female, hence my use of the feminine pronoun in this piece.)

Through Magnus’ well-meaning but ignorant gaze, the reader learns about gender fluidity, being transgender, the perils of transphobia, and the history of gender fluid and transgender individuals — according to Norse mythology, they’ve existed as long as Norse gods have. (Certainly longer, too.) Yet Riordan also emphasizes that Alex’s story is not every transgender or gender fluid person’s tale. She is one of many: being the only gender fluid or transgender person Magnus knows does not make her a mascot.

It would’ve been enough for Rick Riordan, one of the most popular children’s authors in the world today, to write a gender fluid and/or transgender main character. That inclusion, by itself, would have continued his intentional representation of diverse heroes. But he went a step further: Alex isn’t just a main character, she is a love interest, too.

In this book, she’s only subtly so. She’s got a lot of baggage; so does Magnus. Not to mention the fact they’re busy trying to save the world — y’know, normal teen stuff. They’ve also just met. But from the outset, the reader feels a connection between Magnus and Alex. Magnus finds her beautiful as a woman; he finds Alex handsome as a man. He is fascinated by her, he cares about her, and even though this book is meant for readers as young as 11, he is attracted to her.

Even in literature and media meant for adults, I have seen few portrayals of gender fluid or transgender people as attractive. They may be good, brave people, admirable and strong; but flat-out attractive? That one’s rare. Yet Rick Riordan, in a children’s book, broke that barrier. And he did so in a book that, today, hit Number 1 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List.

It’s almost impossible to quantify how much books impact people’s worldview, even children’s. (The Bestseller List highlighting The Hammer of Thor hasn’t even come out yet; Riordan just announced it on his Twitter.) But to give you an idea: the first book in Riordan’s Norse series, The Sword of Summer, had an initial print of 2.5 million copies. Many prints followed, meaning millions more children read that book. (And adults like me.) Since we can assume most of The Sword of Summer’s readers will get The Hammer of Thor as well, that means millions of children will meet Alex Fierro. Millions of children will be introduced to a gender fluid, transgender person for the first time. Millions of children will see a gender fluid, transgender person who is sympathetic, attractive, brave, smart, self-possessed, and wonderfully human.

That is revolutionary. That representation — to embolden gender fluid and transgender young people, to educate other children as allies — can, literally, change the world.

So you could say I got a nice surprise when I started reading The Hammer of Thor. By creating Alex Fierro, Rick Riordan threw the conventions of literary love interests out the window. And we’re all better off for it.

As Summer Fades, Hope Rises: What I Learned at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Somehow, my 12 weeks working at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo have come to a close.

That feels strange to write. Three months into this job, it’s become part of my routine. I’ve gotten used to my 30-minute drive every morning; I’ve become accustomed to hearing about exotic animals like tigers and gorillas in everyday conversation; I’ve adjusted to the once-awful wake-up time of 8 a.m. (Okay, that one still sucks.)

I’d say that’s part of what I learned this summer – how to adapt to something new. It may sound odd to have worried about the change in my routine, but three months ago, I did fret about whether I’d be able to get to work on time and join in office chatter. Having succeeded on that count feels peculiarly grown-up, although I probably have about 80 years to go before I feel adult.

Yet my experience this summer has thrust me farther along that path of growing. I still want to be a writer: working at the zoo isn’t an obviously relevant experience moving towards that career. I did gain experience in new, formal types of writing – websites; proposals to large organizations; midyear reviews – but most of what I gained this summer is beneficial on a personal level. The skills I’ve nurtured these past months will aid me in a career, but will have equal or more effect on my general outlook and habits.

One of the most significant skills I’ve gained has been research. This past summer, I spent hours watching elephants, both in person and through video footage. Through my training and practice, I learned how to notice slight variations in elephants’ actions which indicate change in behavior; I learned about which behaviors are more notable, and which are less. This experience gave me new confidence in my research abilities, which I previously lacked due to my distinct natural leaning towards writing and the humanities. Science has never been my strong suit. I now feel more comfortable with the idea of taking science classes, and surer of my capacity to successfully fulfill Columbia’s science requirement.

More significantly, though, I learned how to pay attention. Or, rather, re-learned it. I’m sure that years ago, in the pre-phone era, looking at a beautiful, beloved creature without distraction would have been easy. However, I’ve spent the past decade so surrounded by technological bells and whistles that I lost that ability. To observe the elephants this summer, I had to regain it: if I went on Facebook while I watched the elephants, I might miss something. So over the past weeks, I haven’t just learned how to best watch the elephants’ behavior. I’ve learned how to only watch the elephants’ behavior. That concentration has been an important re-lesson, one vital to my general schoolwork as well as my writing. More importantly, I hope it will make me a more aware, attentive person. As helpful as phones and computers may be, I needed a reminder on how to separate myself from them – and, in general, how to look in just one direction.

In addition, I’ve improved my ability to take on challenges. For years, I’ve struggled with stress: most people handle it poorly, and I think I handle it about 30 times worse than most people. My work at the zoo has presented several challenges which, in years prior, might have made me a puddle. I had to write a draft proposal, destined to be presented to the huge, prominent Association of Zoos & Aquariums. I had to research not one, not two, but 35 conservation partners and projects to figure out what they had achieved in 2016. I had to observe elephants with the focus I previously described, a departure from my usual scatter-brained self.

I was proud that this summer, I rose to those and more challenges. Each gave me stress to a degree, of course – if your conservation review grew to 10,000 words, you’d be a little stressed, too. But I didn’t let it overcome me. Rather, I used that stress to motivate myself, finishing my assignments on time and doing them well. I have heard for years, with heavy skepticism, that stress helps people do work. This summer was one of the first times I believed that, because for one of the first times, it happened to me. My work at the zoo this summer has helped boost my confidence in my ability to handle challenges and stress. I’ve still got a ways to go to attain full control over my stress, but this summer, I made leaps on my way there.

Something else I learned this summer may be best summed up as renewed faith of a kind. Many people, I think, want to change the world. I’m one of them. Yet few things seem to change for the better – I bemoan the Tea Party, then Donald Trump takes the Republicans’ mantle; I fear climate change, and the Arctic continues to melt. As I’ve observed this relentless pattern, I’ve come to feel that I cannot, in fact, change the world. The goal is too grandiose. The world will continue its course, blowing straight past me and my best intentions.

This summer, I’ve regained some of my naïve hopefulness. Most – nearly all – of my work these past months has revolved around conservation. I’ve helped bolster Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s conservation program, Future for Wildlife; I’ve learned about the zoo’s conservation partners and their work around the world. And over and over again, in the work I’ve done, I’ve seen individuals changing the world. From rescuing slow lorises from the exotic pet trade in Vietnam to training dogs to find ivory and rhino horns so they can catch poachers, individuals join the world’s course as it zips past. In small ways and large ones, they make a difference there. They don’t change the world in the grand, famous sense I imagined as a kid. That doesn’t matter: the change still happens.

Once again, I think I can do that, too. I like to imagine that I’ve even made a dent already. Maybe someone will take the Smart Shopper pledge I designed; maybe the AZA will start providing resources about the illegal wildlife trade to its member institutions. Those changes wouldn’t change the world in an obvious way, but they’d make a change that matters nonetheless, and I would have been part of making them happen. I think I can continue “using my powers for good,” as a teacher of mine used to say.

Just as – forgive the cliché – we all can. Those three, broader lessons I’ve learned all fit, somewhat paradoxically, into a more specific one: we can all contribute to conservation. We can protect orangutans’ habitats through easy shopping choices, like avoiding all but the most sustainable palm oils. We can protect slow lorises from being captured by refusing to share viral videos of them being tickled – which, actually, puts them in pain. We can protect elephants from poachers by refusing to buy ivory products, new or old, and signing petitions for stronger ivory bans wherever we live. I will carry these little acts with me wherever I go, whatever I do, and in doing so I will change the world, just as we all can.

And every time I act for conservation, I’ll have the elephants I’ve grown to so love in mind. I won’t and can’t forget Willy and Shenga’s love, and Kallie reaching for grass outside her habitat, and Moshi and Martika sparring at night. They give me a constant motivation to act with wildlife in mind.

If you want the same motivation, go to your nearest AZA-accredited zoo. Take an afternoon and visit the animals there. Let yourself feel wonder at all the amazing creatures our world can hold. At the end of your trip, you’ll want to help them – I do, and I can, and I will.

Caring about Conservation, I Support Zoos

I often find my jobs timely.

This past school year, I worked at the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization — and, right on cue, a pro-BDS group formed on campus. This summer, while working at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, national debate about zoos resurged after a child fell into the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla exhibit, leading to a male silverback gorilla, Harambe, being shot and killed.

We’ve heard the questions before: whether zoos should still exist; what role zoos play in conserving and aiding wildlife; how zoos can care for wide-ranging, intelligent animals in necessarily compact space. This time, though, I’ve approached the debate over zoos with a unique perspective. Working at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, I’m not just another occasional zoo visitor; I also know, to an extent, how a zoo works behind the scenes.

What I’ve learned this summer has convinced me that good zoos — note the adjective — are important conservation organizations, playing a necessary role in species survival.

A general mark of a good zoo is AZA accreditation. Approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors have USDA licenses in America — but less than 10 percent of those exhibitors are AZA-accredited. The distinction recognizes the highest standards of operations and animal care. More specifically, though, I use the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo as my model. A zoo like Cleveland’s employs staff who care genuinely, deeply, about the welfare of all animals in its care. Moreover, they turn that care into action. In the early 2000s, staff worried the Zoo didn’t care for its African elephants well — so they spent $25 million to build a state-of-the-art elephant exhibit. Concern for the Zoo’s Amur tigers led to the new, stunning Rosebrough Tiger Passage, which opened this summer. That doesn’t mean every exhibit is good — they’re not. Because of how much money it costs to build new exhibits, they can’t be. But the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has recognized its weaknesses and combats rather than ignores them. Our Zoo has improved, and will continue to, instead of remaining stagnant. Our animals benefit from that drive and awareness.

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo also supports conservation in the wild. I would know: as my last assignment, I’m compiling a midyear report about all of the Zoo’s field partners and key projects. Altogether, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo runs, partners with or funds 35 organizations and projects, ranging from Education for Nature – Vietnam’s work combating wildlife trafficking in southeast Asia to the Ruaha Carnivore Project, which mitigates human-wildlife conflict to help prevent livestock losses and retaliatory killing of carnivores by local pastoralist people in Tanzania. Our field partners work to protect species as large as elephants and as small as turtles. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is securing a future for wildlife by helping to protect dozens of species around the world.

To me, a good zoo must exhibit those features: active commitment to its animals’ welfare and to wildlife’s survival around the world, in word and deed. Not all zoos match that model. I feel lucky every day I go to work that the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, the zoo I grew up knowing and loving, does.

But for many people, those commitments aren’t enough. Some people think keeping wild animals in captivity, no matter how fair the conditions, is morally wrong. Some people reserve that opinion for animals of particularly high intelligence and sensitivity, such as gorillas, dolphins and my beloved elephants.

I understand this position — and often, its holders are right. Too many zoo exhibits serve its animals, particularly sensitive ones, poorly. For two main reasons, however, zoos provide a necessary service in keeping these creatures in human care.

The first is that, to put it frankly, humans suck at respecting other species. Through unsustainable hunting, habitat destruction and other exploitations of the environment, humans have caused the endangerment of hundreds of species, intelligent creatures such as gorillas and elephants among them. To help combat these problems, American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions contribute more than $150 million each year to wildlife conservation efforts worldwide, according to the 2014 AZA Annual Report on Conservation and Science. Zoos have also been involved in the bolstering and reintroduction of more than two dozen species, including the scimitar-horned oryx, black-footed ferret, California condor and the Wyoming toad.

I wish, of course, that humans didn’t leave such carnage in our wakes. Yet here we are, with climate change roaring full-speed ahead and dozens of animals extinct because of us. Until we allow our values to undergo a radical shift, we must support zoos and other conservation organizations working to help protect and secure wildlife and habitats to prevent the disappearance of species. And frankly, judging by our broad environmental apathy even today, that point of change won’t come any time soon.

In addition, I consider zoos important for a somewhat more abstract conservation purpose. I believe fully that seeing an animal up close — witnessing just how much larger it is than you, smelling its fur, admiring its habits — is the single best way to make people care about that animal. No photo of an elephant can substitute for seeing one of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s pachyderms in person. I’ve witnessed this effect a few times this summer: young children gazing in awe at the elephants, being dragged away but turning back for one last look.

One instance, however, stands out. A few weeks ago, while observing Willy, the 13,000-pound male elephant, an older couple walked into the building with a baby in a stroller. When they reached the fence in front of Willy’s enclosure, they lifted the baby — a tiny creature, with big, blue eyes and wisps of brown hair — out of the stroller. The older woman held that baby in her arms, facing Willy, and started telling the child about elephants.

The baby interrupted her, with one word: “Wow.” Instantly, the older man and woman began freaking out: that “Wow” was the baby’s first word. And Willy had earned it.

That child didn’t say her first word when she looked at a photo of an elephant. She wasn’t moved to wonder over an illustration. She experienced true awe and amazement when she saw Willy in person — when his wrinkled skin, his floor-length trunk, his reaching tusk were all right there, so close she could almost touch him.

That experience is magical. That experience is what makes people, from infancy to adulthood, care about animals and their conservation. And for the vast majority of individuals, that experience can only happen in the presence of wild animals at zoos.

When I think about my summer at the zoo, I think about that little girl’s beaming grin, with dimples just beginning to bloom. Her instant wonder justifies both my support for zoos and the work I’ve done these past few months. Good zoos can produce as much magic as Disney World, which many more real-world impacts. I’m grateful they exist to help protect species worldwide, and that I’ve been able to contribute in some small way.