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.

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”: a Flawed, Fantastic Return to the Wizarding World

***WARNING: This post does not #KeepTheSecrets. Spoilers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ahead.***

I’ve found a particular perspective absent in reviews of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

All critics are familiar with Harry’s story; some — even most — must be fans. But for phenomena such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, fans come in different degrees. Unlike the most prominent reviewers of Cursed Child thus far, I am a peak Harry Potter fanatic.

I’ve read every book from the original seven-volume series as well as the companion works, Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard. I have Hermione Granger’s robe and wand, which I’ve worn at least twice in the past year. I want to write children’s books because of Harry Potter. Not infrequently, I trace my decisions, opinions and values to lessons learned from Harry and his friends. I’ve already bought my ticket, four months early, to the film version of Fantastic Beasts. And I spent all my money and took a week off work to travel more than 3,700 miles to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child performed onstage in London, England.

So understand while reading this review that unlike most professional critics, I can’t just comment on the work itself. Watching and reading Cursed Child, I see most intently how this eighth story fits into Rowling’s Wizarding World.

In many ways, it’s a wonderful addition. Cursed Child begins where the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh book in the original series, left off: with Harry (Jamie Parker) and Ginny Potter’s (Poppy Miller) middle son, Albus Severus Potter (Sam Clemmett), embarking for Hogwarts. Rose Granger-Weasley (Cherrelle Skeete) — daughter of one literature’s great couples, Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley) and Hermione Granger (Noma Dumezweni) — and Draco Malfoy’s (Alex Price) son, Scorpius (Anthony Boyle), join him. From there, Cursed Child takes a turn anticipated for nine years by fanfiction writers across the world: Albus and Scorpius become best friends. They bond in part because of strained father-son relationships, as both Harry and Draco struggle to relate to their children, and remain close after both are Sorted into Slytherin House and become, in Scorpius’ words, “true and total losers.”

From there, the play unfolds, with new threats of Dark magic and even Voldemort’s resurgence. Cursed Child poses a particular problem for avid Potterheads: as much as we — or at least I — want to immerse ourselves back into the Wizarding World, it hurts to see our heroes face more hardship. When I first read Deathly Hallows, I cried when I read that “all was well.” Its simplicity, its peace filled me with joy. For the first time since he was a year and three months old, Harry Potter had a loving family, wonderful friends, no Dark wizards trying to kill him. His life, at last, was good.

Cursed Child’s existence necessitates the end of that goodness. A new play about Harry and his family wouldn’t exist with a point of tension, challenges to face. Here, a few arise, all difficult to watch. All I want for Harry is peace — so seeing his scar hurt froze my mouth into a grimace. All I want for Harry is love — so seeing him and Albus fight made me wince.

But, as I said, Cursed Child is wonderful. It wouldn’t be if Harry and his friends didn’t emerge safe and happy once more. As intended, Harry even grows from the struggles he faces, mainly his relationship with Albus. The other characters grow, too — Albus and Scorpius, this play’s protagonists, in particular.

Albus and Scorpius provide a touching, lonely, adolescent core to this story. Their relationship is the best part of Cursed Child. (Although, as a Rose/Scorpius shipper of nine years and counting, I was thrilled by Scorpius’ crush on her.) Albus’ veiled sensitivity, dry humor and boldness mesh well with Scorpius’ awkward, nerdy humor. Scorpius proved my favorite character in the play. Together, he and Albus form an unlikely pair that makes perfect sense, especially as played by Boyle and Clemmett.

In general, Cursed Child is strongest when it explores relationships: Albus and Scorpius’, Albus and Harry’s, and Scorpius and Draco’s are most prominent. In these emotional scenes, Rowling’s unique touch emerged. Although her writing improved during her original seven books, Rowling, who helped create but did not write this play, has always had an extraordinary gift at showing humanity. The emotional core of her series lies in its characters, who she makes so familiar, and how they interact with one another and their world. I loved Harry Potter, as a fragile six-year-old, because I saw my insecurities in Ron; I felt like an outcast, like Harry; and as a bossy, dark- and bushy-haired, brainiac girl with brown eyes and large front teeth, I was Hermione. Potterheads love Rowling’s series as much for her characters as for her world, and sure enough, I loved Cursed Child’s new faces.

But in reflecting old characters, the play had one major flaw. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany did immense disservice to Ron Weasley. Yes, in the Potter series, Ron fulfills the funny sidekick role, providing monkey barrels of comic relief. But he has always been more than that. He was a boy immensely relatable to readers, riddled by insecurities and self-imposed pressure. He’s not Hermione, but he’s smart in his own right, providing knowledge of the Wizarding World and common sense. Most of all, he’s a fiercely loyal and brave friend. During the chess tournament in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Ron was willing to sacrifice his life for Harry and Hermione — at just 11 years old.

That full, complicated character is more than a sidekick.

Yet Cursed Child continued the Harry Potter films’ process of reducing Ron to that one guy who makes the audience laugh. Ron served no purpose in the play except to crack jokes and make goo-goo eyes at Hermione. He should have been given more to do. Why did Harry not ask his best friend how to communicate with his son? Why did no one consult Ron, a brilliant chess player, for strategic ideas about how to take down the play’s villain? Why was Ron drawn as less perceptive and helpful than in Deathly Hallows, undoing seven books of earned character growth? I love Ron’s jokes, and he and Hermione are my favorite couple, but I reject Cursed Child’s version of Ron. Owning Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, instead of being Head of Magical Law Enforcement like Harry or Minister of Magic like Hermione, should not make him less important.

Cursed Child’s other character flaws were less striking, but more important to the play’s plot. In short: it turns out that Voldemort had a daughter with Bellatrix Lestrange who calls herself Delphi Diggory, Amos’ supposed niece, and the Augery (Esther Smith). She tries to reverse her father’s defeat by convincing Albus and Scorpius to go back in time and stop Voldemort from killing Cedric Diggory in the Triwizard Tournament.

Using the last remaining Time Turner, Albus and Scorpius indeed try to save Cedric, creating alternate realities as a result. By humiliating Cedric during the second Task, the boys make him as much of a loser as they are. Cedric grows so resentful of his unpopularity that he becomes a Death Eater and kills Neville Longbottom in the Battle of Hogwarts. This murder, which prevents Neville from destroying Voldemort’s last Horcrux, Nagini, lets Voldemort kill Harry and establish his fascist, Muggle-killing dictatorship.

A lot more happens in the five-plus hours of Cursed Child — in fact, that alternate reality only emerges at the end of Act Two. Eventually, Albus and Scorpius and their families defeat the Augery and save the Wizarding World. But the plot is riddled with holes, two of them being the revelations about Cedric and Voldemort.

Cedric Diggory was honest and fair-minded, saving Harry during the Third Task of the Triwizard Tournament and, in Prisoner of Azkaban, trying to arrange a Quidditch rematch when his team won because Harry fell off his broom. He was, as Albus Dumbledore put it, “good, and kind, and brave.” Claiming Cedric Diggory could become a Death Eater insults his rightly lauded memory. A young man as good as him does not start advocating genocide because he’s become unpopular. That insinuation badly revises his character: it makes his sacrifice less significant, and his early death less tragic. Although Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany make it a point to honor Cedric’s memory, they dishonor his personhood by presenting such a twisted version of who he could have become. Their version does not fit with the Cedric readers know, nor with the son whom Amos Diggory still mourns and loves.

In addition — and all you fanfiction writers who long ago predicted Voldemort’s child, skip this part — claiming Voldemort and Bellatrix would have a child together stretches belief. Of course, Bellatrix would be willing to carry Voldemort’s child: she’d give her life for the opportunity. But I find it hard to believe Voldemort would ask her to carry one. It’s not that he would reject the idea of progeny — in fact, I find the logic of him having a child entirely believable. A man obsessed with immortality would embrace any chance to continue his bloodline, and a man who did not comprehend love would not consider a child a weakness.

However, during his months at Malfoy Manor, Voldemort would not have considered procreation necessary. One of Voldemort’s biggest faults was pride, which led him to underestimate his opponents and draw incorrect conclusions. He knew Harry sought to destroy his Horcruxes, but did not think he could find them all. He knew Severus Snape loved Lily Potter, but did not consider him capable of being a spy. He placed so much stock in the dichotomy of life and death, he did not understand why the Elder Wand would not work for him. Only at the very end of the Battle of Hogwarts — possibly only when his own Killing Curse rebounded towards him — did Voldemort understand that he had lost. Up until then, because of his pride, he had little doubt he would win: he would not have taken the extreme caution of creating an heir. Besides, even if he had greater doubts, an heir wouldn’t have served his purpose. Voldemort didn’t just want to create a pureblood world; he wanted to rule that world. He didn’t want his spawn to do it.

The main fault of Cursed Child, then, is that its plot’s central premise doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit into the Potter series’ existing puzzle, and like most plots, it gains more jagged edges along the way.

How, then, can Cursed Child still be wonderful, with a mess of a plot and a gross disservice to a main, beloved character? To start off, even with fuzzy logic, Cursed Child is fantastically entertaining. The staged version, in particular, is stunning. The actors all play their parts well, particularly the younger ones, and the transitions and effects are nothing short of magical. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Hogwarts degrees on many of the crew members’ walls.

What’s more, there’s a reason I spent so much time discussing characters: they leave the biggest impression. When I left the Palace Theatre, I didn’t spend too much time mulling the plot. Rather, I thought about Scorpius’ endearing silliness; how much Rose takes after her mother; and the ways Albus, during the play, had grown. Yet again, Rowling’s characters are as important as her plot, if not more important. For this tried and true Potterhead, despite the play’s faults, those characters made Cursed Child spectacular.

Other Thoughts:

  • After that ridiculous hullabaloo about Ron and Hermione being a poor match a few years ago, which I won’t link to because it’s disgusting, I’m glad Rowling and Thorne re-emphasized Ron and Hermione’s relationship in Cursed Child. In every alternative reality, Ron and Hermione were in love. In actual reality, they decide to renew their marriage vows. Ron and Hermione are my OTP — One True Pairing, for fanfiction novices — and I was thrilled to see them enjoying a healthy, loving relationship.
  • I’m equally happy Hermione is Minister of Magic. Boy, does she deserve it. And I like Rowling breaking gender roles, with Ron as the primary caretaker because of Hermione’s work. (And, later, with Harry cooking instead of Ginny.)
  • There’s another possible character flaw, which I didn’t include in my main review because I haven’t decided what I think yet. In the alternative reality where Voldemort triumphed, Severus Snape is still alive — and is secretly an active member, with Ron and Hermione, of Dumbledore’s Army. After failing to save Lily’s son, he says, he committed to her cause and even came to believe in it himself. Severus Snape is undoubtedly a hero in the Harry Potter series, and deserves his commendation and namesake. However, I’m not convinced he would continue risking his life for Lily after Harry’s death. Maybe I’m just not used to open bravery from Severus Snape, let alone him being chummy with Ron and Hermione, but his character in Cursed Child seemed discordant to me. Like I said, though, I haven’t decided what I think.
  • I can’t imagine Voldemort having sex, no matter the purpose. If he did have a child with Bellatrix Lestrange, I imagine there must be a spell or potion for something like artificial insemination.
  • Cursed Child did an excellent job expanding Ginny’s character and showing her relationship with Harry as his wife. She comes across every bit as strong, brave, witty and determined as she wasn’t in the movies.
  • The play also does good, necessary work redeeming Slytherin House’s image. Albus and Scorpius both clearly belong in their House, and are equally obviously not evil. Cursed Child goes a long way towards fixing the fandom’s understandable but inaccurate anti-Slytherin bias.
  • Cursed Child‘s plot hinges upon a Time Turner used incorrectly. In Rowling’s original seven books, she states outright that Time Turners can’t be used to go more than a few hours into the past. In Cursed Child, the Time Turner takes them back decades.
  • How, exactly, did Albus and Scorpius take and then return Harry’s baby blanket, when Lily Potter, a superb witch, was guarding her son’s life from anyone beyond her closest friends?
  • It turns out that Harry Potter is afraid of pigeons. Join the club, Harry. They’re dirty, creepy and poop on people’s heads.
  • This seems like a good opportunity to remind everyone to read the Harry Potter books. They are better than the movies in every way, and if you want to read Cursed Child, it won’t be as good without the books as background: the movies don’t suffice. Additionally, if you’ve only watched the movies, please don’t judge Harry Potter based on them. Read the books. They’re one of our world’s great lights.